Sonnet 37

Shakespeare Sonnet 37

AS a decrepit father takes delight,
To ſee his actiue childe do deeds of youth,
So I, made lame by Fortunes deareſt ſpight
Take all my comfort of thy worth and truth.
For whether beauty, birth, or wealth, or wit,
Or any of theſe all, or all, or more
Intitled in their parts, do crowned ſit,
I make my loue ingrafted to this ſtore:
So then I am not lame, poore, nor diſpiſ’d,
Whilſt that this ſhadow doth ſuch ſubſtance giue,
That I in thy abundance am ſuffic’d,
And by a part of all thy glory liue:
Looke what is beſt, that beſt I wiſh in thee,
This wiſh I haue, then ten times happy me.

Sonnet 37, like Sonnet 91, is an example of the rhetorical figure, “paragon” or “comparison.” Both sonnets are indebted to Puttenham’s description of the device and to Horace’s division of the ages between youth and old age, although its use in Sonnet 91 is fuller. The poet in Sonnet 37 chooses to disregard Horace’s stricture against the “parts” (“partes”) or characteristics to which each age is entitled being attached to any other age: those in which an old man “takes delight” should not be identified with those in which a youth finds “glory” (“gaudet”) and vice versa. 1

A “decrepit father” is in Cockeram’s definition one that is “Old, feeble with age.” The decrepit was traditionally the seventh age of man, Thomas Wright awarding it to the years after 63 (“after, till seauenty & seauentie seauen, for most part decrepita aetas);” 2 decrepitus literally meant ‘noiseless’ (de + crepo = not creaky) and was identified by the Romans with old people who at a distance from the hearth “creep about like shadows.” The paternal metaphor has the poet glorying in his “active childe,” whose vigour is evident in his “deeds of youth.” (In Sonnet 91 his deeds are compared with those who “glory” in their “birth . . wealth . . Hawkes and Hounds  . . [and] . . Horse.”) The aged poet is made “lame by Fortunes dearest spight” (compare Lr. 4.6.221, “A most poore man, made lame to Fortunes blows”); “lame” intends ‘walking haltingly’ with irregular steps, extending to irregular metrical feet as in Gower’s disclaimer, “the lame feet of my rime” (Per. 4. Prol. 48). The poet’s handicap is caused by the “dearest spight,” both the ‘intense spite’ and the ‘costly spite’ of “Fortune,” either the classical Fortuna which is commonly associated with spitefulness, or a lack of patronage which has caused his halting verse. The poet is forced to take not “delight” but the lesser “comfort” in the youth’s “worth” and “truth;” ‘true’ implies ‘straight’ and ‘straightforward,’ not crooked or lame.

The rest of the sonnet is a complex and condensed example of the rhetorical “figure of comparison,” where in Puttenham’s definition “true ods” are purposely distorted:

the figure of comparison: as when a man wil seeme to make things appeare good or bad, or better or worse, or more or lesse excellent, either vpon spite or for pleasure, or any other good affection, then he sets the lesse by the greater, or the greater to the lesse, the equall to his equall, and by such confronting of them together, driues out the true ods that is betwixt them, and makes it better appeare. 3

The elements or the comparison, which we find later are not made because of “spite,” are “beauty, birth, or wealth, or wit,” characteristics or “parts” (Horace’s “partes”) of youth. Whether any of them, or all of them, or even more than them all, since they are “entitled” or been awarded their various (“in their parts”) titles, they are said to sit “crowned” or at their peak in the youth. (Qualities and virtues normally ‘sit in’ or ‘reside in,’ although classically Fortuna is associated with the bosom, “in gremio.”) 4 To this “store,” this abundance of qualities, the older poet has attached (“ingrafted”) his love, although unnaturally because the new is customarily engrafted to the old.

The “So” beginning the sestet is both ‘thus’ and ‘so that.’ With his love grafted to the young man’s stock, the poet is no longer “lame,” but upright, not “poore,” but plenteous, and not susceptible to spite (“despised”). In contrast to Sonnet 1, where Shakespeare renders the Ovidian adage of Narcissus, “inopem me copia fecit,” as, “Making a famine where aboundance lies” 5 here the reverse is true: the poet finds not poorness in the young man’s “abundance” but sufficient sustenance. In an inverted line ample “substance” or plenty is now cast upon or given to him as “shadow,” with which a decrepit old man is classically identified, and he can “glory” in a characteristic or “part” of what was crowned as glory above. Or, less likely, but continuing the reversed image of Narcissus who mistook the shadow for the substance (in Golding, “He thinkes the shadow that he sees, to be a lively boddie”), he now sees himself as drawing “substance” from the shadow. 6

The couplet is petitionary: whatever (“Looke what”) is best, the poet wishes that of his beloved and patron. 7 Since he possesses the wish, he affirms himself multiply happy (“ten times happy”), “ten times” being a usual ratio for an unsurpassed number (compare, “In number more then ten times numberlesse”). 8 Since “ten times” is a ratio out of proportion to a “part,” the poet observes the final requirement of Puttenham for the figure, “paragon,” that it lack “true ods.”


37.1. Horace, Ars Poetica 176-7, “Ne forte seniles / mandentur iuueni partes” (‘Lest perhaps the traits of old men are awarded to a youth’). Sonnet 91 makes extensive use of the passage.

37.2. Cockeram, The English Dictionarie, Decrepite; Wright, Clymactericall 9.

37.3. Puttenham 196.

37.4. Cicero, De Divinatione 2.41.85.

37.5. Ovid, Met. 3.466; Golding 3.587, “my plentie makes me poore”.

37.6. Golding 3.522.

37.7. Compare Sonnet 91.8, where the poet claims, “All these I better in one generall best [the youth]”.

37.8. E.C., Emaricdulfe 26.6.