Sonnet 112

Shakespeare Sonnet 112

YOur loue and pittie doth th’impreſſion fill,
Which vulgar ſcandall ſtampt vpon my brow,
For what care I who calles me well or ill,
So you ore-greene my bad, my good alow?
You are my All the world, and I muſt ſtriue,
To know my ſhames and praiſes from your tounge,
None elſe to me, nor I to none aliue,
That my ſteel’d ſence or changes right or wrong,
In ſo profound Abiſme I throw all care
Of others voyces, that my Adders ſence,
To cryttick and to flatterer ſtopped are:
Marke how with my neglect I do diſpence.
You are ſo ſtrongly in my purpoſe bred,
That all the world beſides me thinkes y’are dead.

Sonnet 112 continues the argument of Sonnet 111, picking up its “pittie” and adding “loue.” These virtues of the patron fill in and cover over the “impression” or indentation in the poet’s brow caused by the stamp of “vulgar scandall,” suggestive of the ancient Roman practice of marking the foreheads of criminals and retainers and making explicit the “brand” or infamy that his name “receiues” in Sonnet 111.5. Something “stampt” retains an impression, but the sense of “stampt” upon or trodden down will be developed later in “ore-greene.” The “scandall” is the damage done to the poet’s reputation rather than something he has done to cause offense; “vulgar” implies ‘common’ or ‘widespread’ slander, although, as in Sonnet 89 which also deals with names, an echo of those excluded from Horace’s elect circle, “Odi profanum volgus” (‘I hate the uninitiated masses’) is present. It does not matter to the poet whoever gives him a good or bad name (“For what care I who calles me well or ill”), so long as (“so”) the friend glosses over his faults (“ore-greene my bad”); to “ore-greene” was to cover over with green to prevent something from being “stampt” or trodden in, and derives from the custom, still common in Shakespeare’s day, of strewing green rushes on the floor to cover over filth and dirt. The green “sharpe Rush,” Gerard observes, is “fitter to straw houses and chambers than any of the rest” because it doesn’t “turne to dust and filth with much treading.” 1 Likewise no other opinion matters so long as the friend praises his good (“my good alow”).

For the poet the friend is his “All the world,” his everything (compare “all the world” below, Rev. 12.9). The poet must “striue, / To know my shames and praises from your tounge.” The source of true opinion resides not in the public world but with the friend. No one else is alive to the poet and he is alive to no one else: “None else to me, nor I to none aliue.” Line 8 is obscure and has caused much speculation: “steel’d sence” is one that is hardened, identified in the sestet as a hardened sense of hearing, but it is also one that has been impressed with a ‘style;’ “or changes right or wrong” can be read as an either/or: ‘no one is alive to the poet such that his hardened sense changes either right or wrong.’ Alternatively, “or changes” (as with “or siluer’d” in Sonnet 12.4 or as with “ore-greene” above) can be read as ‘o’er-changes:’ the poet’s hardened sense doesn’t over-change right or wrong, or exchange right and wrong each into the other.

All worries (“all care”), caused the poet by others’ “voyces,” he now casts into a “profound Abisme,” the bottomless pit beneath the earth into which with his serpent’s tongue the “great dragon, that olde serpent . . was cast . . which deceaueth all the world” (Rev. 12.9; BB; compare Ant. 3.13.148, “th’Abisme of hell”). In ignoring the voices of others the poet’s hearing will become an “Adders sence,” a biblical alluson drawing on Ps. 58.3-4, whose Geneva Version headnote runs, “Hee describeth the malice of his enemies, the flatterers of Saul, who both secretly and openly sought his destruction.”

The vngodly are straungers euen from their mothers wombe: assoone as they be borne, they go astray and speake a lye. They haue poyson [within them] lyke to the poyson of a serpent: they be lyke the deafe adder that stoppeth her eares, and wyll not heare the voyce of charmers, though he be neuer so skilfull in charming.

The poet’s ears are blocked (“stopped”) against the poison of both “cryttick” (a word in use only from the 1580s onwards) and “flatterer” alike. The friend is instructed to observe how the poet must put aside (“dispence”) the neglect that befalls him (compare Tim. 3.2.93, “Men must learne now with pitty to dispence”).

The couplet’s “y’are” is problematic. Despite attempts to amend it to “they are” on the grounds that the “y’” is the old letter thorn (Þ), contracted in printing as a ‘y’ which would give a reading of “th’are dead” or ‘they are dead,’ the line is not sufficiently long to warrant a contracted thorn and “y’are” should be retained despite difficulties of interpretation. (The compositor uses the same contraction at Sonnet 120.6, where ‘you have’ is the only possible reading.) The couplet contrasts the earlier “All the world,” the poet’s everything, with the whole world other than the poet and patron. The friend is so firmly implanted (“bred”) in the poet’s resolution or thought (in contrast with those who “from their mothers wombe . . go astray and speake a lye”) that, extending the earlier claim, “None else to me, nor I to none aliue,” the youth appears alive to no one else but the poet (“all the world besides me thinkes y’are dead”).


112.1. Gerard, Herball (1597) 31. The proverb, “Strew green rushes for a stranger” (Tilley R213), to ‘cover over what is dirty,’ was a commonplace: see Heywood, Dialogue D3v, “Greene rushes for this stranger, strawe here;” or John Lyly, Sapho and Phao, Played beefore the Queenes Maiestie (London: Thomas Cadman, 1584) D1r, “straungers haue greene rushes, when daily guests are not worth a rushe.”