Sonnet 108

Shakespeare Sonnet 108

VVHat’s in the braine that Inck may character,
Which hath not figur’d to thee my true ſpirit,
What’s new to ſpeake, what now to regiſter,
That may expreſſe my loue, or thy deare merit?
Nothing ſweet boy, but yet like prayers diuine,
I muſt each day ſay ore the very ſame,
Counting no old thing old, thou mine, I thine,
Euen as when firſt I hallowed thy faire name.
So that eternall loue in loues freſh caſe,
Weighs not the duſt and iniury of age,
Nor giues to neceſſary wrinckles place,
But makes antiquitie for aye his page,
Finding the firſt conceit of loue there bred,
Where time and outward forme would ſhew it dead.

Sonnet 108’s use of sacramental vocabulary is similar to that of Sonnet 85. It opens by asking what remains in the poet’s brain that might be imprinted as words (“that Inck may character”), that hasn’t already portrayed or shaped (“figur’d”) his true spirit to the youth. A character originally was both an instrument used for engraving or marking and the figure or letter marked down. In Baptism (and in Confirmation and Orders) a character was an indelible mark imprinted on the soul or, subsequent to the Reformation, the indelible mark of election, the difference typifying the divide between prereformed and reformed thinking on the sacraments (see William Perkins, who contests, “whether baptisme imprint a Character or marke in the soule, which is neuer blotted out”). 1 The Church of England’s Articles of Religion originally established that the sacraments were “not only badges or tokens” but “effectual signs of grace.” The Book of Common Prayer’s catechism defined a sacrament as an “outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace,” while the Homily, ‘Concerning the Sacrament,’ in the Elizabethan “Book of Homilies” affirmed that “we receiue not onely the outward Sacrament, but the spiritual thing also, not the figure, but the trueth.” 2 Generally the outward sign was known as the token or figure and the sacramental action as the figuring or tokening, “A Sacrament is a figure or token: the bodye of Christ is figured or tokened,” or in the case of baptism, “For look what baptism figureth outwardly, yt doth ye lord work inwardly by his own power.” 3 The outward sign was, according to Richard Hooker, twofold: the sacramental element (water or bread and wine) and the formula that figures the sacrament, its “outward forme, which forme sacramentall elements receiue from sacramentall words.” Three things operate in a sacrament, “the substance of a sacrament, namely the grace which is thereby offered, the element which shadoweth or signifieth grace, and the word which expresseth what is done by the element.” 4 In the case of baptism the sacramental substance was the “guift of the spirit” by which the child is born anew or made “regenerate.” 5 The Book of Common Prayer’s “Rite of Baptism” includes the Lord’s Prayer and subsequently the baptism is inscribed in the Register of Baptisms. In the sonnet the poet’s words are the “outward forme” which have “figur’d” or engraved his spirit, shadowed in his brain, through the element of ink and as rhetorical tropes. His question implies that nothing remains of his conceit that has not been expressed. He asks, “What’s new to speake,” implying that there is nothing new to be said, and “what now to register,” implying that nothing further can be recorded (“now” may be a mistaken ‘new’). No inkings can express the poet’s love (as a “word . . expresseth what is done by the element”) nor the youth’s “deare merit,” akin to the “pretious merit,” obtained in baptism (see Hooker, “so through his [Christ’s] most pretious merit [we] obteine as well that sauing grace of imputation.”) 6

In addressing the youth as “sweet boy” the poet echoes Ovid’s epithet, “dilecte puer,” used by Narcissus in his farewell to self and rendered by Golding as “sweete boy.” 7 Since all has been said and written the poet must tell over and over like daily prayers the same well-established formula of words (“like prayers diuine, / I must each day say ore the very same”). He must pretend that what he pronounces is not old and worn (“Counting no old thing old”). His prayer is that he and the youth be one as once they were when he first accounted holy the youth’s fair name. His prayer, “thou mine, I thine,” is the prayer of Christ that concludes the institution of the Eucharistic sacrament, “I pray for them . . for they are thyne. And all myne are thyne, and thyne are myne .  father, kepe through thine owne name . . that they may also be one, as we are.” His words, “hallowed thy faire name,” echo the phrase, “halowed be thy name” of the Lord’s Prayer, itself introduced by the command, “when ye pray, vse no vaine repetitions.” 8

As a result the poet can consider “eternall loue in loue’s fresh case.” The use of “case” is complex: it is either a manner or circumstance of being, hence ‘eternal love in a fresh presenting of love;’ or it is an argument, hence ‘eternal love contained in the poem’s fresh argument of love;’ or it is a vestment, hence ‘eternal love freshly clothed in/by love;’ or “case” is a compositor’s frame, in which characters or types are kept ordered, hence ‘eternal love freshly set forth from the letters of love’ (taken up later in “page”); or “case” is the body that contains the inward spirit and of which it is the outward sign (compare Ant. 4.15.89, “This case of that huge Spirit now is cold”), hence ‘eternal love manifest in this young embodiment of love.’ Whatever the case, “eternall loue” refuses to consider (“Waighes not”) the effects of age, the way it breaks things down into “dust” and causes damage (iniury”). It refuses to pay heed (“giue place”) to wrinkles that will inevitably occur. Rather it will make “antiquitie for aye his page:” it will make antiquity forever its servant (“page”) or it will make antiquity the subject on its page. The couplet asserts that the poet’s inward truth, his “first conceit of loue,” which was generated in the past (“there bred”), remains fresh and vital, even though time and old formularies (“outward forme”), his hackneyed figurings, would indicate its demise.


108.1. Perkins, Galatians 255.

108.2. Church of England, The seconde Tome of Homilies, of suche matters as were promised, and entituled in the former part of Homilies (London: Christopher Barker, 1582) Rr2r.

108.3. John Jewel, Certaine sermons preached before the Queenes Maiestie, and at Paules crosse (London: Christopher Barker, 1583) U5v; Niels Hemmingsen, A Postill, or Exposition of the Gospels that are usually red in the churches of God, vpon the Sundayes and feast dayes of Saincts, Written by Nicholas Heminge a Dane . . And translated into English by Arthur Golding (London: Henry Bynneman, 1569) 76v.

108.4. Richard Hooker, Of The Lawes of Ecclesiasticall Politie. The fift Booke (London: John Windet, 1597) 129.

108.5. Book of Common Prayer, “Rite of Baptism.”

108.6. Hooker, Politie (1597) 32.

108.7. Ovid, Met. 3.500; Golding 3.627. See Sonnet 1.

108.8. John 17.9-11 (BB); Matt. 6.9 (BB); see also Luke 11.2. The phrase was common enough, being used of the spouses in the Song of Songs and becoming a motto through Thomas a Kempis’ Imitation of Christ, “how canst thou be mine, and I thine” (Thomas a Kempis, Of the imitation of Christ, Three, both for wisedome, and godlines, most excellent bookes; made 170. yeeres since by one Thomas of Kempis . . translated out of Latine . . by Thomas Rogers (London: Henry Denham, 1580) 3.37; see De Imitatione Christi 3.73.3, “Alioquin quomodo poteris esse meus et ego tuus?”