Shakespeare Sonnet 99: "The forward violet thus did I chide"

Updated on April 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

Source

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 99

In sonnet 99, the speaker addresses "his love" which is hi muse and/or talent. He uses a strategy similar to the one in which he complains that he has been absent from the muse, meaning that the muse has been absent from him.

The speaker reverses the situation again with the muse saying the flowers have copied his poems, not the other way around, which is ordinary: the poet captures the images of the flowers for his poem, but this poet/speaker claims that the flowers have stolen their beauty from his poetry.

(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 99

The forward violet thus did I chide
Sweet thief, whence didst thou steal thy sweet that smells,
If not from my love’s breath? The purple pride
Which on thy soft cheek for complexion dwells
In my love’s veins thou hast too grossly dy’d.
The lily I condemned for thy hand,
And buds of marjoram had stol’n thy hair;
The roses fearfully on thorns did stand,
One blushing shame, another white despair;
A third, nor red nor white, had stol’n of both,
And to his robbery had annex’d thy breath;
But, for his theft, in pride of all his growth
A vengeful canker eat him up to death.
More flowers I noted, yet I none could see
But sweet or colour it had stol’n from thee.

Commentary

The speaker reverses the natural order of poems taking their qualities from nature, as he insists that nature is taking its qualities from his poems.

The Beginning Cinquain: A Drama of Reversal

The forward violet thus did I chide
Sweet thief, whence didst thou steal thy sweet that smells,
If not from my love’s breath? The purple pride
Which on thy soft cheek for complexion dwells
In my love’s veins thou hast too grossly dy’d.

A cinquain replaces the traditional quatrain in this unusual 15-line sonnet. The speaker reports that he has upbraided the brazen violet for "steal[ing]" its "sweet that smells" from his "love’s breath." The "breath" is associated with the sonnet, which is meant to be read aloud. Again, the speaker has populated his sonnet not with a human being, as has been misunderstood by many critics, but with the characteristics of his poems, which always feature his love, hi muse, and talent.

This clever, drama-loving speaker then says that in its attempt to copy the color of his love’s "veins" for its "soft cheek," the violet exaggerated and now looks "too grossly dy’d." Notice that the speaker places the "soft cheek" on the violet who after its theft wears a "purple pride." And the speaker claims that that purple comes from the "veins" of his love, which metaphorically refers to the "vein" of thought that lives in the images of his poetry.

First Quatrain: Thieving Flowers

And buds of marjoram had stol’n thy hair;
The roses fearfully on thorns did stand,
One blushing shame, another white despair;
A third, nor red nor white, had stol’n of both,

The speaker reports that he also scolded the lily for stealing the image of his love’s hand, and the "buds of marjoram" had imitated his love’s hair. "Hand" metaphorically likens the writing process to the shape of the lily, and marjoram buds compare to the spice that the poem contains metaphorically as the flowing mane that keeps the rhythm of the sonnet intact.

Next, the speaker noticed that roses "on thorns did stand / One blushing shame, another white despair." Even roses had imitated the beauty and variety of his sonnets, which sometimes "blush[ ] with shame" and other times suffer with "white despair."

Second Quatrain: Stealing from the Blush of the Sonnet

A third, nor red nor white, had stol’n of both,
And to his robbery had annex’d thy breath;
But, for his theft, in pride of all his growth
A vengeful canker eat him up to death.

In the second quatrain, the speaker announces that a "third" rose, which was not white or red, had stolen both the sonnet’s blush of shame and melancholy of despair, and in addition, this third damasked rose had also stolen the love’s breath.

But because of this theft and the inordinate beauty of this rose, a "vengeful canker" worm had attacked it and stolen its loveliness for itself. The speaker implies that this super-thief got his just desserts.

The Couplet: The Permanence of Poetry

More flowers I noted, yet I none could see
But sweet or colour it had stol’n from thee.

The speaker finally asserts that along with the violet, lily, and rose, he has noted other flowers, and he has found that all of them have behaved exactly as the first three had. They all, every last flower, had stolen their qualities from this speaker's creations, that it, his love.

The implication naturally follows that his love, his poetic creativity, has the power to contain and thus sustain the loveliness of all flowers, and therefore remains permanent, perhaps even unto eternity. The speaker's poetry will at least be able to survive for centuries while the flowers, those little thieves, will survive only for a season, if even that long.

The speaker has once again asserted his little drama that creates for him a claim to immortality. Through his sonnets he will continue to assert his will, his talent, and his power to influence minds for how long he can only imagine.

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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