Sonnet 109

Shakespeare Sonnet 109

O Neuer ſay that I was falſe of heart,
Though abſence ſeem’d my flame to quallifie,
As eaſie might I from my ſelfe depart,
As from my ſoule which in thy breſt doth lye:
That is my home of loue, if I haue rang’d,
Like him that trauels I returne againe,
Iuſt to the time, not with the time exchang’d,
So that my ſelfe bring water for my ſtaine,
Neuer beleeue though in my nature raign’d
All frailties that beſiege all kindes of blood,
That it could ſo prepoſterouſlie be ſtain’d,
To leaue for nothing all thy ſumme of good:
For nothing this wide Vniuerſe I call,
Saue thou my Roſe, in it thou art my all.

Sonnet 109 is the first of two dealing with straying, either physical or moral. Its risposte, “O Neuer say that I was false of heart,” implies a preceding accusation, although the poet allows that “absence seem’d my flame to quallifie.” That ‘absence doth quallifie the fire’ or mitigate passion was proverbial. To ‘qualify’ was used also of the humour, blood, which, when too hot or too cold, needed to be qualified to give a moderate temperament. The poet might as easily have separated himself from himself (“depart” means both separate and leave) as separate himself from his “soule,” which dwells in the friend’s breast (“which in thy brest doth lye”).

His breast is the abode of the poet’s soul (“That is my home of loue”). If he were to have strayed, either physically or morally (“rang’d” suggests a wandering to and fro rather than journeying), then like a traveller he would return to the youth’s breast, his only destination. He would return exactly on time (“Iust to the time”) and without having been altered by his being away (“not with the time exchang’d”). He brings his own “water for my staine,” the grime of journeying or the blemish of inconstancy or unfaithfulness.

The sonnet’s opening “O Neuer,” is picked up by the sestet’s “Neuer beleeue.” The poet admits that weaknesses, which attack the blood (“besiege”) and cause an imbalance in the humours, have held sway (“raign’d”) over his temperament or character (“nature”). Nevertheless the friend must not believe that his nature (“it”) could be so unnaturally stained (“preposterouslie,” with a suggestion of something that strains belief), that it would abandon to no advantage “all thy summe of good.” ‘Preposterous,’ a contemporary neologism, is putting what comes after (post = after) before (pre = before), a reversal of proper order either in the course of nature (compare Oth. 1.3.63, “For Nature, so prepostrously to erre”) or time (a “time exchang’d”) or humours. The ‘Preposterous’ was also a literary device, which Puttenham defines as a “manner of disordered speech, when ye misplace your words or clauses and set that before which should be behind, & è conuerso, we call it in English prouerbe, the cart before the horse, the Greeks call it Histeron proteron, we name it the Preposterous.” 1 If he were to set “nothing” before “all thy summe” the poet would be failing to observe proper order. The youth’s “summe of good” is an echo of the divine summum bonum, which in Sonnet 110.12 is a “God in loue.”

The reason why his nature cannot be so stained is because he counts (“call”) as nothing the whole “Vniverse,” except that in the universe is contained the beloved, the poet’s “all,” and “Rose.” “Vniverse” is an unusual word for Shakespeare meaning that which turns on one [unus + versus = one + turned] and in an orderly way, not “e converso,” ‘out of order’ or ‘preposterously.’ 2 Addressing a beloved as ‘my rose’ was common enough and had classical precedent: Cooper’s Thesaurus gives under ‘rosa,’ “Rosam suam vocat amicam amator quidem apud Plautum” (‘a lover calls his beloved ‘my rose,’ for instance in Plautus’). 3 The endearment recalls the “beauties Rose” of the first sonnet.

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109.1. Puttenham 141.

109.2. “Universe” is used only once elswhere by Shakespeare in H5  4.Prol.3.

109.3. The reference is to Plautus, Asinaria 3.3.664, “mea rosa.”

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