O Thou my louely Boy who in thy power,
Doeſt hould times fickle glaſſe, his ſickle, hower:
Who haſt by wayning growne, and therein ſhou’ſt,
Thy louers withering, as thy ſweet ſelfe grow’ſt.
If Nature (ſoueraine miſteres ouer wrack)
As thou goeſt onwards ſtill will plucke thee backe,
She keepes thee to this purpoſe, that her ſkill.
May time diſgrace, and wretched mynuit kill.
Yet feare her O thou minnion of her pleaſure,
She may detaine, but not ſtill keepe her treſure!
Her Audite (though delayd) anſwer’d muſt be,
And her Quietus is to render thee.
Sonnet 126 is the last poem in the series addressed to the young man. It is incomplete with 12 lines of rhyming pentameter couplets. The quarto signals that two further lines were required by including two sets of sickle-shaped parentheses where lines 13 and 14 would have been found. The voids extend the length of a customary line. The poem is also a farewell prayer to the friend as beloved and patron and is shaped like a Book of Common Prayer collect with an invocation and attributive subordinate clauses. If the first eight lines are punctuated as relative clauses, then the petitionary section of the orizon begins with the cautionary “feare her.” 1
The invocation, “O Thou my louely Boy,” is particularly apposite. Having begun the series with a set of sonnets which indict the youth’s narcissism and his unacceptable lack of issue at nature’s audit, Shakespeare closes it with a “Quietus [est]” and with the last words Ovid gives Narcissus when in the moment of dying he farewells himself as ‘lovely boy’ (“dilecte puer”). Golding renders the passage:
these are the wordes that last
Out of his lippes beholding still his woonted ymage past.
Alas sweete boy belovde in vaine, farewell. 2
The image of himself, on which he gazes, is in Golding a “fickle image,” a translation of Ovid’s “simulacra fugacia” (from fugax = fleeting). 3
The “louely Boy” holds in his sway (“in thy power”) “times fickle glasse,” possibly an hourglass but more likely a mirror. Although in antiquity time, fortune and “fickle glasse” had occasionally been identified (“Some others againe [fashioned fortune] of fine, and brittle glasse, because she was so fickle”), it was not a common Renaissance association. 4 However Robert Greene in A Maidens Dreame laments that passing “delights are fickle like to glasse” and transfers the simile to his mistress in Greenes Morning Garment, “And she as fickle as the brittle glasse,” as does William Barkstead in Mirrha The Mother of Adonis, “women like to fortune still are fickle, / Their constancie like glasse, hollow and brittle.” 5 The Countess of Pembroke famously translated Ps. 103.14-15, as
Our potter he
Knowes how his vessells we
In earthy matter lodg’d this fickle forme:
Fickle as glasse
As flowres, that fading passe,
And vanish soe. 6
Fickle, then, suggested brittle and easily broken glass, hence transient and fleeting.
The punctuation of line 2 makes definite sense difficult: certainly the youth holds by apposition ‘time’s fickle glass and time’s sickle,’ traditional instruments of time; “hower” could either be a third instrument of time, ‘and time’s hour,’ or it could, by apposition, be identified with sickle, ‘time’s sickle hour’ or ‘the hour when time’s sickle operates.’ The lines recall Spenser’s personal resolution about time and nature in the final words of The Faerie Queene:
yet very sooth to say
In all things else she [Mutabilitie] beares the greatest sway.
Which makes me loath this state of life so tickle,
And loue of things so vaine to cast away;
Whose flowring pride, so fading and so fickle,
Short Time shall soon cut down with his consuming sickle. 7
For Shakespeare time’s fickleness is contained in the paradox of growing and waning, “Who hast by wayning growne.” Narcissus, while wasting away, grew as a youth, a reversal of the normal adage found, for example, in George Peele’s farewell for Sir Henry Lee, the Queen’s Champion, “Youth waineth by increasing,” a reflection of older men looking back on youth. 8 By so growing the youth “shou’st, / Thy louers withering,” where “louers” again lacks punctuation: either ‘lovers’ withering’ (least likely) or ‘lover’s withering’ (the poet’s withering, in keeping with much of the sequence) or finally ‘lovers withering:’ in growing the “sweet” boy shows lovers withering.
Nature is the “soueraine misteres ouer wrack;” she holds “wrack” and ruin under her supreme rule. If she were to snatch the youth from the edge of doom (“still” can qualify “onwards,” ‘as you continue to go onwards,’ or “pluck,” ‘will continue to pluck you from the brink’), she protects or guards (”keepes”) him for this purpose: that her prowess (“skill”) might defeat time (“time disgrace”) and destroy time’s paltry instruments (“wretched minuits kill”).
The salutary admonition, “feare her O thou minnion of her pleasure,” is addressed to the youth as nature’s darling, in whom she takes pleasure (in Sonnet 20.10 he is one on whom nature “fell a dotinge”). Nature may temporarily protect the beloved from time (“detaine”), but not preserve him forever (“still keepe”). The couplet returns to the accounting topos of Sonnets 4 and 49. In the end nature must submit her account for audit (“Audite”) and, that the books might be balanced, the youth’s death will need to be entered. Since the shape of the quarto’s “Audite” strongly evokes ‘audite,’ the Latin imperative of audire = to hear, from which audit derives, either an imprecatory ‘Hear’ of a prayer or the “Hear” of the summons to the solemn rendering of accounts at the Day of Judgement is suggested (compare Philip Stubbes, “the great audite when all flesh shall appeare before thy tribunall seate;” an audit was originally an oral hearing). 9 Nature, then, will need, sometime but not yet (“though delayd”), to “render” up the young man, so that the receipts may be signed off; “render” was used in the settling of a debt, but keeps its sense of ‘offer,’ as in ‘render praise’ in a prayer or ‘render an oblation’ as in the previous sonnet. The final signing off of receited accounts was with a Quietus est, ‘he is quit [of his debts].’ “Quietus” calls to mind the settlement that death and a quiet grave might bring Hamlet, “When he himselfe might his Quietus make / With a bare Bodkin” (3.1.75-6). That Nature might obtain a signing off, she will need to render up the youth to death and final judgement (customarily thought to occur “a space” after death, hence “delayd”). (The two blank lines of Sonnet 126 are visually suggestive of an account, empty and still to be finalized. The parentheses themselves suggest either the nicks balanced on each side of a tally representing the detail of a closing debt or payment scored but waiting to be paid, or a space awaiting a signing off, or, indeed, one signed off anonymously.)
126.1. Compare Spenser’s Amoretti 68, for Easter Sunday, which reflects the prayer structure perfectly.
126.2. Golding 3.625-7; Ovid, Met. 3.500-1, “‘heu frustra dilecte puer!’ totidemque remisit / verba locus, dictoque vale ‘vale’ inquit et Echo.”
126.3. Golding 3.543; Ovid, Met. 3.432.
126.4. See Pedro Mexâia, The foreste or Collection of histories no lesse profitable, then pleasant and necessarie, dooen out of Frenche into Englishe, by Thomas Fortescue (London: Ihon [sic] Kingston, 1571) 103v.
126.5. Robert Greene, A Maidens Dreame. Vpon the Death of the right honorable Sir Christopher Hatton (London: Thomas Scarlet, 1591) B3r; Greenes Morning Garment, Giuen him by repentance at the funerals of Loue, which he presentes for a fauour to all young Gentlemen that wish to weane themselues from wanton desires (London: J[ohn] Wolfe, 1590) 56; William Barkstead, Mirrha The Mother of Adonis: Or, Lustes Prodegies (London: E9dward] A[llde], 1607) E3v.
126.6. See Philip Sidney and Mary Sidney, Psalms 103.65-70. Coverdale’s version runs, “For he knoweth whereof we be made: he remembeth that we are but dust. The dayes of man are but as grasse: for he florisheth as a flowre of the fielde.” John Boys, later, seems to have know the Pembrokian rendering: “It sheweth our dignity, though a man be dust & dung, fading like grasse, fickle like glass, like a thing of naught” (An Exposition of the Festivall Epistles and Gospels vsed in our English Liturgie. Together with a reason why the Church did chuse the same (London: Edward Griffin for William Aspley, 1615) 438).
126.7. Spenser, Faerie Queene 188.8.131.52-9.
126.8. Peele, Polyhymnia B4v. The sonnet was set to music by John Dowland, The First Booke of Songes or Ayres (London: Peter Short, 1597) n.18. Compare Segar 198, “youth waineth by encreasing.”
126.9. Philip Stubbes, A perfect Pathway to Felicitie (London: Richard Yardley, 1592) L5v.