Sonnet 13

Shakespeare Sonnet 13

O That you were your ſelfe, but loue you are
No longer yours, then you your ſelfe here liue,
Againſt this cumming end you ſhould prepare,
And your ſweet ſemblance to ſome other giue.
So ſhould that beauty which you hold in leaſe
Find no determination, then you were
You ſelfe again after your ſelfes deceaſe,                                           Your
When your ſweet iſſue your ſweet forme ſhould beare.
Who lets ſo faire a houſe fall to decay,
Which husbandry in honour might vphold,
Againſt the ſtormy guſts of winters day
And barren rage of deaths eternall cold?
O none but vnthriſts, deare my loue you know,
You had a Father, let your Son ſay ſo.

Sonnet 13 addresses the friend first as “loue” and then as “deare my loue” and for the first time in the sequence as “you.” Its neatly argued conceit is that of leases and conveyancing. It opens with a wish, “O that you were your selfe,” that the youth might be his own or belong to himself. However, argues the poet, he belongs to himself for no longer than, or only for the term that, he lives on this earth (“you your selfe here liue”). He should insure himself (“prepare”) against death (“this cumming end”) and leave in his heirs his “sweet semblance” or likeness. In 16th century conveyancing ‘the determination of a tenancy’ or ‘the determination of a lease,’ its ceasing, occurred when the husbandman or leasee died without heirs and the use of the lands or estate fell again to the leasor. The poet here argues that, if the youth were to have sired children, then the beauty, at present leased to him, should on his death not find a “determination” or cessation, because heirs would exist to whom the lease of beauty could be bequeathed. Thus after the death of his self (“after your selues decease”) he would again be himself in his heirs (“you were / Your selfe again”). His “sweet issue” would carry (“beare”) his imprint (“sweet form”), a reversal of the normal process where parents “beare” or produce “issue.”

The sestet’s argument parallels one against priestly virginity voiced by Thomas Wilson in The Arte of Rhetorique. Nothing, he claims, “could be inuented more perilous to a common weale then virginitie.” It is a man’s obligation, “seeing it lieth in your handes to keepe that house from decay, wherof your lineally descended, and to continue still the name of your auncesters.” 1 The poet asks a similar but double layered question: firstly, who would allow (“lets”) to fall into dissolution (“decay”) such a beautiful body (“house” as in the “earthly house” of 2 Corinthians 5.1), or such a fair family (“house” as in the ‘House of Tudor’), which might be sustained (“vphold”) in an honourable estate (“in honour”) through matrimony (“husbandry” or procreatively as a husband) or through being managed frugally (as a husbandman might)? Secondly “let” means ‘lease’ and the argument is a legal one: who would lease out such a beautiful house that it might fall into decay, where prudent fiscal management (“husbandry”) or begetting offspring (“husbandry”) would defend what of right (“in honour”) is his as lord? An “honour” in the law of leases was the ownership or seignory of lands that had been leased to a tenant by a Lord, the right to which he continues to “vphold” as his own. Such husbandry might protect the house against future hard times (“the stormy gusts of winters day”), not unlike the house of the parable on which “the wyndes blewe, and beat vpon that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it” (Matt. 7.27; BB). It might also insure against the “barren rage of deaths eternall cold,” where “barren rage” intends a vehemence or force that prevents the bearing of any issue (in Ham. 3.3.89 “in his Rage” indicates sexual climax).

The answer, the couplet asserts, is that only someone who is improvident (an “vnthrift”) and who lacks husbandry would let such a house fall into ruin. But the youth (“deare my loue”) knows that he “had a Father,” a pregnant past tense. He is counselled, “let your Son say so:” beget a son who can speak of you as his father.


13.1. Thomas Wilson, The Art of Rhetorique, for the vse of all such as are studious of Eloquence (London: George Robinson, 1585) 52-53.