Shakespeare Sonnet 14

Updated on October 16, 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 14

This speaker continues his mission of persuasion. This time he contrasts the act of predicting the future by supernatural vs natural means. The speaker hopes that his ability to predict that future by natural means will be more persuasive with the young man who is quite vain about his appearance. By concentrating on the young man's eyes instead of the heavenly orbs, the speaker demonstrates the importance of the physical encasement to those future generations he is so compelled to herald.

Sonnet 14

Not from the stars do I my judgment pluck
And yet methinks I have astronomy,
But not to tell of good or evil luck,
Of plagues, of dearths, or seasons’ quality;
Nor can I fortune to brief minutes tell,
Pointing to each his thunder, rain, and wind,
Or say with princes if it shall go well,
By oft predict that I in heaven find:
But from thine eyes my knowledge I derive,
And, constant stars, in them I read such art
As ‘Truth and beauty shall together thrive,
If from thyself to store thou wouldst convert;’
Or else of thee this I prognosticate:
‘Thy end is truth’s and beauty’s doom and date.’

Reading of Shakespeare Sonnet 14

Commentary

In sonnet 14, the speaker says he does not have the power to predict the future by gazing at the stars in the sky, but the eyes of the young man tell all he needs to know.

First Quatrain: Stars and the Future

Not from the stars do I my judgment pluck
And yet methinks I have astronomy,
But not to tell of good or evil luck,
Of plagues, of dearths, or seasons’ quality;

In the first quatrain of Sonnet 14, "Not from the stars do I my judgment pluck," the speaker says he does not go by astrological star patterns to predict the future. The speaker does, however, have an understanding of astronomy, but still he cannot predict the "good or evil luck, / Of plagues, of dearths, or seasons’ quality."

But his understanding of astronomy does not give him the sorcerer’s gift. The speaker wishes to keep his prognostications on a completely material level as he appeals to the young man's sensibilities.

Second Quatrain: Future Predictions

Nor can I fortune to brief minutes tell,
Pointing to each his thunder, rain, and wind,
Or say with princes if it shall go well,
By oft predict that I in heaven find:

The speaker continues to say that he cannot even predict the future happenings of the next few minutes; he has no idea whether the weather will include "thunder, rain, and wind." In addition, the speaker also cannot say how well the reign of certain princes may transpire. The stars do not speak to him of fortune and misfortune.

The speaker implies that the stars in the heavens, while comparing favorably with the young man's beauty, are not the focus of the speaker, whose argument will remain grounded in earth.

Third Quatrain: Eyes Instead of Stars

But from thine eyes my knowledge I derive,
And, constant stars, in them I read such art
As ‘Truth and beauty shall together thrive,
If from thyself to store thou wouldst convert;’

But instead of from the heavenly stars, the speaker acquires his knowledge from the young man’s eyes; those eyes are "constant stars" that the speaker has no difficulty reading. And what the speaker reads in those eyes is "Truth and beauty shall together thrive, / If from thyself to store thou wouldst convert."

The truth and beauty that exist in the young man shall continue to "thrive," if the lad will not continue to store those qualities unused. But instead if the young lad will change his mind about remaining single, and instead marry and produce a suitable heir who then can carry on those qualities of truth and beauty, those qualities will continue to thrive.

The Couplet: Natural Not Supernatural

Or else of thee this I prognosticate:
‘Thy end is truth’s and beauty’s doom and date.’

Then the speaker does make a prediction that if the young man does not produce a pleasing son to carry on those worthwhile qualities, after the young man dies, so will those qualities: "Or else of thee this I prognosticate: / ‘Thy end is truth’s and beauty’s doom and date.’"

The speaker’s purpose in sonnet 14 in explaining his lack of ability to predict the future by supernatural means is that he wants to underscore the importance of his being able to predict the future by completely natural means: if the young man dies without leaving an heir, all of the lad’s pleasant qualities will die with him.

A Brief Overview: The 154-Sonnet Sequence

Scholars and critics of Elizabethan literature have determined that the sequence of 154 Shakespeare sonnets may be classified into three thematic categories: (1) Marriage Sonnets 1-17; (2) Muse Sonnets 18-126, traditionally identified as the "Fair Youth"; and (3) Dark Lady Sonnets 127-154.

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 example, Walt Whitman, one of America's greatest poets has opined:

Conceiv'd out of the fullest heat and pulse of European feudalism — personifying in unparalleled ways the medieval aristocracy, its towering spirit of ruthless and gigantic caste, with its own peculiar air and arrogance (no mere imitation) — only one of the "wolfish earls" so plenteous in the plays themselves, or some born descendant and knower, might seem to be the true author of those amazing works — works in some respects greater than anything else in recorded literature.

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 (Traditionally classified as "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.

Three Problematic Sonnets: 108, 126, 99

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.

Sonnet 99 might be considered somewhat problematic: it features 15 lines instead of the traditional 14 sonnet lines. It accomplishes this task by converting the opening quatrain into a cinquain, with an altered rime scheme from ABAB to ABABA. The rest of the sonnet follows the regular rime, rhythm, and function of the traditional sonnet.

The Two Final Sonnets

Sonnets 153 and 154 are also somewhat problematic. They are classified with the Dark Lady Sonnets, but they function quite differently from the bulk of those poems.

Sonnet 154 is a paraphrase of Sonnet 153; thus, they carry the same message. The two final sonnets dramatize the same theme, a complaint of unrequited love, while outfitting the complaint with the dress of mythological allusion. The speaker employs the services of the Roman god Cupid and the goddess Diana. The speaker thus achieves a distance from his feelings, which he, no doubt, hopes will finally liberate him from the clutches of his lust/love and bring him equanimity of mind and heart.

In the bulk of the "dark lady" sonnets, the speaker has a been addressing the woman directly, or making it clear that what he is saying is intended for her ears. In the final two sonnets, the speaker is not directly addressing the mistress. He does mention her, but he is speaking now about her instead of directly to her. He is now making it quite clear that he is withdrawing from the drama with her.

Readers may sense that he has grown battle-weary from his struggle for the woman’s respect and affection, and now he has finally decided to make a philosophical drama that heralds the end of that disastrous relationship, announcing essentially, "I’m through."

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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