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Shakespeare Sonnet 126: "O thou, my lovely boy, who in thy power"

The Shakespeare sonnets play an essential rôle in my poetry world. Those 154 classic sonnets masterfully dramatize truth, beauty, and love.

Reading of Sonnet 126

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 126: "O thou, my lovely boy, who in thy power"

While many Shakespeare scholars have classified the 154 sonnets into three thematic categories, "The Marriage Sonnets" (1-17), "The Fair Youth Sonnets" (18-216), and "The Dark Lady Sonnets" (127-154), others combine the marriage and fair youth groups into one group labeling them, "The Young Man Sonnets."

The marriage sonnets do address a young man as they plead with him to marry and produce pleasing offspring, but the fair youth sonnets do not address any person; instead they focus on the poet’s musings on his talent or writing ability. In some of the sonnets in this group, the speaker even addresses the sonnets. Still in others, the speaker complains about the issue of writer’s block. Thus, a more accurate label for "The Fair Youth Sonnets" is "The Muse Sonnets," which I employ in my commentaries.

A Problem Sonnet

In addition to the issue of theme, however, sonnet 126 presents a further problem: it is not technically a sonnet. The traditional Elizabethan sonnet consists of 14 lines displayed in three quatrains and a couplet with the rime scheme ABABCDCDEFEFGG. All of the other sonnets in this sequence conform to that traditional format, but sonnet 126 departs drastically, consisting of six riming couplets, totaling 12 lines not the usual 14.

Furthermore, sonnet 126 is addressing the issue of aging; it is not exhorting a young man to marry and produce offspring, as the marriage sonnets do. Nor does it clearly address his writing talent or the sonnet itself, as those sonnets in the thematic group, "The Muse Sonnets," do.

One might speculate that this sonnet should be located between "The Marriage Sonnets" and "The Muse Sonnets." If the speaker is addressing the same young man in sonnet 126 as he is addressing the marriage sonnets, it makes sense that he would make such a statement about the aging process to him as a final persuasion point.

If, on the other hand, the speaker is addressing himself, as he often does in the "Muse Sonnets," then the placement is accurate but a different interpretation would be required for the subject matter of the poem. For example, he could be addressing himself, calling himself "my lovely boy,"and trying to persuade himself to make the best of the time remaining to him while he still can.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

Sonnet 126: "O thou, my lovely boy, who in thy power"

O thou, my lovely boy, who in thy power
Dost hold Time’s fickle glass, his sickle hour;
Who hast by waning grown, and therein show’st
Thy lovers withering as thy sweet self grow’st;
If Nature, sovereign mistress over wrack,
As thou goest onwards, still will pluck thee back,
She keeps thee to this purpose, that her skill
May time disgrace and wretched minutes kill.
Yet fear her, O thou minion of her pleasure!
She may detain, but not still keep, her treasure:
Her audit, though delay’d, answer’d must be,
And her quietus is to render thee.

Commentary

Not technically a "sonnet," #126 remains problematic.. It has only 12 lines in six rimed couplets. It is located between the so-called "young man" sequence and the "dark lady" sonnets.

First Couplet: Time and the Mirror

O thou, my lovely boy, who in thy power
Dost hold Time’s fickle glass, his sickle hour;

The speaker addresses the young man, calling him "my lovely boy," and remarking that the young man has the ability to look into the mirror and know that time is passing. The phrase, "his sickle hour" refers to time cutting down youth, metaphorically with a sharp harvesting blade.

Second Couplet: The Loss of Youth

Who hast by waning grown, and therein show’st
Thy lovers withering as thy sweet self grow’st;

In the second couplet, the speaker refers to the young man’s losing his youthfulness as he has grown into a mature adult, and even though those who have loved him may have withered into old age, the young man is still a sweet soul and still maturing.

Third Couplet and Fourth Couplets: What If?

If Nature, sovereign mistress over wrack,
As thou goest onwards, still will pluck thee back,
She keeps thee to this purpose, that her skill
May time disgrace and wretched minutes kill.

The third couplet finds the speaker beginning an "if" clause with the main clause in the fourth couplet: if nature who rules over the wreckage of bodily aging will keep you in your prime for what seems an unusual period of time, she’s merely playing tricks, even though it may seem she has the skill to disgrace time and make minutes cease to tick by.

Fifth Couplet: An Admonition

Yet fear her, O thou minion of her pleasure!
She may detain, but not still keep, her treasure:

The speaker admonishes the young man not to let nature use him for "her pleasure" by believing she will allow him to keep his youth forever. She may put off making him look old, but she will not sustain his youth, even though it may be considered her "treasure" to have him always fresh and lovely and in his prime.

Sixth Couplet: The Reckoning

Her audit, though delay’d, answer’d must be,
And her quietus is to render thee.

The speaker’s final warning uses an accounting metaphor: though nature may delay her "audit" or reckoning of the youth’s years, they will definitely be counted because it is just the way she operates. She will make him aged and feeble in the end.

Roger Stritmatter – He Who Takes the Pain to Pen the Book: The Poetry of the 17th Earl of Oxford

The De Vere Society is dedicated to the proposition that the works of Shakespeare were written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

The De Vere Society is dedicated to the proposition that the works of Shakespeare were written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

Questions & Answers

Question: Can a sonnet have 12 lines? Other than the one mentioned above?

Answer: Shakespeare sonnet 126, which features six couplets for a total of 12 lines, is not technically a sonnet; it seems a bit odd that the sonneteer did not just add one more couplet to total 14 lines. There is an 11 line sonnet called curtal sonnet, which is more common but still rather rare.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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