Sonnet 102

Shakespeare Sonnet 102

MY loue is ſtrengthned though more weake in ſee-
I loue not leſſe, thogh leſſe the ſhow appeare, (ming
That loue is marchandiz’d, whoſe ritch eſteeming,
The owners tongue doth publiſh euery where.
Our loue was new, and then but in the ſpring,
When I was wont to greet it with my laies,
As Philomell in ſummers front doth ſinge,
And ſtops his pipe in growth of riper daies:                           her(?)
Not that the ſummer is leſſe pleaſant now
Then when her mournefull himns did huſh the night,
But that wild muſick burthens euery bow,
And ſweets growne common looſe their deare delight,
Therefore like her, I ſome-time hold my tongue:
Becauſe I would not dull you with my ſonge.

Sonnet 102’s opening builds on the play between “seeme” and “show,” that concludes Sonnet 101. The poet affirms that his love increases in power (“is strengthned”), even though it gives the appearance of being less strong (“more weak in seeming”). Just because he is less communicative of his love doesn’t mean he loves the less. If someone in love, valuing his love as precious, broadcasts or advertises (“doth publish”) it to all and sundry (“euery where”), he merely cheapens it (“is marchandiz’d”). The “owners tongue” sets up the coming reference to Philomel, whose tongue was stopped.

When the love between the poet and his friend was young (in its “spring”), the poet was accustomed to acknowledge (“greet”) it with his songs (“laies”). But just as the nightingale (“Philomell”) ceases its song (“pipe”) as summer takes over from spring (“in summer’s front”) and as the longer days of summer draw out (“in growth of riper daies”), so too the poet stops his voice during the summer of their relationship. Although a “pipe” that is stopped suggests a wood instrument with stops that produce music or a bow which is made to sound through stopping, the meaning here is the voice, especially as it is used in singing like a bird. The nightingale was traditionally thought to stop singing at the end of May: John Eliot in his Fruits for the French observes, “The Cookow and the Nightingale sing at one season of the yeare, to wit, in the spring time, from the middest of Aprill to the end of May, or thereabout.” 1 Philomela was the daughter of Pandion and sister to Procne, married to Tereus. Tereus received permission from Pandion to convey Philomela to Procne, but fell in love with her and, having raped her, cut out her tongue to prevent her from disclosing his act. He held her captive and told Procne she was dead. Philomela later wove a tapestry recounting her ordeal which she had delivered to Procne. Procne liberated her and in revenge killed her son by Tereus, Itys, and served him up to Tereus at a banquet. Tereus was about to use his sword against them but was changed into a hoopoe, Procne into a swallow, and Philomela into a nightingale. 2 Philomel became an emblem of both song and silence: compare George Turbeville’s translation of the Mantuan’s Eclogues in words not dissimilar to Sonnet 102’s: “with Nightingall I may / Shut vp my Pipes till next retourne / of Spring, and leaue my lay, / As one withouten speech.” 3

Yet, the poet admits, the summer of their relationship is no less pleasant than its spring, when the nightingale’s lamenting songs soothed the night, reducing it to silence (“did hush”), because (“but that”) now unrestrained music (“wild musick”) weighs down every bough (“bow”) or fills every bow/bough with song (“burthens”). A ‘burden’ or ‘bourdon’ was the bass or undersong in descant and was thought ‘heavier’ than air. It continued on even while the singer of the melody paused at the end of a verse and was often taken up as a refrain or return by a chorus or a “bow.” It came to be the principal motif of a poem or that which it carries. In The Rape of Lucrece Lucrece calls upon Philomel to sing, while “I at each sad straine, will straine a teare” and while “burthen-wise ile hum on TARQUIN still, / While thou on TEREUS descants better skill.” (1131-34). 4 Here the poet who sings the air will stop his tongue, even though the burden (of others) will continue, reasoning that, if a thing grows too familiar through repetition (“sweets grown common”), it loses the pleasure it gives. The aphorism reflects the adage in Culmann’s Sententiae, “More rare vse doth commend pleasures,” which also underpins Sonnet 52.4, “blunting the fine point of seldome pleasure.” 5 Just as the nightingale ceases to sing as the height of summer approaches, so the poet will fall silent (“hold my tongue”) during the summer of his relationship, because he will not run the risk of boring the friend with his song (“dull you with my songe”).


102.1. John Eliot, Ortho-epia Gallica. Eliots Fruits for the French (London: Richard Field, 1593) 149; compare Richard Edwards, The Paradise of Daintie Devises (London: Robert Waldegrave, 1585) M3r, “In May the Nightingall, her notes doth warble on the spray.” The “his” of “his pipe” probably intends ‘its,’ since the philomel is feminine later.

102.2. The legend is recounted in Ovid, Met. 6.401-674.

102.3. Baptista Mantuanus, The Eglogs of the Poet B. Mantuan Carmelitan, Turned into English Verse, & set forth with the Argument to euery Egloge by George Turbervile Gent. (London: Henry Bynneman, 1567) 47.

102.4. In The Tempest Shakespeare uses the same low ‘bow’ sound for his burden, when Ariel sings “sweete Sprites beare the burthen. Burthen dispersedly. . .  bowgh wawgh” 1.2.380-81.

102.5. Culmann, Sententiae (1612) 19.