Shakespeare Sonnet 125: "Were’t aught to me I bore the canopy"

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 125

The speaker poses two questions then offers his answers. Again, he is exploring his own talent as it is complemented with his must. This speaker continues to fashion his little dramas using his technique of questioning as he attempts to explore his inner most thoughts in order to evaluate the purity. His goal as he has often stated is to present his art and inform it with beauty, truth, and love. He never fails to keep those qualities in focus.

Sonnet 125

Were’t aught to me I bore the canopy
With my extern the outward honouring,
Or laid great bases for eternity,
Which prove more short than waste or ruining?
Have I not seen dwellers on form and favour
Lose all and more by paying too much rent,
For compound sweet foregoing simple savour
Pitiful thrivers, in their gazing spent?
No; let me be obsequious in thy heart,
And take thou my oblation, poor but free,
Which is not mix’d with seconds, knows no art,
But mutual render, only me for thee.
Hence, thou suborn’d informer! a true soul
When most impeach’d stands least in thy control.

Reading of Sonnet 125

Commentary

First Quatrain: An Opening Inquiry

Were’t aught to me I bore the canopy
With my extern the outward honouring,
Or laid great bases for eternity,
Which prove more short than waste or ruining?

In the first quatrain of sonnet 125, the speaker asks a question: was I the one who brought any attention to myself, my outward behavior, or did I create any useful foundations that attested merely to fickleness and debasement?

Through the question, the speaker is implying that he would not choose to flaunt himself or his works and would not claim that they could stand the test of time. The speaker’s desire always returns to the process of creating soulful masterpieces for later generations, not demonstrating his prowess to contemporaries by outward show.

The speaker also implies in the question that what he has created might, in fact, have a very short shelf life or might even bring negative criticism to him as their creator. But by framing such implications with a question, he is hinting that these estimations are probably not accurate.

Second Quatrain: Further Inquiry

Have I not seen dwellers on form and favour
Lose all and more by paying too much rent,
For compound sweet foregoing simple savour
Pitiful thrivers, in their gazing spent?

The second quatrain also features a question: Have not my critics shown their poverty of thought by "gazing" too intently at my status and faintly at my works, while gliding over any good they possess and directing their attention to trifles?

The speaker likens his critics to people living in glass houses who throw stones. They are "dwellers on form and favour," and by positing that the speaker’s lot in life is low, they lose their credibility by concentrating on his class and less on his works. They become "pitiful thrivers" who discounted "simple savour" while looking too intently for "compound sweet."

Third Quatrain: A Negative Answer

No; let me be obsequious in thy heart,
And take thou my oblation, poor but free,
Which is not mix’d with seconds, knows no art,
But mutual render, only me for thee.

The speaker then answers his questions in the negative, showing that he will not concern himself with the possibility that he has become too showy, that he lost his ability to create substantial, long-living works, nor that he will give credence to his critics.

Instead, he demands of his muse to allow him to "be obsequious in thy heart." He commands, "take thou my oblation, poor but free," bringing forth his humbleness. Although he is financially "poor," it is more important for the artist to be "free," and he asserts that such is his situation.

He insists that his intentions are pure, but all he has to offer in the end is himself: his offering "is not mix’d with seconds," and contains no guile. The Muse, his conscience, and the writer soul "mutual[ly] render" what each possess. There is "only me for thee." The speaker as artist can only offer himself to his muse, who has so graciously offered herself to him.

The Couplet: A Clean Heart and Grateful Mind

Hence, thou suborn’d informer! a true soul
When most impeach’d stands least in thy control.

Because the speaker humbly believes that he has assessed his situation rightly, he can claim himself to be "a true soul." Even if accused of offenses that he cannot "control," he knows his own soul has remained devoted to his goal, and for that he can claim a clean heart and grateful mind.

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.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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