Shakespeare Sonnet 98: "From you have I been absent in the spring"

Updated on May 4, 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 Sonnet 98

Sonnet 98 finds the speaker still wallowing in the sorrow of separation from his muse. Still the speaker continues to find ways to outsmart that separation. He explores every knock and cranny of his brain to create his little dramas. This speaker's intensity never fails him, despite his very human problem that all writer's must face. Even though he is complaining that his muse has abandoned him, he seems to be able to create anyway.

This talented speaker retains the ability to employ the season in ways that other poets have left untouched. On the one hand, he can observed the beauty of the season while on the other he can admit that that beauty is somehow escaping his deepest observation. Whatever he chooses to focus on, this clever speaker can be counted on to provide not only a well-structured sonnet, but one that will make a truthful statement about the human heart, mind, and soul.

Sonnet 98

From you have I been absent in the spring
When proud-pied April, dress’d in all his trim,
Hath put a spirit of youth in every thing,
That heavy Saturn laugh’d and leap’d with him.
Yet nor the lays of birds, nor the sweet smell
Of different flowers in odour and in hue,
Could make me any summer’s story tell,
Or from their proud lap pluck them where they grew:
Nor did I wonder at the lily’s white,
Nor praise the deep vermilion in the rose;
They were but sweet, but figures of delight,
Drawn after you, you pattern of all those.
Yet seem’d it winter still, and you away,
As with your shadow I with these did play.

Reading of Sonnet 98

Commentary

The speaker in sonnet 98 again addresses his muse, who is again absent. The speaker explores the nature of this absence in spring, which seems like winter without her.

First Quatrain: Absence in April

From you have I been absent in the spring
When proud-pied April, dress’d in all his trim,
Hath put a spirit of youth in every thing,
That heavy Saturn laugh’d and leap’d with him.

In the first quatrain of sonnet 98, the speaker remarks, "From you have I been absent in the spring"; as he did in sonnet 97, he first begins by claiming that he is the one absent from the muse, reversing what comes later in each poem. The speaker paints his absence in April, who is "dress’d in all his trim" and who "Hath put a spirit of youth in every thing."

The mythologically gloomy god Saturn even responds to the glories of April by "laugh[ing] and leap[ing] with him." April is a time when young things begin to appear and grow, and the speaker associates his budding creativity with this season; therefore, it is an especially inopportune time for the muse to be absent, but such is life.

Second Quatrain: Flowers and Birds Not Enough

Yet nor the lays of birds, nor the sweet smell
Of different flowers in odour and in hue,
Could make me any summer’s story tell,
Or from their proud lap pluck them where they grew:

Somehow even the joy that usually arises from the birds and flowers is not enough to bring the usual inspiration to the speaker nor to elevate his mood to creativity. The speaker does not seem to be able to create any "summer's" tale. Regardless of his contemplation of all the surrounding beauty, he does not find it possible to alter his mood to a more sunny disposition. Even as the speaker is motivated by the loveliness of the flowers, he remains unable to "pluck them where they grew." That is, his mental facility seems incapable of appreciating the fertile materials offered him by April and the beautiful season of spring.

Third Quatrain: Reminders of the One

Nor did I wonder at the lily’s white,
Nor praise the deep vermilion in the rose;
They were but sweet, but figures of delight,
Drawn after you, you pattern of all those.

The speaker’s deep admiration for "the lily’s white" and "the deep vermillion in the rose" are, nevertheless, reminders of the One who creates and sustains them—the muse is, after all, a spark of the Divine that the speaker has come to rely on for his very life. The speaker detects the pattern of the Divine in all creation, and that pattern is especially manifest during the spring season when nature begins to bloom and grow.

The speaker calls these natural phenomena "figures of delight." And he avers that they are, indeed, "drawn after you," that is, the muse. The pattern or design of the Divine is inherent in the muse. Although the speaker is aware that he is also a spark of the Divine, he separates himself from the concept in order to explore its nature and value.

The Couplet: Get Away from Me, You Silly Thing

Yet seem’d it winter still, and you away,
As with your shadow I with these did play.

The speaker reveals that while the muse is "away," it seems like winter even in spring. The "shadow[s]" of the muse detected in the birds, lilies, and roses are not sufficient. The speaker is inviting his muse to return by advancing his sorrow coupled with clear discernment. He has been able to demonstrate his solid understanding of how nature and the human mind may be employed to shed light on unexplored areas of thought. This speaker/thinker has no fear of treading where others have feared to go.

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

    Comments

    Submit a Comment

    • Maya Shedd Temple profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Sue Grimes 

      12 months ago from U.S.A.

      Hi, Louise! No problem about repeating yourself. You are correct that hearing the poems does help so much with better and deeper understanding. As pleasant as reading these sonnets is, hearing them adds to that pleasure.

      I always try to find a good reading for every poem I comment on. And there are a lot of good readers to choose from. In that we are fortunate . . . Have a great day!

    • Coffeequeeen profile image

      Louise Powles 

      12 months ago from Norfolk, England

      I know I keep repeating myself when I read your articles, but I do enjoy reading them, and always glad you add a video so I can listen to the sonnets and poems too. I always get a better understanding of them once I've read your articles.

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