Sonnet 49

Shakespeare Sonnet 49

AGainſt that time (if ever that time come)
When I ſhall ſee thee frowne on my defects,
When as thy loue hath caſt his vtmoſt ſumme,
Cauld to that audite by aduiſ’d reſpects,
Againſt that time when thou ſhalt ſtrangely paſſe,
And ſcarcely greete me with that ſunne thine eye,
When loue conuerted from the thing it was
Shall reaſons finde of ſetled grauitie.
Againſt that time do I inſconce me here
Within the knowledge of mine owne deſart,
And this my hand, againſt my ſelfe vpreare,
To guard the lawfull reaſons on thy part,
To leaue poore me, thou haſt the ſtrength of lawes,
Since why to loue, I can alledge no cauſe.

Sonnet 49 is a climacteric sonnet, forty nine being the first of the most perilous years in the human lifespan. Thomas Wright in A Succinct Philosophicall declaration of the nature of Clymactericall yeeres, occasioned by the death of Queene Elizabeth isolates the forty nine as the foremost:

The most daungerous of all these passages or steps, are the forty nine, compounded vpon seuen time seauen. 1

To these he adds sixty three, seventy (Elizabeth I was in her seventieth year when she died), and eighty one (see Introduction). Sonnet 49, like Sonnet 63 which opens “Against my loue,” also looks to prepare for a time of reckoning, against which precautions should be taken (“Against that time”). Like Sonnet 126, a climacteric doubling 63, Sonnet 49 is built around the book-keeping motif of an audit (“audite”), on which both sides of a ledger must be balanced. The thrice-repeated, “Against that time,” as well as meaning ‘in preparation for that time’ also means ‘as a counter-balance against that moment.’ The poet, acting providently, prepares for a time, if it were to come, when he shall see the youth “frowne on my defects.” The “defects” are primarily physical blemishes, that accrue with time, as well as moral failings, and the numerical deficiencies discovered when accounts are inspected, anticipating “summe” and “audite.”

“When as” means ‘since at that time’ or ‘seeing that’ the youth’s affection “hath cast his vtmost summe.” To “cast” means ‘tally up’ or ‘calculate’ as might a book-keeper (‘to cast accounts’ or ‘to cast reckonings’ was normal phraseology and often involved counters); but “cast,’ with the earlier “frowne” in mind, also hints at darkened cast-down brows. The poet will take precautions against the youth’s love making a final reckoning (“vtmost summe;” compare Sonnet 4.8, “summe of summes”), having been “Cauld to that audite by aduis’d respects.” An “audite” (from audire = to hear) was a judicial hearing, where accounts were officially examined (orally after Matt. 25.19-30) and to which someone was summoned (“Cauld”). The summons are here issued by “aduis’d respects,” a phrase found in Jn. 4.2.213-4, where majesty “frowns / More upon humour than advis’d respect.” A “respect” is a ‘looking upon’ or a ‘countenancing:’ the inspecting of accounts has been authorized by the youth’s glancings upon the poet, his frowns, which are weighty and grave (“aduis’d”). Finally “vtmost” and “audite,” as in Sonnets 4 and 126, suggest the final “audit” or last judgement, when Christ will reward those who can say, “I was a stranger, and ye tooke me in vnto you” (Matt. 25.35; GV).

The second quatrain envisages a time when the youth will pass by the poet as a stranger (“strangely”). He will “scarcely,” perfunctorily or in a ‘stingy’ manner, greet the poet or exchange glances, “with that sunne thine eye.” At such a time love, now changed (to the other side of the ledger) or “conuerted from the thing it was,” will search out reasons for a proper balance (“setled grauitie”): “setled” because accounts (and scales) are ‘settled;’ “grauitie” is both the authority approving the accounts and the ‘weight’ which balances the scales, although  love will be calculated or balanced against something that is not.

The sestet looks to a time when, as a precaution, the poet will “insconce me here,” take refuge (a ‘sconce’ is a small fort) “Within the knowledge of mine owne desart.” The poet is firm in the knowledge of his own merits, although he is prepared to raise his hand either to injure himself or give sworn evidence against himself (“this my hand, against my selfe vpreare”) 2 to protect the interests of the beloved: “To guard the lawfull reasons on thy part.” He will concede the youth the right (“the strength of lawes”) to separate himself from the poet, now affectedly “poore” or unrequited, since he can offer no legal reason (“alledge no cause”) why either party should love the other (“why to loue”). Their separation becomes explicit in the next line, Sonnet 50.1.

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49.1. Wright, Clymactericall 3.

49.2. A favourite coinage of Spenser, see F.Q. 4.1.54.8 & 4.3.33.8.

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