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

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

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 99: "The forward violet thus did I chide"

In sonnet 99 from the classic Shakespeare 154-sonnet sequence, the speaker is addressing "his love," which is his 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"

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.

Reading of Sonnet 99

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.

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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.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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