Sonnet 14

Shakespeare Sonnet 14

NOt from the ſtars do I my iudgement plucke,
And yet me thinkes I haue Aſtronomy,
But not to tell of good, or euil lucke,
Of plagues, of dearths, or ſeaſons quallity,
Nor can I fortune to breefe mynuits tell;
Pointing to each his thunder, raine and winde,
Or ſay with Princes if it ſhal go wel
By oft predict that I in heauen finde.
But from thine eies my knowledge I deriue,
And conſtant ſtars in them I read ſuch art
As truth and beautie ſhal together thriue
If from thy ſelfe, to ſtore thou wouldſt conuert:
Or elſe of thee this I prognoſticate,
Thy end is Truthes and Beauties doome and date.

Most sonnet sequences contain an example of an astrological conceit, in which eyes are stars, the most notable being Sidney, Astrophil and Stella 26, “Though dustie wits dare scorne Astologie.” Sonnet 14’s term, “Astronomy,” retains its older sense of ‘judicial’ astrology, a word Shakespeare doesn’t use. The 16th century reformers had attacked judicial astrology as distracting from divine providence, although they did allow natural astrology, the forecasting of natural seasons and tides. (Calvin’s tract against astrology had been loosely translated and published in 1561 by Goddred Gilby as An Admonicion against Astrology Iudiciall.) 1 In part their admonitions drew on Isaiah’s derision of astrologers and like genethliacs: “let now the astrologers, the starre gasers, and prognosticatours stand vp, & saue thee from these things, that shall come vpon thee” (Isa. 47.13; GV). Closer to Shakespeare was James I’s division of astronomy and astrology in Daemonologie. Astronomy is lawful as is any astrology based on mathematical rules:

There are two thinges which the learned haue obserued from the beginning, in the science of the Heauenlie Creatures, the Planets, Starres, and such like: The one is their course and ordinary motiones, which for that cause is called Astronomia. Which word is compound of νομος and αστερων, that is to say, the law of the Starres: And this arte indeede is one of the members of the Mathematicques, & not onlie lawful, but most necessarie and commendable. The other is called Astrologia, being compounded of αστερων & λογος, which is to say, the word and preaching of the starres: Which is deuided in two parts: The first, by knowing thereby the powers of simples, and sicknesses, the course of the seasons and the weather, being ruled by their influence; which part depending vpon the former, although it be not of it selfe a part of Mathematicques: yet it is not vnlawful, being moderately vsed, suppose not to necessarie and commendable as the former.

Attempts, however,  to predict the future based on pars fortunae are condemned:

The second part is to truste so much to their influences, as thereby to fore-tell what common-weales shall flourish or decay: what persones shall be fortunate or vnfortunate: what side shall winne in anie battell: what man shall obteine victorie at singular combate: what way, and of what age shall men die . . And this last part of Astrologie whereof I haue spoken, which is the root of their branches, was called by them pars fortunae. This parte now is vtterlie vnlawful to be trusted in, or practized amongst christians, as leaning to no ground of natural reason: & it is this part which I called before the deuils schole. 2

The poet begins by denying any skill in reading the influence of the stars (“Not from the stars do I my judgement plucke”); “plucke” evokes the practice of sortes virgilianae, where lots were randomly drawn, or sortilegy, where a card was plucked from a pack to divine the future (to ‘pluck for a card’ was to draw one from a pack). Yet he admits to a mastery of an astronomy later identified as a reading of the youth’s eyes (“I haue Astronomy”), even as he disclaims any skill in unlawful readings such as “to tell of good, or euil lucke.” To “tell” is to predict as might a fortune-teller or one versed in pars fortunae. Nor does the poet’s astral insight allow him to foretell “of plagues, of dearths, or seasons quallity,” of what nature a coming season might have. Nor can he match fortune with each small minute, awarding to each (“Pointing” = ‘appointing’) thunder, rain, wind. (Some constellations have stars as ‘pointers.’) Finally his astronomy won’t forecast if Princes and rulers will prosper (in James I’s words, “fore-tell what common-weales shall flourish or decay”) through frequent predictions (“By oft predict”), drawn from the course of the heavenly stars. 3

The poet now focusses on the youth’s eyes, the source of his true astrology (“But from thine eies my knowledge I deriue”). In those eyes (“constant stars”) he can divine (“read”) an art where truth and beauty will flourish (“thriue”), if the youth would metamorphose himself out of himself into progeny (“store” or livestock; “store” was used to translate the Latin foetura = young animal), thus continuing the play on husbandry in Sonnet 13. To “conuert” the eyes (see Sonnet 7.11) is to direct them elsewhere: the youth must cease gazing upon himself like Narcissus, even as the poet “reads” his eyes by gazing upon them.

If, however, the youth refuses to beget an heir (“Or else”), the poet, contrary to Isaiah’s scornful proscription, will “prognosticate” this: his death (“end;” see Sonnet 13.3, “cumming end”) will be the end also of truth and beauty. The “doome,” the legal judgement that gives a ‘determination of the lease’ (see Sonnet 13.6), and the date, when the lease that beauty and truth have on being will cease, will be the same date as the youth’s decease.

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14.1. John Calvin, An Admonicion against Astrology Iudiciall, trans. Goddred Gilby (London: Rouland Hall, 1561).

14.2. James I, Daemonologie, In Forme of a Dialogue (Edinburgh: Robert Waldegrave, 1597) 12-14.

14.3. Some editors have proposed changing “oft” to ‘aught,’ on the flimsy grounds that Shakespeare’s use of ‘predict’ as a noun is the solitary instance cited in the OED.  But the use of ‘predict’ as a noun and a verb antedates considerably the earliest citations (1652) of the OED; compare its use in 1572 by Holme, “Of these Countreys predict from their purpose indeuided,” and, “And the earth curssed for Adam, for Christ do I sanctifie. / To these woordes predict Esay the Prophet” (The fall and euill successe of Rebellion from time to time Wherein is contained matter, moste meete for all estates to vewe. Written in old Englishe verse (London: Henry Binneman, 1572) C2v & D4r). It was in extensive use as a verb by the 1620s, see Heywoood, “and oft times predict such things,” or “Besides these kind of Diuiners, there are such as are called Sortiligae, and these predict by lots” (ΓΥΝΑΙΚΕΙΟΝ: or, Nine Bookes of Various History. Concerninge Women: Inscribed by the names of the Nine Muses (London: Adam Islip, 1624) 100 & 102).

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