Shakespeare Sonnet 122: "Thy gift, thy tables, are within my brain"

Updated on January 30, 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

The real "Shakespeare"
The real "Shakespeare" | Source

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 122

The speaker claims that he does not need to retain tablets or books of his poems to remember the love that has created his career in writing.

While poets and writers will always record in books for publication or for their own possession, those artifacts of words cannot become more important than the love that inspired them.

Thus, this speaker challenges himself to de-emphasize the physical presence of his works. Whether they reside in tablets or books, the speaker will never allow any aspect of their being to overcome or overshadow his original promptings, which will forever remain his central interest.

The speaker claims that he does not need to retain tablets or books of his poems to remember the love that has created his career in writing.

While poets and writers will always record in books for publication or for their own possession, those artifacts of words cannot become more important than the love that inspired them.

Thus, this speaker challenges himself to de-emphasize the physical presence of his works. Whether they reside in tablets or books, the speaker will never allow any aspect of their being to overcome or overshadow his original promptings, which will forever remain his central interest.

Sonnet 122

Thy gift, thy tables, are within my brain
Full character’d with lasting memory,
Which shall above that idle rank remain,
Beyond all date, even to eternity:
Or, at the least, so long as brain and heart
Have faculty by nature to subsist;
Till each to raz’d oblivion yield his part
Of thee, thy record never can be miss’d.
That poor retention could not so much hold,
Nor need I tallies thy dear love to score;
Therefore to give them from me was I bold,
To trust those tables that receive thee more:
To keep an adjunct to remember thee
Were to import forgetfulness in me.

Reading of Sonnet 122

Commentary

First Quatrain: Gift of Poetry Resides in the Brain

Thy gift, thy tables, are within my brain
Full character’d with lasting memory,
Which shall above that idle rank remain,
Beyond all date, even to eternity:

In the opening quatrain of sonnet 122, the speaker declares that his gift of poetry, which is represented in tablets "full character’d," is also part of his "brain," that is, they abide in his memory He will continue to expand his memory’s ability retain the love that inspired his works as long as his soul exists, which means unto eternity.

The speaker insists that the mental imprint of his poems will remain in his memory, even without his having the physical replicas in his presence. He does not have to read his own poems to know what motivated them. He is implying that the love he feels for his muse and writing talent are part of his DNA, that is, so close that he needs only his magnificent memory.

Second Quatrain: Mental Capacity Explored

Or, at the least, so long as brain and heart
Have faculty by nature to subsist;
Till each to raz’d oblivion yield his part
Of thee, thy record never can be miss’d.

The speaker continues to emphasize his mental capacity, saying that at least he will be able to recall his inspirations as long as his brain continues to function, and he will be able to remember his motivations as long as he is alive on the physical plane.

The speaker reiterates his claim, and then with a measure of hyperbole, he declaims his ability to keep those memories until his brain and heart as long as obliviousness never cramps his thought-processes. He will never forget his love of his muse as long as he can still think and feel.

Third Quatrain: The Irrelevance of Forgetting

That poor retention could not so much hold,
Nor need I tallies thy dear love to score;
Therefore to give them from me was I bold,
To trust those tables that receive thee more:

The speaker then asserts that forgetting is not even relevant when broaching these subjects of his art: his muse, his talent, the Giver of talent, and Divine Inspiration. He does not have to worry about keeping a physical account of his love; it would be like constantly having to count fingers or look for the eyeballs in his head.

Publishing his works and letting them find an audience requires that he be "bold." He can let his books be sold without losing what motivated his writing them. The "tables" of the mind and heart are the ones that accept all the love of the One who give him his talent and life. That Giver is more important than the paper on which the poems rest.

The Couplet: Physical Tokens of Superfluity

To keep an adjunct to remember thee
Were to import forgetfulness in me.

The speaker then avers that the physical tokens of his works are ultimately superfluous, and he suggests that those physical things might actually encourage him to forget, if he lets that happen. Keeping his own books constantly in his presence would imply that he could somehow forget his own love and inspiration, and the speaker has taken great pains to counter that misconception.

A Brief Overview of 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."

For more information regarding Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, as the real writer of the Shakespearean canon, please visit The De Vere Society, an organization that is "dedicated to the proposition that the works of Shakespeare were written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford."

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.

Questions & Answers

    © 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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