Shakespeare Sonnet 90

Updated on October 15, 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: Text of Sonnet 90 and Paraphrase

Sonnet 90: "Then hate me when thou wilt; if ever, now"

Then hate me when thou wilt; if ever, now
Now, while the world is bent my deeds to cross,
Join with the spite of fortune, make me bow,
And do not drop in for an after-loss:
Ah! do not, when my heart hath ’scap’d this sorrow,
Come in the rearward of a conquer’d woe;
Give not a windy night a rainy morrow,
To linger out a purpos’d overthrow.
If thou wilt leave me, do not leave me last,
When other petty griefs have done their spite,
But in the onset come: so shall I taste
At first the very worst of fortune’s might;
And other strains of woe, which now seem woe,
Compar’d with loss of thee will not seem so.

The following offers a rough but fairly close paraphrase of sonnet 90:

If you must disparage me, go ahead; it does seem at times that whole world works against me. Go ahead and align with my enemies who would bring me down and do not bother to check on me after I am brought so low. However, when I show that I am stronger than your attempts to belittle me, do not try to sneak up on me from behind like a defeated coward would do; just get along and do not try to make things worse. If you intend to forsake me, do it while I am still somewhat strong and facing other miseries; the worst thing is that I lose you, not the grief itself. If I lose you, all other misery will seem light in comparison.

As readers have observed in the first 89 sonnets from this talented sonneteer, his speakers are skilled in making arguments seemingly out of thin air. The speaker at times is bitterly complaining about his inability to face the blank page while he suffers that bane of all scribblers: writer's block. Still this rich-minded, spiritually strong poet is able to construct a fascinating drama out of his frustration. What all writers must do! If they are to earn their salt!

Reading of Sonnet 90

Commentary

The speaker makes light of other defeats that would pale in comparison to losing his muse.

First Quatrain: Addressing his Muse

Then hate me when thou wilt; if ever, now
Now, while the world is bent my deeds to cross,
Join with the spite of fortune, make me bow,
And do not drop in for an after-loss:

Once again addressing his muse, the speaker/poet faces the possible flight of his muse from him. He exaggerates by telling the muse to hate him, if she must. But the clever speaker also commands her to do it quickly while he is being pummeled by others. He then asks her not to bother to return, for he will not be fit to accept her again once he suspects that he has her lost permanently.

Second Quatrain: A Fickle Muse

Ah! do not, when my heart hath ’scap’d this sorrow,
Come in the rearward of a conquer’d woe;
Give not a windy night a rainy morrow,
To linger out a purpos’d overthrow.

The speaker then commands the muse not to return again to cause him grief, for he knows and avers that he will be able to soldier on. He will escape the "sorrow." But this crafty speaker also knows how love-turned-to-hate wants to add insult to injury. He commands his fickle muse, "Give not a windy night a rainy morrow, / To linger out a purpos’d overthrow."

Third Quatrain: "If thou wilt leave me, do not leave me last"

If thou wilt leave me, do not leave me last,
When other petty griefs have done their spite,
But in the onset come: so shall I taste
At first the very worst of fortune’s might;
And other strains of woe, which now seem woe,
Compar’d with loss of thee will not seem so.

The speaker then commands his erratic muse not to leave him after he has been castigated by other miseries. He prefers to face her absence along with the other griefs. The worst thing the speaker could face is the loss of his muse, and if he faces that first, then he knows he will be made stronger and more capable of enduring all other losses.

The Couplet: "And other strains of woe, which now seem woe"

And other strains of woe, which now seem woe,
Compar’d with loss of thee will not seem so.

The other "woe[s]" that the speaker must suffer cannot compare with "strains of woe" with which losing his muse would burden him. This speaker then commands his muse to do him the courtesy of permitting him to recover at his own speed.

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."

Questions & Answers

    © 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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