THen let not winters wragged hand deface,
In thee thy ſummer ere thou be diſtil’d:
Make ſweet ſome viall; treaſure thou ſome place,
With beautits treaſure ere it be ſelfe kil’d: beauties
That vſe is not forbidden vſery,
Which happies thoſe that pay the willing lone;
That’s for thy ſelfe to breed an other thee,
Or ten times happier be it ten for one,
Ten times thy ſelfe were happier then thou art,
If ten of thine ten times refigur’d thee,
Then what could death doe if thou ſhould’ſt depart,
Leauing thee liuing in poſterity?
Be not ſelfe-wild for thou art much too faire,
To be deaths conqueſt and make wormes thine heire.
Sonnet 6’s opening picks up Sonnet 5’s distillatory motif; its first line, “Then let not winters wragged hand deface,” parallels Sonnet 64’s opening, “When I haue seene by times fell hand defaced.” A “wragged hand” is one that is ‘rough’ or ‘without feeling,’ or one wrapped only in rags, or finally a hand that breaks things down to the minutest parts. 1 Winter’s hand must not “deface” the youth’s summer. To “deface” was to ‘disfigure’ (later the children the youth might beget will ‘refigure’ him), or to take away the face, the distinguishing marks, and so make anonymous or unremembered.
Distillation involves heating a substance until it vaporizes, then, through cold, condensing the vapour, so that drops of pure ‘spirit’ or ‘essence’ are obtained. Before his flowering (“summer”) is effaced by age or death (“winter”), either a ‘purified spirit’ of the youth’s self must be obtained (“distil’d”) or his spirit must be ‘discharged’ (“distil’d” also meant ‘let fall in drops’), so that the “viall,” the womb of some woman, might be made sweet by infusion of his essence. A “viall” was the glass limbeck, which in distilling received the spirit (Florio identifies under “Boccia,” “a viall of glasse . . a pot to distill in . . a kinde of limbecke”), and was traditionally used of the womb: the OED cites Lydgate’s invocation to the Blessed Virgin, “O glorious viole, O vitre inviolate.” The youth must “treasure some place / With beauties treasure,” either ‘hold precious’ some place or deposit his “treasure” in some “place,” some ‘sexual place,’ which will give birth to his beauty (“treasure” could mean both ‘semen’ and ‘off-spring;’ compare Cor. 3.3.116, “treasure of my Loynes”). This must be done before “it be selfe kil’d,” before his spirit dies in itself or is self-wasted – a hint of self-abuse is present. In Sonnet 20 the use of the youth’s love will be the “treasure” of women.
The sonnet moves from distilling to the usurious through the play on “vse,” both ‘sexual use’ and, as a synonym common in the early 17th century, ‘usury.’ Usury had a long history from the Roman centesima usura (a hundredth part of interest paid monthly, thus 12%) onwards. It was the subject of frequent biblical injunctions and was denounced in medieval and reformed theology. In Shakespeare’s time its meaning and legitimacy were much debated. His own father had been accused in 1570 of usury, of charging 20% and 25% interest. Elizabethan divines preached uncompromisingly against usury in principle but often tolerated it in practice: the Act against Usury of 1571, while providing punishments for usury above and below 10%, unwittingly legitimized a standard interest rate of 10%. Henry Smith’s divided thinking is typical:
I would haue you know, that our Law doth not allow ten in the hundreth, nor fiue in the hundreth, nor one in the hundreth, nor any vsurie at all: but there is a restraint in our Law that no vsurer take aboue tenne in the hundreth, it doth not allow ten in the hundreth, but punisheth that tyrant which exacteth aboue ten in the hundreth. 2
It is the acceptable 10% interest rate that becomes the basis of Shakespeare’s play on tens and tens x tens = hundreds, although his assertion that, if someone is “willing” and happy to pay interest on a loan, the usury ceases to be forbidden is questionable and partly poetic licence: “That vse is not forbidden vsery, / Which happies those that pay the willing lone.”
Any “use” or usury (“willing” is sexually suggestive) is given to the young man, so that he might beget another self (“for thy self”). If in begetting he were to yield a tenfold return (“ten for one”), he would, in the standard Petrarchan epithet, be “ten times happier.” 3 If he were to be “refigur’d,” either ‘multiplied’ or ‘his self figured anew,’ ten times in his children or ten by ten (a hundred) times in his children’s children, then he would be correspondingly ten times or a hundred times happier. Then death would be rendered impotent, even if the youth should die (“depart;” until 1661 the Book of Common Prayer’s “Rite of Marriage” contained the phrase, “till death vs depart”), because he would ‘leave’ as his inheritance his own self living successively in his children and their children (“posterity”).
The command, “Be not selfe-wild,” makes explicit the earlier “selfe kil’d:” either ‘be not obstinate,’ or ‘do not bequeath yourself (as in a will) only to yourself,’ or ‘do not spent the spirit in your will (penis) only on yourself.’ He is “too faire” to be the spoil of death; “conquest” is the spoils of battle that death will claim, but the legal sense of ‘conquest,’ those goods gained other than through inheritance (“heire”), is also present. If the youth is committed to the grave with no heir, then the worms bred from his body will be his only inheritance (“make wormes thine heire”). 4
6.1. Compare John Donne, “The Sunne Rising,” 10 in John Donne, Poems, By J.D. with Elegies on the Authors Death (London: M.F. for John Marriot, 1633) 199 (wrongly 169), “houres, dayes, moneths, which are the rags of time,” and “Sermon II. Preached at Pauls, upon Christmas Day, in the Evening. 1624” in LXXX Sermons Preached by That Learned and Reverend Divine, Iohn Donne, Dr in Divinity, Late Deane of the Cathedrall Church of S. Pauls London (London: Richard Royston, 1640) 12, “first and last are but ragges of time.” A ‘ragged hand’ or rhyme was used also of ‘uneven’ or ‘rough’ verses, see Edmund Spenser, The Shepheardes Calender (London: Hugh Singleton, 1579), Epistle, “rymes more ragged and rustical.”
6.2. Henry Smith, The Examination of Vsurie, in two Sermons (London: Robert Field, 1591), 29.
6.3. Compare, Thomas Watson, The ‘ΕΚΑΤΟΜΠΑΘΙΑ Or Passionate Centurie of Loue (London: John Wolfe, 1582) 35.7, “o ten times happie;” E.C., Emaricdulfe, Sonnets Written by E.C. Esquier (London: Matthew Law, 1595) 14.1, “ô ten times happie.”
6.4. The line of thought from vials to worms had biblical precedent: see Isaiah 14.11, “Thy pompe is brought downe to ye graue, and the sounde of thy violes: the worme is spred vnder thee, and the wormes couer thee” (GV).