Sonnet 125

Shakespeare Sonnet 125

VVEr’t ought to me I bore the canopy,
With my extern the outward honoring,
Or layd great baſes for eternity,
Which proues more ſhort then waſt or ruining?
Haue I not ſeene dwellers on forme and fauor
Loſe all, and more by paying too much rent
For compound ſweet; Forgoing ſimple ſauor,
Pittifull thriuors in their gazing ſpent.
Noe, let me be obſequious in thy heart,
And take thou my oblacion, poore but free,
Which is not mixt with ſeconds, knows no art,
But mutuall render, onely me for thee.
Hence, thou ſubbornd Informer, a trew ſoule
When moſt impeacht, ſtands leaſt in thy controule.

A canopy or pall was a large, often ornate covering carried on poles in a procession over a dignatory. It had once been a familiar sight in religious liturgies and processions, especially those of the Eucharistic host. Its use had been proscribed by the Reformers and by Shakespeare’s time it survived principally as a courtly trapping. A canopy, however, was used in a Eucharistic context on a single early 17th century occasion, the Coronation of James I on 25 July 1603, for two linked reasons. The Coronation Rite, established by the Liber Regalis of 1382, was always inserted into the Book of Common Prayer’s “Order of Holy Communion,” a practice followed for the Coronations of Edward VI and Elizabeth I, and one insisted upon by James I. 1 James also followed the practice of his Protestant predecessors and insisted on the inclusion in the Coronation Rite of the ritual of Anointing, despite considerable opposition from even moderate divines and the public at large. He did this, according to Giovanni Scaramelli, the Venetian ambassador to England, to assert his right to be King of France, monarchs becoming Kings of France by anointing. 2 During the Enunction, the first ritual of the Coronation, a canopy was held over the King by four Knights of the Garter, chosen by their companion Knights for the honour. (See Introduction for further detail). Such a combination of circumstances uniquely allowed a canopy to be used in the setting of an oblation. A feature of Sonnet 125 is the contrast between an external ritual such as bearing a canopy, a role the poet finds of little consequence, and an “oblacion” of the whole self, identified with the Eucharistic commercium  (“onely me for thee”) and hence as a piece of central liturgy.

The poet’s opening conditional question, “Wer’t ought to me I bore the canopy,” presumes a negative reply: ‘Would it have been anything to the poet that he bore the canopy?’ or ‘Would it have meant anything to him if he’d borne the canopy?’ The implied answer is ‘no, it would have meant nothing to him,’ although it may have meant something to someone who had borne it. For the poet performing such an outward ritual is nothing compared to the interior service he would observe through oblation of self. He disparages the functionary nature of the role (“With my extern the outward honoring”), “outward honoring” being typical of ritualistic but not deeply involved behaviour.

Lines 3-4 depend on, “Wer’t ought to me.” ‘Would it have meant anything to the poet if he had “layd great bases for eternity?”’ The “great bases” (either ‘bases’ or ‘basis’) are pedestals such as might support an arch of triumph or, more pertinently, a canopy of state. 3 A requirement of James’ coronation was the large, square stage erected beside the altar and between the bases of the four large pillars in the Abbey. It was covered over with tapestry and its rails were richly adorned. 4 The structure was a temporary structure lasting only for the occasion. Though designed to presage eternity (“layd . . for eternity”), the bases would last all too “short” a time, less indeed than might be caused by “wast or ruining.” Again the required answer to the poet’s involvement with such an exterior edifice is a negative.

The poet next focusses on the ritual of courtly behaviour: “dwellers on forme and fauor” are those who ‘hang upon’ or ‘have their attention fixed upon’ what is considered outwardly decorous (“forme”) and upon dispensed patronage (“fauor”). The poet has seen them “Lose all, and more,” everything therefore, by outlaying too much (“paying too much rent”) through emoluments and subornings. They seek a “compound sweet” over a “simple sauor;” “simple” and “compound,” normally applied to medicines, here suggest payments for the procurement of advanced favours rather than straightforward “simple” requital. The context of flattery is also relevant: a “compound” is an elaborate phrase, while something “simple” is forthright speaking. 5  Later such “compounds” are found to be false. The poet pities these “thriuors,” whom Bacon in 1601 defines as those “fortunate in the queen’s service,” because they wear themselves out in looking either on their patron or themselves. 6

The sestet is either an exhortation to the self, “let me,” or a prayer to the beloved, “let me be obsequious in thy heart;” “obsequious” (from ob + sequor = to follow) retains both its Latinate sense of ‘to be in the service of’ and its oblatory sense of ‘offer oneself up’ (“obsequium,” as at Rom. 15.31, “oblatio obsequii mei” (‘my obsequious oblation’), was always rendered as “my seruice which I haue to doe”). The poet’s desire ‘to be of service in the youth’s heart’ or to ‘offer himself up to the youth’s heart’ is an interior not an exterior service. His prayer is that the youth will accept his oblation of self.

The introduction of “oblacion” gives the sonnet its further ritualistic focus, that of the oblations that occur in the Communion Service, of which there are two. The first is an offering of “oblations,” which are “almes giuen to the poore” and are “put into the poore mens boxe.” Hence the poet’s oblation is “poore but free,” to be used properly as alms and not as emoluments or bribes. The Communion Service’s principal use of “oblation” is in the central Prayer of Consecration, which acknowledges Christ’s “one oblation of himselfe once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation.” The poet’s oblation is also of himself and recalls Leviticus’ archetypical “oblation made by fire for a sweete sauour vnto the Lorde” (1.17 (BB); compare the “simple sauour” above which should take precedence). Being “free,” his oblation is not like those who “pay too much rent / For compound sweet,” but is in keeping with the psalmist’s oblation, “Then I will sacrifice freely vnto thee” (54.6; (GV), to which is attached, “For hypocrites serue God for feare, or vpon conditions”).

The poet’s oblation “is not mixt with seconds;” “seconds” refers to the quality, particularly of flour, which is of a grade inferior to the best. Oblations cannot be made of second grade flour and the Book of Common Prayer’s rubric lays down that the oblation should be of a “bread such as is . . the best & purest wheat bread that conueniently may be gotten.” The poet’s oblation “knows no art, / But mutuall render;” to ‘render an oblation’ was correct terminology (compare Shakespeare’s only other use of ‘oblation,’ LC 221-4: “where I my selfe must render . . your oblations  . / Since I their Aulter, you enpatrone me”). His oblation is a “mutuall” one. Essential to an oblation is the element of commercium, an exchange or returning (‘render’ is from rendere = to give back). The poet’s offering, “onely me for thee,” is firstly one of himself not to the youth but for the sake of the youth (“for”), but also one that seeks the beloved’s offering himself in return (compare Sonnet 108. “thou mine, I thine”); “onely” imitates the Consecratory Prayer’s “one oblation of himselfe once offered,” itself an echo of Christ’s discourse at the Last Supper where he prayed that “they all may bee one, as thou . . art in me, and I in thee” (John 17.21; GV), which was followed immediately by the betrayal of Judas.

The identity of the final couplet’s outburst, “Hence, thou subbornd Informer,” remains shadowy. A ‘common informer’ was one who laid information against an accused, not necessarily falsely or for money; a ‘suborned’ informer was one who had been induced by bribery to give false evidence or to betray. Various identifications are possible: it could be an informant external to the sequence and in the Introduction a case is made for this to be Anthony Copley, whom Robert Parsons entitled a Judas (“a Iudas to Gods church and his countrey”), and had included among those with “vngrateful trayterous and Iudas-like natures.” Copley was suborned into informing on the plotters of the “Bye” and “Main” plots of 1603, which saw Ralegh, for example, confined again to the Tower for many more years). Or the informant could be someone closer to the sequence, an informant who has betrayed the poet, or the beloved himself who has acted treacherously, or possibly even Time itself. But, in the context of “oblation,” the “Informer” carries strong echoes of the archetypical “subbornd Informer,” Judas Iscariot, who betrayed the offerer of the original perfect oblation and whom Satan “enterd,” who was bid, “Hence.” The informer is banished from the poet’s presence with the final claim that “a trew soule / When most impeacht, stands least in thy controule.” The poet’s soul is “trew,” because it renders a true “oblation.” The more extensively truth is distorted, or the greater the disparagement, or the more grievous the accusations of treason (“When most impeacht”), the more strongly the “trew soule” remains impervious and unaffected (“stands least in thy controule”). The identity of the “trew soule” remains equally shadowy, either the poet, or the beloved, or a case can probably be made for a figure external to the sequence, Sir Walter Ralegh, of whom the Pembroke circle was a staunch defender, both the Countess and her sons making representations to the King on 27 November 1603 on Ralegh’s behalf prior to the execution of the conspirators of the “Main” plot. 7


125.1. The Copy of the Coronation Service had been delivered to the King by the Archbishop of Canterbury who, “faithfully observed the forme sett downe in the auncient Booke kept among the Records atWestminster” (Nichols 231).

125.2. Brown 44, “so as not to loose this prerogative, which belongs to the Kings of England as Kings of France.”

125.3. HarrisonK1r; Dekker, Entertainment B4r.

125.4. See Church of England, Coronation of King James 10: “There is a Stage set up, square, close to the four high Pillars, between the Quire and the Altar, Railed about, which Stage is to be spread with Tapistry, and the Rails of it to be Richly covered.”

125.5. OED simple 5; compare Sonnet 76.4, “compounds strange.”

125.6. OED thriver.

125.7. See Hannay 123 & 187.