Shakespeare Sonnet 124: "If my dear love were but the child of state"

Updated on January 30, 2018
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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 124

The speaker’s love of truth and beauty is consistently his companion in his art. He reveals that love that strengthens his talent and his craft.

In this drama the speaker compares and contrasts his own soul ("love") with the situation experienced by a child who remains a ward of the state. His point is show that his love is not dependent on outward circumstances. It was created by the Divne, it continues to live and be guided by the Divine, thus it will remain undefiled by the physical machinations of time.

If my dear love were but the child of state

If my dear love were but the child of state
It might for Fortune’s bastard be unfather’d,
As subject to Time’s love or to Time’s hate,
Weeds among weeds, or flowers with flowers gather’d.
No, it was builded far from accident;
It suffers not in smiling pomp, nor falls
Under the blow of thralled discontent,
Whereto the inviting time our fashion calls:
It fears not policy, that heretic,
Which works on leases of short-number’d hours,
But all alone stands hugely politic,
That it nor grows with heat, nor drowns with showers.
To this I witness call the fools of time,
Which die for goodness, who have liv’d for crime.

Reading of Sonnet 124

Commentary

First Quatrain: Exploring the Nature of Love

If my dear love were but the child of state
It might for Fortune’s bastard be unfather’d,
As subject to Time’s love or to Time’s hate,
Weeds among weeds, or flowers with flowers gather’d.

Addressing a general audience in sonnet 124, the speaker explores the nature of his love (or his soul) by metaphorically comparing it to an orphan, but the comparison is crafted negatively, claiming that if his love were a mere orphan or "child of state," it would be not only a "bastard" but left to the vicissitudes of time.

Time maintains a special place in this speaker's dramas. And in this sonnet, he insists that if time had its sway over his love and his talent, his best qualities would be ordinary. They would come under the control of ordinary love and hate. Thus they would be likes weeds or flowers.

Second Quatrain: Love Divinely Created

No, it was builded far from accident;
It suffers not in smiling pomp, nor falls
Under the blow of thralled discontent,
Whereto the inviting time our fashion calls:

But such is not the case with his love, which was deliberately, thus divinely, crafted "far from accident." Unlike the poor bastard child of state, fatherless and depending upon societal scraps and passing good will, his love does not suffer from the vicissitudes of good and back luck.

Because his love is from the Divine, the speaker can insist with certainty that time and its fickle gifts cannot touch his love and his ability to create his life's works. The pairs of opposites will continue to work on the physical level of his being, but at his soul level, this speaker knows by intuition that his love will remain vital despite the see-saw effect provided by time.

Third Quatrain: The Fickle Policies of the State

It fears not policy, that heretic,
Which works on leases of short-number’d hours,
But all alone stands hugely politic,
That it nor grows with heat, nor drowns with showers.

The speaker’s love does not suffer the fears of the state’s actions, and to the character of his love, the policies of the state are often traitorous indignities that usurp the individual in fits and starts.

It is necessary to remember that his speaker lived under a monarchy, and the governed had no say in how they were governed. Thus, references to politics or governing by this speaker reveal a radical gulf between the spiritual and the political.

Instead of functioning as a part of the obedient crowd, the love, or soul, of this speaker "all alone stands hugely politic," but it moves in an alternate universe from ordinary politics because it neither "grows with heat, nor drowns with showers." His love does not embody the physical but the spiritual, where it is not subject to the ravages of the physical universe and that old nemesis, Time.

The Couplet: Perfect Balance and Harmony

To this I witness call the fools of time,
Which die for goodness, who have liv’d for crime.

The speaker then testifies as a "witness" against the "fools of time," who are subject to Time’s vicissitudes, or the pairs of opposites. His love remains in perfect balance and harmony because it transcends the common lot of humankind. It cannot be burned by heat, it cannot be drowned by water, and it cannot be forced to suffer the trammels of aging.

Without this awareness and unity with one’s love, or soul, the angry mob will "die for goodness, who have liv’d for crime." The speaker suggests that it is a crime against the soul not to live in it. It is a crime against one’s individuality to follow blindly the policies of a monarchy without understanding that one’s true life, love, and existence blissfully wait within.

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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