Shakespeare Sonnet 115: "Those lines that I before have writ do lie"

Updated on April 20, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

Source

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 115

As the speaker addresses his sonnet, he dramatizes his analysis of his thinking. He attempts to determine how deep runs his love of his art. He has proven many times that he respects the great talent he possesses, and he remains humble enough to share his success with his muse.

But still the speaker knows that he is not in perfect awareness of his deep soul qualities, and he intuits that by questioning and reasoning he may be able to ascertain all that he yearns to know and to understand about his deepest wishes and desires.

Those lines that I before have writ do lie

Those lines that I before have writ do lie
Even those that said I could not love you dearer:
Yet then my judgment knew no reason why
My most full flame should afterwards burn clearer.
But reckoning Time, whose million’d accidents
Creep in ’twixt vows, and change decrees of kings,
Tan sacred beauty, blunt the sharp’st intents,
Divert strong minds to the course of altering things;
Alas! why, fearing of Time’s tyranny,
Might I not then say, ‘Now I love you best,’
When I was certain o’er incertainty,
Crowning the present, doubting of the rest?
Love is a babe; then might I not say so,
To give full growth to that which still doth grow?

Reading of Sonnet 115

Commentary

Addressing his poem, the speaker of sonnet 15 is striving to analyze, through dramatization, the depth of his genuine affection for his art.

First Quatrain: Attempting to Introspect

Those lines that I before have writ do lie
Even those that said I could not love you dearer:
Yet then my judgment knew no reason why
My most full flame should afterwards burn clearer.

In the opening quatrain of sonnet 115, the speaker asserts that until now he has not been able to correctly evaluate his love for his art; he even claims that what he wrote heretofore regarding the subject has been prevarication.

The speaker also insists that he did not comprehend "why / My most full flame should afterwards burn clearer." Earlier in his life, he did not understand that later, after he had garnered much more life experience, he would begin to understand the true nature of his feelings and be able to better express them.

Second Quatrain: Accidental Knowledge

But reckoning Time, whose million’d accidents
Creep in ’twixt vows, and change decrees of kings,
Tan sacred beauty, blunt the sharp’st intents,
Divert strong minds to the course of altering things;

The speaker then catalogues a selection of the occurrences, eventuated by "Time," that can change a person’s ways of thinking about things in his life. He calls time, "reckoning Time," as if time is a calculating person who allows "million[s of] accidents" and also permits even the "decrees of kings" to change.

This "reckoning Time" also allows "sacred beauty" to be altered, while it makes dull even the "sharp’st intents." Time as a reckoner also has the power to "divert strong minds" as it changes all things. The speaker is implying that he himself has been affected by all of time’s change producing abilities.

Third Quatrain: Holding onto Truth

Alas! why, fearing of Time’s tyranny,
Might I not then say, ‘Now I love you best,’
When I was certain o’er incertainty,
Crowning the present, doubting of the rest?

Instead of asserting any claims about events that have motivated his life through his observations about "reckoning Time," the speaker then poses two queries; he is wondering why, even knowing about and "fearing Time’s tyranny," he remains unable to say simply, "Now I love you best."

The speaker does remain convinced that the statement holds truth; thus, he assumes that he should be capable of making this remark without having to know all future events, thoughts, and feelings that might plague him. But his remark offers such a bald assertion that it does not seem to capture completely all he truly experiences.

The Couplet: The Delicacy of Love

Love is a babe; then might I not say so,
To give full growth to that which still doth grow?

The speaker therefore invents a metaphor, "Love is a babe." By creating the image of his feeling as still an infant, he gives his feeling room to grow. He believes that his love for poetry cannot be encompassed by the simple statement, "Now I love you best"; such a statement is not only too simple, but it also limits love to a spot in the present.

The speaker insists that his love should remain a growing thing and not be limited to present time. By metaphorically comparing his love for his art to an infant, he asserts that his love will remain capable of further maturation. However, the speaker does not merely frame this idea as a statement; he offers it as a question, "then might I not say so, / To give full growth to that which still doth grow?" By asserting such a bold claim as a question, he adds still further emphasis to his affection.

A Brief Overview: The 154-Sonnet Sequence

Marriage Sonnets 1-17

The speaker in the Shakespeare “Marriage Sonnets” pursues a single goal: to persuade a young man to marry and produce beautiful offspring. It is likely that the young man is Henry Wriothesley, the third earl of Southampton, who is being urged to marry Elizabeth de Vere, the oldest daughter of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.

Many scholars and critics now argue persuasively that Edward de Vere is the writer of the works attributed to the nom de plume, "William Shakespeare."

Muse Sonnets 18-126 (Erroneously "Fair Youth")

The speaker in this section of sonnets is exploring his talent, his dedication to his art, and his own soul power. In some sonnets, the speaker addresses his muse, in others he addresses himself, and in others he even addresses the poem itself.

Even though many scholars and critics have traditionally categorized this group of sonnets as the "Fair Youth Sonnets," there is no "fair youth," that is "young man," in these sonnets. There is no person at all in this sequence, with exception of the two problematic sonnets, 108 and 126.

Dark Lady Sonnets 127-154

The final sequence targets an adulterous romance with a woman of questionable character; the term “dark” likely modifies the woman’s character flaws, not her skin tone.

Two Problematic Sonnets: 108 and 126

Sonnet 108 and 126 present a problem in categorization. While most of the sonnets in the "Muse Sonnets" do focus on the poet's musings about his writing talent and do not focus on a human being, sonnets 108 and 126 are speaking to a young man, respectively calling him "sweet boy" and "lovely boy."

Sonnet 126 presents an additional problem: it is not technically a "sonnet," because it features six couplets, instead of the traditional three quatrains and a couplet.

The themes of sonnets 108 and 126 would better categorize with the "Marriage Sonnets" because they do address a "young man." It is likely that sonnets 108 and 126 are at least partially responsible for the erroneous labeling of the "Muse Sonnets" as the "Fair Youth Sonnets" along with the claim that those sonnets address a young man.

While most scholars and critics tend to categorize the sonnets into the three-themed schema, others combine the "Marriage Sonnets" and the "Fair Youth Sonnets" into one group of "Young Man Sonnets." This categorization strategy would be accurate if the "Muse Sonnets" actually addressed a young man, as only the "Marriage Sonnets" do.

Note on Shakespeare Sonnet Titles

The Shakespeare Sonnet sequence does not feature titles for each sonnet; therefore, each sonnet's first line becomes the title. According to the MLA Style Manual: "When the first line of a poem serves as the title of the poem, reproduce the line exactly as it appears in the text." APA does not address this issue.

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