Sonnet 58

Shakespeare Sonnet 58

THat God forbid, that made me firſt your ſlaue,
I ſhould in thought controule your times of pleaſure,
Or at your hand th’ account of houres to craue,
Being your vaſſail, bound to ſtaie your leiſure.
Oh let me ſuffer (being at your beck)
Th’ impriſon’d abſence of your libertie,
And patience tame, to ſufferance bide each check,
Without accuſing you of iniury.
Be where you liſt, your charter is ſo ſtrong,
That you your ſelfe may priuiledge your time
To what you will, to you it doth belong,
Your ſelfe to pardon of ſelfe-doing crime.
I am to waite, though waiting ſo be hell,
Not blame your pleaſure be it ill or well.

The conflation in Sonnet 58 (as in Sonnet 57) of the poem’s addressees, the youth and Cupid, gives it cohesion. Its opening, “That God forbid,” initially looks like an exclamation and can be read as such: ‘That, God forbid, that [which] made me first your slave.’ The more plausible reading, however, is that “God” is Cupid: ‘let that God [Cupid], that made me first your slave, forbid that I . . ’ That which the poet is forbidden, even in thought, is to regulate (“controule” with a hint of its accounting etymon, ‘counter-roll’ or double-register) the “times of pleasure” either of the youth or Cupid (whose offspring of Psyche was ‘Voluptas’ or ‘Pleasure’). Nor must the poet seek (“craue,” but suggesting the ‘craven’ role of a slave) an account of times spent (“at your hand th’account of houres”); “at your hand” firstly intends ‘close by you’ or ‘in attendance upon you;’ secondly it means ‘from your hand’ (as in ‘to receive at the Lord’s hand’); thirdly ‘at hand’ was an accounting term meaning ‘at this price,’ hence ‘at your cost.’ The prohibitions occur, because as a slave or lowly servant (“vassail”) he is indentured or obliged (“bound”) to wait upon the lord’s desire (“to staie your leisure;” compare the invocation to Cupid in Sonnet 26.1-2, “Lord of my loue, to whome in vassalage . . my dutie strongly knit”).

Since he is at his lord’s “beck” (a ‘beckoning’ with the “hand,” although a “beck” was also a servant’s bow or act of obeisance), he prays that he might bear (“suffer”) the separation (“absence”) that the master’s freedom (“libertie”) causes to be felt as an imprisonment (“imprison’d”); “libertie” also implies sexual licence as in As You Like It below. The punctuation of line 7 is problematic even if its meaning is clear: the poet asks that his forbearance (“patience”), now ‘trained’ or ‘reduced’ (“tame,” compare Sonnet 57 where Cupid is “ferus” or ‘untamed’) to submissiveness (“sufferance”), await or find acceptable (“bide”) each ‘slight’ or ‘injury’ (“check”) without attributing fault (“iniury”) to his lord. While servants customarily received checks or were rebuked, the most famous checks were that given by the master to the idle servant in the parable of the talents at Matthew 25.24 1 and that suffered by Christ, who was without fault or “iniury,” from those crucified with him who “checked hym also” (Mark 15.32; BB).

“Be where you list” is a shift of focus: ‘be wherever you please.’ The sestet’s instruction echoes  Jacques’ requirement in As You Like It that, “I must haue liberty / Withall, as large a Charter as the winde, / To blow on whom I please, for so fooles haue” (2.7.47-9). A “charter” is a legal document assuring personal rights and privileges, hence the lord possesses a “charter” powerful enough to “priuiledge” his time or to take any advantage he desires (“To what you will”). It belongs to him to exonerate himself of any crime he might commit: his “charter” has become a ‘charter of pardon,’ a document allowing him to excuse himself (‘to have one’s charter’ meant to obtain pardon).

The rationale of the poet’s existence is to wait or serve (“I am to waite”). But serving is now a hell (“though waiting so be hell”), ironically similar to the hell where Lucifer was cast for having proclaimed, “Non serviam,” ‘I will not serve.’ It remains the poet’s purpose not to judge the lord’s pleasure, whether good or evil (“ill or well”). The couplet works a traditional trope, compare Sidney, Astrophil and Stella 86.8-14:

O ease your hand, treat not so hard your slaue,
In Iustice, paines come not till faults do call:
Of if I needs (sweet Iudge) must torments haue,
Vse something else to chasten mee withall,
Than those blest eyes where all my hopes do dwell,
No doome shall make ones Heauen become his Hell.

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58.1. Thomas Elyot, The Image of Governance Compiled of the Actes and Sentences notable of the moste noble Emperour Alexander Seuerus, late translated out of Greke into Englyshe, by syr Thomas Eliot knight, in the fauour of Nobylitie (London: Thomas Berthelette, 1541) A3r, “the terrible checke that the good maister in the gospell gaue to his ydel seruaunte, for hidinge his money in a clowte, and not disposinge it for his maisters aduantage.”

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