Sonnet 17

Shakespeare Sonnet 17

WHo will beleeue my verſe in time to come,
If it were fild with your moſt high deſerts?
Though yet heauen knowes it is but as a tombe
Which hides your life, and ſhewes not halfe your parts:
If I could write the beauty of your eyes,
And in freſh numbers number all your graces,
The age to come would ſay this Poet lies,
Such heauenly touches nere toucht earthly faces.
So ſhould my papers (yellowed with their age)
Be ſcorn’d, like old men of leſſe truth then tongue,
And your true rights be termed a Poets rage,
And ſtretched miter of an Antique ſong.
But were ſome childe of yours aliue that time,
You ſhould liue twiſe in it, and in my rime.

Sonnet 17’s opening question, a rhetorical one requiring a negative response, extends four lines rather than the two indicated by the quarto’s question mark. The poet asks who would believe his verse in the future (“in time to come”), if the youth’s true excellence (“most high deserts”) were either to ‘fill’ (“fild”) his verse or if his verse were to be shaped and polished by the youth’s worth (‘filed;’ “fild,” as in Sonnet 85.4, “precious phrase by all the Muses fil’d,” where it rhymes with “compil’d” and carries the Ciceronian sense of a cut and polished phrase). The poet’s verse is inadequate; “heauen knowes” is either an exclamation or part of the sentence: ‘heaven knows that his verse is but a tomb’ (with a hint of ‘tome’), which contains (“hides”) the youth’s life and displays meagrely his qualities (“not halfe your parts”). 1

If the poet could put into words (“write”) the beauty of the youth’s eyes or if he could number all the youth’s graces in “fresh numbers,” then future times would accuse him of falsehood; “fresh” intends ‘new’ and ‘invigorating,’ while “numbers” are looosely ‘verses’ and strictly the measure of syllables in a sentence or line so that it keeps “iust proportion in framing,” in Wilson’s words, “when we are able to frame a sentence handsomely together, obseruing number, and keeping composition.” 2 Future ages would say, “this Poet lies / Such heauenly touches nere toucht earthly faces.” (The phrase could be punctuated as direct speech.) “Such heauenly touches” are the divine touches traditionally bestowed by the Muses on the poet or they are the strokes of the brush or chisel of a divinely inspired hand, which, having ‘touched’ an earthly face, makes it perfect. 3 As in Sonnet 85 Shakespeare’s precedent is Horace’s phrase, “Factus homo ad unguem,” ‘it is the touch that perfects the man,’ a sculptural expression from carvers who in modelling gave the finishing touch to their work with the nail (“unguem”). 4 A future age, believing that such divine perfection could never (“nere”) happen, would think the poet’s efforts exaggeration.

The poet, however, lacks such a touch and his manuscripts (“my papers”), once they are discoloured (“yellowed”) with age like the sallow skin of an old man, will be the subject of ridicule (“scorn’d), just as “old men of lesse truth then tongue” are derided. The phrase verged on the proverbial and the habit of old men to lie or exaggerate was the frequent subject of discourse: in Sidney’s The Countesse of Pembrokes Arcadia garullousness is natural to “olde age” and “our tongue . . [is] the only thing whereof we poore old men can brag.” Talkativeness assuages an old man’s desire to continue himself in a way other than begetting children, because “mankinde by all meanes seeking to eternize himselfe so much the more, as he is neere his end, dooth it not only by the children that come of him, but by speeches and writings recommended to the memorie of hearers and readers.” 5 What the youth is truly owed (“your true rights”) would be dismissed in the future as “a Poets rage,” the heavenly inspiration that enthused poets and prophets (sometimes to a frenzy), Plato’s ‘mania’ (μανíα), rendered by Cicero as “furor” and popularized by Ficino whose 1482 translation of Plato’s Ion bore the subtitle, De Furore Poetico (compare Sidney, “they are so beloued of the Gods, that whatsoeuer they write, proceeds of a diuine fury”). 6 What is owed the youth would be rejected as the “stretched miter of an Antique song;” “stretched” firstly intends ‘exaggerated,’ but was used technically of earlier poetic styles where each syllable of metre, arsis and thesis, was given equal emphasis. Sidney in the Defence of Poesie categorizes the ancient way of versifying as drawn out:

Now, of versifying there are two sorts, the one Auncient, the other Moderne: the Auncient marked the quantitie of each silable, and according to that framed his verse; the Moderne, obseruing onely number, (with some regarde of the accent) the chiefe life of it standeth in that lyke sounding of the words, which wee call Ryme. 7

“Antique song” is both ancient and distorted (‘antic’) song. If, however, the youth were to beget a child, then he would leave a physical witness to future ages (“some childe of yours”). He would thus survive in double fashion: in the child and in the poet’s verse (“in my rime”).


17.1. Booth cites at Sonnet 83.12, T. Walter Herbert, “Shakespeare’s Word-play on Tombe” (MLN 64 [1944] 235-41), who “successfully argued the historical and artistic probability of a tomb/“tome” pun here and in 17.3 (“[my verse] is but a tomb”), 86.4, 101.11, 107.14. Kokeritz dismissed Herbert’s suggestion crankily but without reason.” Sonnet 81.8 seems to have been overlooked.

17.2. Wilson 180.

17.3. Compare Tim. 1.1.39-41, “Heere is a touch: Is’t good? / Poet: I will say of it, / It Tutors Nature, Artificiall strife / Liues in these toutches, liuelier then life.”

17.4. Horace, Sermones 1.4.32; Horace takes his phrase from the Greek, ’εν ’ονυχι ‘ο πηλòς γíγνεται, ‘the clay is born in the fingernail.’

17.5. Philip Sidney, The Countesse of Pembrokes Arcadia, Written by Sir Philippe Sidnei (1590) 16r-v.

17.6. See Plato, Phaedrus 245 A; that associated with prophecy is found in Phaedrus, 244 D, ‘an innate and prophesying ‘mania’ (“‘η μανíα εγγενομéνη καì προφητεúσασα”); Cicero De Divinatione, 1.31.66, ‘If the power to prophesy burns too hotly, it is called a ‘rage,’ when the soul is drawn out of the body and is violently excited by a divine touch or impulse’ (“ea [praesagitio] si exarsit acrius, furor appellatus, cum a corpore animus abstractus divino instinctu concitatur”); Philip Sidney, The Defence of Poesie (London: William Ponsonby, 1595), L3r.

17.7. Sidney, Defence L1v-L2r.