Sonnet 122

Shakespeare Sonnet 122

TThy guift,, thy tables, are within my braine
Full characterd with laſting memory,
Which ſhall aboue that idle rancke remaine
Beyond all date euen to eternity.
Or at the leaſt, ſo long as braine and heart
Haue facultie by nature to ſubſiſt,
Til each to raz’d obliuion yeeld his part
Of thee, thy record neuer can be miſt:
That poore retention could not ſo much hold,
Nor need I tallies thy deare loue to skore,
Therefore to giue them from me was I bold,
To truſt thoſe tables that receaue thee more,
To keepe an adiunckt to remember thee,
Were to import forgetfulneſſe in mee.

Sonnet 122, like Sonnet 77, is built on the difference between the natural and the artifical or local memory for the practice of which “tables” of characters were essential. “Naturall memorie,” Wilson observes in The Art of Rhetorique, “is when without any precepts or lessons, by the onely aptnesse of nature, we beare away such thinges as we heare.” 1 He contrasts the natural with “the other kinde of memorie called artificiall,” which is assisted by “the art of memorie,” a system of associative mnemonics, by which things to be remembered were attached either to a familiar place or to familiarized lists of characters or names. Guglielmo Gratarolo in The Castel of Memorie gives this definition:

Artificiall Memorie is a disposyng or placing of sensible thinges in the mynde by imagination, wherevnto the natural Memorie hauing respect, is by them admonished that it maye he hable to call to mynde more easely and distinctly such thinges as are to be remembred: and (as Cicero saith in his seconde to Herennius) it consisteth of pieces as it were of waxe or tables, and of Images as of fygures & letters. For so it commeth to passe that such thynges as we haue heard or learned, we rehearse againe euen as though we read them. 2

The pseudo-ciceronian Ad Herennium prescribed a familiar house or theatre as a place, memorized in detail, with which things to be remembered were associated. Renaissance practitioners of the “Arte Memoratiue” also proposed familiarized lists of characters organized on a page or table in rows or ranks to which, once memorized, the mind could attach or set things to be remembered (see Sonnet 77 for further detail). Wilson gives as an example those who “gather their places & Images out of the Crosse rowe, beginning euery Letter with the name of some Beast,” while William Colson published his French grammar under the title, The First Part of the French Grammar, Artifically reduced into Tables, by Arte locall, called the Arte of Memorie,” in which tables of words are used as mnemonics. 3

More particularly the “Arte Memoratiue” was identified with young men through the example teachers such as Gratarolo and Petrus Ravenna always gave when explaining a further familiarized list based on the names of friends to which things to be remembered could be “set.” Petrus Ravenna specifies the adolescent connection:

as I was some tyme beynge yonge adolescent in the company of sondry noble men. It was proposed of them to recyte names of men, that one of the assystents shulde say I denye nat that. And these be the names that folowe. I dyd set in the fyrst place a certayne frende of myne hauynge the same name. In the seconde place lykewyse, and as names dyd I colloke & set in place as they had named, and they thus collocated were by me recyted afterwarde. And let the collocatoure aduyse him to set alway his frende doynge the thynge that he is accustomed to do comynly, and procede this conclusion clerely, and names knowen. And yf the frende be knowen haue suche a name Boxdrab, Zorobabell, than set the same thinge that is spoken or named in his place. 4

Generally the superior memory was thought to be the natural and it is around this superiority that Shakespeare constructs Sonnet 122, his natural memory being full of the youth and not subject to forgetfulness.

The gift that the poet pictures the youth offering (“Thy guift”) are “tables” on which his record or memory might be inscribed. (‘Tables’ were often portable aide memoires.) But, the poet claims, the record of the youth is more firmly imprinted in his brain than any record ingraved in a table of artificial memory, because “tables” held their information only temporarily like a palimpsest: their surface would be smoothed or scraped over and the ingraved characters or images erased (a tabula rasa = a table scraped clean). In his brain the friend’s record is “Full characterd with lasting memory.” It is not a tabula rasa but is replete with characters that will endure or it is ingraved as a table might be in “full” letters that will last. ‘Full’ or ‘great’ characters were large letters in upper case to emphasize their importance and weighty durability. Customarily God’s self-definition to Moses, “I am that I am,” which occurs literatim in the preceding Sonnet 121, was printed in such characters, “I AM THAT I AM,” as were the precepts of the decalogue, which were “the writing of God, grauen in the tables” (Exod. 3.14 & 32.16; BB). In the poet’s natural memory the youth’s record is so impressed that it will be enduringly remembered and remain “aboue that idle rancke,” either superior to that which is engraved in wax or surviving beyond the wax tables’ surface temporality. An “idle ranck” is an unfilled rank or row serving no purpose (“idle” or void was used of a table), hence the empty impressions of the original “tables.” 5 What is impressed on the poet’s brain, however, will last “Beyond all date euen to eternity,” beyond any limit and to the end of time.

But, having claimed eternity for his table, the poet immediately qualifies it (“Or at the least”): the record of the youth will stand forth (“thy record neuer can be mist”), only so long as the place where it is scored, the poet’s “braine and heart,” has the ability or power (“facultie”) that nature gives to remain in existence (“subsist”), until such time, then, as each gives up what is etched in it to “raz’d obliuion,” to “forgetfulnesse” and to forgottenness, caused by being scraped over or obliterated. Shakespeare’s choice of “subsist” is deliberate: meaning ‘to stand under’ (compare Florio, “Sostare . . to stand vnder, to subsist”) it was used of earlier impressions in the wax that, once the wax was smoothed over, were thought to continue ‘to stand under’ the new surface.

The proferred artifical table, identified now as a thing that retains things poorly (“That poor retention”), when compared with the poet’s brain, is limited in what it can contain (“could not hold so much”). Nor does the poet need “tallies,” on which he might record (“skore”) his “deare loue.” A ‘tally’ was originally a stick on which credits and debits were recorded by notches which were scored out on either side (“skore” and “tallies” also carry the sense of ‘reckon up’). Having no need of any device the poet is emboldened (“was I bold”) to give up or back the friend’s “tables” and to place his trust in the “tables” fully graved in his mind which more amply record the friend (“that receaue thee more”). Indeed, if the poet were to keep an aide (“adiunckt,” defined by William Perkins as a “helping cause”), 6 by which to remember the friend, if he were to practice the “Arte Memoratiue,” that would imply that the youth could be forgotten (“to import forgetfulnesse in mee”).


122.1. Wilson 214.

122.2. Gratarolo G6v. Gratarolo (H6r) insists, as do all practitioners from the author of the Ad Herennium onwards, that the memory tables should be as graphic and memorable as possible: “Again you shall not forget that in placing or setting of the images or figures in their places the thing is alwaies to be placed with a mery, a merueilous or cruel act, or some other vnaccustomed maner: for mery cruell, iniurious, merueilous, excellently faire, or excedingly foule things do change & moue the senses, & better styrre vp the Memorie, when ye minde is much occupied about such things.”

122.3. Wilson 218; William Colson, The First Part of the French Grammar, Artifically reduced into Tables, by Arte locall, called the Arte of Memorie (London, W. Stansby for Iohn Parker, 1620).

122.4. Ravenna A7v.

122.5. Cooper, Thesaurus  inanis.

122.6. William Perkins, The Arte of Prophecying: or A Treatise Concerning the sacred and onely true manner and methode or Preaching (London: Felix Kyngston, 1607) 55.