Sonnet 107

Shakespeare Sonnet 107

NOt mine owne feares, nor the prophetick ſoule,
Of the wide world, dreaming on things to come,
Can yet the leaſe of my true loue controule,
Suppoſde as forfeit to a confin’d doome.
The mortall Moone hath her eclipſe indur’de,
And the ſad Augurs mock their owne preſage,
Incertenties now crowne them-ſelues aſſur’de,
And peace proclaimes Oliues of endleſſe age.
Now with the drops of this moſt balmie time,
My loue lookes freſh, and death to me ſubſcribes,
Since ſpight of him Ile liue in this poore rime,
While he inſults ore dull and ſpeachleſſe tribes.
And thou in this ſhalt find thy monument,
When tyrants creſts and tombs of braſſe are ſpent.

Sonnet 107 has given rise to much discussion, focussing principally on the allusions in lines 4-8 which have been seen as a key to the sonnets’ dating. Recent scholarship has identified them as referring to events around the death of Elizabeth I and the coronation of James I in 1603. Attempts to identify the allusions are important, yet they have deflected attention from the sonnet’s real argument, in which the vagaries of the times are contrasted with the poet’s enduring memorial of his love. A conceit employing contemporary events was a conventional sonnet topic: Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella 30 takes events of 1582 only to dismiss them as distractions, while Michael Drayton in a sonnet published in 1605 refers to events as late as 1604, which he uses to contrast steadfastness with “incertaine times” and the “resistlesse force” of the fates. He cites the fall of the Earl of Essex (1599-1601), the truce with the Earl of Tyrone (1599-1600), the death (“quiet end”) of Elizabeth and the accession of James I (1603), and the Somerset House Conference and Treaty of London (18 August 1604), which brokered a peace with Spain and an agreement not to intervene in the affairs of the Netherlands:

Calling [to] minde since first my loue begunne,
Th’incertaine times oft varying in their course,
How things still vnexpectedly haue runne,
As please the fates, by their resistlesse force:
Lastly, mine eyes amazedly haue seene,
Essex great fall, Tyrone his peace to gaine,
The quiet end of that long-liuing Queene,
This Kings faire entrance, and our peace with Spaine,
We and the Dutch at length our selues to seuer,
Thus the world doth, and euermore shall reele,
Yet to my goddesse am I constant euer;
How ere blind fortune turne her giddie wheele:
Though heauen & earth proue both to me vntrue,
Yet am I still inuiolate to you. 1

Sonnet 107 opens with a double negative: ‘neither the poet’s own fears nor the prophetic soul of the wide world can set a terminal date for the lease of his love.’ The “prophetick soule, / Of the wide world” is the combined foresight of the world able to foretell events while “dreaming on things to come.” Shakespeare elsewhere associates, derogatively, soothsayers and dreams, for example, “the Dreamer Merline, and his Prophecies” (1H4 1.150) and the soothsayer in Julius Caesar, who is termed “a Dreamer” (1.2.24). 2 Neither the poet’s personal fear of the future nor public forebodings about future events can foreshorten (“controule,” an accounting and legal term) a final date for the “lease of my true loue,” the period of time, in which the poet possesses his love. (A knowledge of future events would provide a “controule.”) Nor will the lease be considered surrendered (“Supposde forfeit”) nor subject to any judgement that, fearful of the future, imposes a temporal restraint (“confin’d doome”). The poet will later assert that the lease afforded his love is “confin’d” neither to a place such as “tombs of brasse” nor to a date that is not of “endlesse age.” (The historical allusions of the next quatrain have allowed Kerrigan and others to see in “confin’d doome,” a reference to the Earl of Southampton’s release from the tower by James I in April 1603, where he had been held following his part in Essex’s rebellion in 1600 against Elizabeth. The reading is plausible, only if “my true loue” were Southampton.)

The second quatrain lists historical instances of unfounded fear which support the claim that the term of the poet’s love should not be conditional upon similar forebodings. Injunctions against prophesying and auguring were frequent. The Old Testament inveighed against false prophets, including “a regarder of times, or a marker of the flying of foules” (Deut. 18.10; GV; the phrase translates the Vulgate’s “observet somnia atque auguria,” ‘one who takes heed of dreams and auguries,’ ‘augury’ deriving from avis = fowl). James I similarly warns against those who direly predict the future or who

fore-tell what common-weales shall florish or decay: what persones shall be fortunate or vnfortunate: what side shall winne in anie battell: What man shall obteine victorie at singular combate: What way, and of what age shall men die. 3

The poet firstly observes that, “The mortall Moone hath her eclipse indur’de.” Kerrigan has argued, and recent editors concur, that the reference is to the death of Elizabeth in 1603. The “mortall Moone” is Elizabeth herself, often awarded the titles of Diana or Cynthia, the goddess of the moon, but here “mortall” or ‘prey to death.’ Elizabeth has, then, “indur’de” or ‘suffered’ her final eclipse. Her light has been overtaken by death’s darkness, while the prophets of doom (“sad Augurs”), who predicted turmoil upon her death, have been made to laugh at (“mock”) their own foreboding (“presage”).

Uncertainty (“Incertenties,” compare Drayton’s “incertain times”) has been overcome and crowned by surety. The choice of “crowne” is apposite, since the surety is that which James’ accession to the throne brought after earlier worries about Elizabeth’s successor. James brought peace by uniting the realms of England, Wales and Scotland and by effecting a peace with Spain through the 1604 Treaty of London after 20 years of Anglo-Spanish warring. The peace he brought is presented as an imperial peace, as “Oliues of endlesse age.” The image draws on the olive branch, the traditional emblem of peace, and anticipates “drops of this most balmie time.” Olive oil in the Old Testament was used to anoint kings, priests, and prophets (authorizing their speech). Later the oil of Chrism, a ceremonial oil made by infusing aromatic balm through olive oil, was used to anoint priests and kings. (Compare R2 3.2.54-5, “Not all the water in the rough rude sea / Can wash the balm off from an anointed king.”) In the liturgical practices that prevailed after the Reformation, however, the ritual of anointing had been proscribed and was no longer found in the rites of Baptism, Confirmation or Orders. James I, despite the opposition of divines and public opinion, insisted that the ritual be included in his Coronation rite because, in the words  of Giovanni Scaramelli, the Venetian Secretary to England writing on 4 June 1603, “anointing is a function appointed by God to mark the pre-eminence of Kings.” He pointedly observes that James included “the full ceremony” of enunction for political reasons: “so as not to loose this prerogative, which belongs to the Kings of England as Kings of France.” 4 (The insistence is pertinent also for Sonnet 125.)

Kings of peace saw themselves in the line of Melchisidech, whom the Epistle to the Hebrews titles “kyng of peace” and who “parteyneth vnto another tribe” than the tribe of Levi, because he was not anointed “bodilie” and thus prefigured Christ who was “made . . after the power of the endlesse lyfe,” who “endureth euer,” and who was “made a suertie of a better testament” (Heb. 7 passim; BB; compare Shakespeare’s “endlesse age” and “assur’de”). The newly anointed kingship of James has brought a “most balmie time,” either ‘a fragrant time,’ or ‘a time whose moments (“drops”) like ointment have brought healing,’ or ‘a time that has been anointed as a chosen time.’ Lastly time’s balm has an aneling effect: it has afforded the youth a new life (“My loue lookes fresh”) and has rendered death subservient (“death to me subscribes”). The writings of death have been over-written (‘subscribe’ is from sub + scribere = under + write) by the poet, so that, despite death, he will continue to “liue in this poore rime,” where “poore” is disingenuously ‘inadequate.’ Death is only allowed to brag over (“insults”) “dull and speechlesse tribes.”

Before Shakespeare’s time ‘tribe’ had generally been used only of the twelve tribes of Israel, or Israel itself, a meaning found in The Merchant of Venice (1.3.111) and Othello (5.2.349). Here the term’s recently recovered Latin sense is employed. From the Latin tres/tribus = three, ‘tribe’ was used of the three main races of imperial Rome, the Latins, Sabines and Etruscans. The Roman topos was adopted by James and his court to celebrate his uniting the three “tribes” of England, Wales and Scotland. (Compare Octavius’ imperial prediction in Antony and Cleopatra, “The time of vniuersall peace is neere: / Proue this a prosp’rous day, the three nook’d world / Shall beare the Oliue freely” [4.6.5-7].) The poet allows that death (“he”) may reign over “dull and speechless tribes,” people that are unchosen, lack skill or wit, have no prophecy or voice, and thus cannot defeat death. Theirs are silent monuments (“lapides muti”), which, bearing no subscription, are anonymous (writing on monuments or crests was said to be ‘subscribed;’ OED 3b). The youth, however, will find his “monument” in the poet’s inscription (“rime”), which will last beyond the finite term granted memorials such as “tyrants crests and tombs of brasse.” A ‘tyrant’ was a mighty ruler, in Shakespeare’s time not necessarily an oppressor. His “crest” is either that which crowns his battle helmet or his coat of arms, or the coat of arms that adorns his tomb; “tombes of brasse” are long-lasting tombs that recall the “brasse” of Sonnets 64 and 65 and Horace’s ‘monument more enduring than brass.’ 5 Both will be exhausted (“spent”), even as the poet’s verse continues in time.


107.1. Michael Drayton, Poems: by Michaell Draiton Esquire (London: N. Ling, 1605) Idea 51. The omission of ‘to’ in line 1 is amended in the edition of 1610, Poems: by Michael Drayton Esquire. Newly Corrected by the Author (London: John Smethwicke, 1610).

107.2. See also Sonnet 106.9, “prophesies / Of this our time,” and Ham. 1.5.40, “O my Propheticke soule.”

107.3. James 1, Daemonologie 13.

107.4. Brown 43-44. See Introduction for further detail.

107.5. Horace, Odes 3.30.1, “monumentum aere perennius.”