Sonnet 51

Shakespeare Sonnet 51

THus can my loue excuſe the ſlow offence,
Of my dull bearer, when from thee I ſpeed,
From where thou art, why ſhoulld I haſt me thence,              ſhould
Till I returne of poſting is noe need.
O what excuſe will my poore beaſt then find,
When ſwift extremity can ſeeme but ſlow,
Then ſhould I ſpurre though mounted on the wind,
In winged ſpeed no motion ſhall I know,
Then can no horſe with my deſire keepe pace,
Therefore deſire (of perfects loue being made)                        perfectſt
Shall naigh noe dull fleſh in his fiery race,
But loue, for loue, thus ſhall excuſe my iade,
Since from thee going he went wilfull ſlow,
Towards thee ile run, and giue him leaue to goe.

Sonnet 51 continues Sonnet 50’s equine topos; its opening, “Thus,” is either a reference to the prior sonnet’s last line or a conjunction anticipating the explanation of lines 3-4. The “loue” of the first line is the poet’s own love. It can excuse the horse’s slowness (“slow offence”) as it distances him from the friend, because the distance increases only slowly. Speed is not required on the outward leg (“Why should I hast me thence”) and only on the return back to the beloved is haste (Posting”) needed. The “dull bearer” recalls the “wretch,” that “Plods duly” in Sonnet 50 and anticipates line 11’s “dull flesh.”

On the return leg there can be no excuse for plodding (“O what excuse will my poore beast then find”), when even “swift extremity,” the fastest of speeds, will seem slow. Even if the poet were mounted on the wind, he would use his spurs (“Then should I spurre.” (Sidney has Astrophil spurring and being spurred by Cupid, “while I spurre / My horse, he spurres with sharpe desires my hart.”) 1 The poet will be unaware of movement when mounted on the wings of the wind (“winged speed”), because it is desire that is flying toward the friend.

The sestet contains a textual crux at “naigh,” which, it is generally argued, should read “waigh.” 2 The quarto’s text, however, must stand, because of the colourful biblical use of “neigh” and “neighing” at Jeremiah 5.8, “In the desire of vncleanly lust they are become lyke the stoned horse, euery man neyeth at his neighbours wife,” and 13.27 where Jeremiah rails against, “Thy adulteries, thy neyghinges, thy shamefull whoredome” (BB; the GV glosses “neiings:” “He compareth idolaters to horses inflamed after mares.” Shakespeare uses the locus again in Ven. 265, “Imperiously he leaps, he neighs, he bounds,” and 307, “He looks upon his love and neighs unto her”).

During the poet’s return, mounted on the wind, no “dull” horse can keep pace with his desire (identified with the element of “fire” in Sonnet 45). “Desire,” comprised of the most perfect love (“perfectst”), shall like an “inflamed” horse “naigh” at “noe dull flesh,” shall not, therefore, make overtures to or whinny after “dull,” unquickened or unaroused, flesh, which would weigh or slow it down. His desire will continue in its “fiery race,” in its ‘inflamed course’ and ‘in its fierce breed.’ The first “loue” of, “But loue, for loue, thus shall excuse my iade,” is ‘inflamed love’ (even Cupid), who for the sake of “loue” will “excuse,” ‘dismiss’ rather than ‘forgive,’ the horse as unnecessary. A ‘jade,’ customarily a carthorse but here a nag reluctant to be ridden, was used jocularly of a young woman or young man – the other double entendres in the sonnet, “spurre,” “mount,” “wilfull,” means that the common play on ‘horse’ and ‘whores’ cannot be discounted, especially if Jeremiah’s “whoredome” is remembered. The couplet has the horse being “wilfull,” stubborn but purposeful, in its slow pace from the friend, and has the poet hastening (“run”) toward the friend and, like “loue,” dispensing of the horse’s services (“giue him leaue to goe”) because of the “winged speed” of his desire.


51.1. Sidney, Astrophil and Stella 49.10-11.

51.2. See Mac. P. Jackson, “How many horses has Sonnet 51? Textual and literary criticism in Shakespeare’s Sonnets,” ELN 27 (1990): 10-19.