Sonnet 146

Shakespeare Sonnet 146

POore ſoule the center of my ſinfull earth,
My ſinfull earth theſe rebbell powres that thee array,                         ??
Why doſt thou pine within and ſuffer dearth
Painting thy outward walls ſo coſtlie gay?
Why ſo large coſt hauing ſo ſhort a leaſe,
Doſt thou vpon thy fading manſion ſpend?
Shall wormes inheritors of this exceſſe,
Eate vp thy charge? is this thy bodies end?
Then ſoule liue thou vpon thy ſeruants loſſe,
And let that pine to aggrauat thy ſtore;
Buy tearmes diuine in ſelling houres of droſſe:
Within be fed, without be rich no more,
So ſhalt thou feed on death, that feeds on men,
And death once dead, ther’s no more dying then.

Although Sonnet 146 has often been presented as a poem in the long tradition of verse depicting “A Dialogue between the Soul and the Body,” the sonnet in fact bears little resemblance to a dialogue and is more a meditation, in which the soul only is interrogated about its relationship to the body. It argues throughout that the soul must curtail the exigencies of the flesh. The opening “Poore soule” was a familiar address, compare Donne’s epithetical, “Poore intricated soule.” 1 The soul is posited as “the centre of my sinfull earth,” where earth is that out of which the body is shaped (Gen. 2.7) and to which it must return. (The Committal in the Book of Common Prayer’s “Order for the Burial of the Dead” contained the words, “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”) An equally available verse was Wisd. 9.15, the basis of many poetic laments about the soul and heaviness, “a corruptible body is heauy vnto the soule, and the earthy mansion kepeth downe that vnderstandyng that museth vpon many thynges” (BB). The heaviness will feature later in “aggrauat thy store.” That the soul is the centre of the earthly human inhabiting all his parts as the earth rests geocentrically was a stock conceit: Donne among other preachers declares, “Man is but earth; Tis true; but earth is the centre. That man that dwells vpon himselfe . . rests in his true centre.” 2 Both Shakespeare and Donne have in mind the earthly man, who is the descendant of Adam: “The first man [is] of the earth, earthy: the seconde man [is] the Lorde from heauen. As is the earthy, suche [are] they that are earthy: And as is the heauenly, such [are] they also that are heauenly” (1 Cor. 15.45-46; BB).

The repetition of “My sinfull earth” at the start of line 2 is evidently a manuscript or compositor’s slip, for which various speculative and unsatisfactory emendations have been proposed. It is best left as it is, the repetition being noted, even if it results in a hexameter line. The “rebell powres that thee array” are fleshly urges that refuse to submit (“rebell”) to the soul’s authority and are consequent upon original sin. Although “array” suggests ranks in which an army is arrayed, it primarily intends the material with which the soul is clad (compare 2 Cor. 5.2, “sygh we, desiryng to be clothed with our house whiche is from heauen,” with its note, “when we depart hence, we shall not remaine naked, hauing once cast off the couering of this body, but we shall take our bodies againe, which shall put on as it were an other garment besides” [GV]).

The soul is asked, “Why dost thou pine within,” why does it languish or waste away? Why does it “suffer dearth” or ‘scarcity,’ reminiscent of the “dearth which we do nowe most iustly suffer for our iniquitie” of the Book of Common Prayer’s “Litany,” while at the same time “Painting thy outward walls so costlie gay?” Its “outward walls” are the body, which it colours (so giving life), although “Painting” and “gay” also hint at a cosmetic external, and, given the flesh’s transience, an action not well spent (“costlie”). Since the body, the soul’s earthy “mansion” (see Wisd. 9.15 above), has been awarded so brief a lease (“so short a lease”) and its condition and colour are always “fading,” why should the soul spend any cost upon it? 3 Attending to the body’s needs, an “excesse” the meditator remonstrates, is to spend unwisely, because it will benefit only “wormes” as they eat up “thy charge,” the body, whose care is entrusted to the soul. The question, “is this thy bodies end?” that it be eaten by worms, requires a positive response, since according to Job, “My fleshe is clothed with wormes and dust of the earth” (7.5; BB), and the body’s inheritance is the worm, “And though after my skinne the [wormes] destroy this body” (19.26; BB).

The soul should feed upon the body’s gradual dissolution (“thy seruants losse;” that the master of the mansion should live on the losings of his servant would not be thought natural). The body should decline, so that the soul can become substantial or weighty (“pine to aggrauat thy store;” “aggrauat” retains its Latinate sense  ‘add weight to’ and recalls the “corruptible body [that] is heauy vnto the soule” of Wisd. 9.15 above). In contrast to its earlier “so short a lease” the soul must “Buy tearmes diuine,” where the term of the lease is eternal, “an house . . eternall in the heauens” (2 Cor. 5.1; GV). The cost of the eternal lease will come through “selling houres of drosse;” “drosse” is what remains after the purifying fire, similar to the “firie triall” of 1 Pet. 4.12, whose purpose the Geneva Version explains is “to purge vs of our drosse and make vs perfite.” The soul must be fed “Within” and not find riches “without.” So it will “feed on death,” which customarily “feeds on men.” The locus biblicus of death’s defeat is 1 Cor. 15, “Death is swalowed vp into victorie. O death where is thy stynge? O hell where is thy victorie? The stynge of death [is] sinne” (4-6; BB; the Geneva Version has “O graue where is thy victorie?”). Death is thus outsmarted by the soul (“And death once dead”) and “ther’s no more dying then,” either ‘therefore’ or ‘at the end of time,’ when death will finally be defeated (see Rev. 21.4, “and there shalbe no more death”). The claim was often made, for example, Donne’s Holy Sonnet 6.14, “Death thou shalt die.”


146.1. Donne, LXXX Sermons Sermon 48, 468.

146.2. Donne, LXXX Sermons Sermon 5, 44.

146.3. The well-known verse found in the King James Version, “In my Fathers house are many mansions” (John 14.2),  was not available to Shakespeare: both the Bishops’ Bible and Geneva Version have “dwelling places;” as well both bibles render 2 Cor. 5.2 as earthly “house.” Only the Great Bible has “mancion” in these instances.