Sonnet 7

Shakespeare Sonnet 7

LOe in the Orient when the gracious light,
Lifts vp his burning head, each vnder eye
Doth homage to his new appearing ſight,
Seruing with lookes his ſacred maieſty,
And hauing climb’d the ſteepe vp heauenly hill,
Reſembling ſtrong youth in his middle age,
Yet mortall lookes adore his beauty ſtill,
Attending on his goulden pilgrimage:
But when from high-moſt pich with wery car,
Like feeble age he reeleth from the day,
The eyes (fore dutious) now conuerted are
From his low tract and looke an other way:
So thou, thy ſelfe out-going in thy noon:
Vnlok’d on dieſt vnleſſe thou get a ſonne.

Sonnet 7 comprises an extended metaphor of appropriately 12 lines tracing the hours of the sun’s rising and falling, which is used in the couplet to argue that the youth should beget a child. Associating the sun’s course with a life span or the begetting of children was a trope of long-standing; its locus biblicus was Ps. 113, where homage must be paid to the Lord, “from the rising vp of the sunne, vnto the goyng downe of the same,” because, finally, “He maketh the barren woman . . to be a ioyful mother of children” (BB).

The sonnet pictures the east (“Orient,” from oriens = rising), in which the sun is identified as “the gracious light,” as either ‘a beautiful light,’ or ‘a regal light,’ or ‘a light full of grace,’ the east being thought the source of grace. Anyone below the sun’s eye, is an “vnder eye,” evocative of an ‘underling,’ who in service at court pays homage or publicly affirms allegiance to a king. Each “vnder eye” by looking upward at the sun serves “with lookes his sacred maiesty.” The sun is presented as climbing sharply (“steepe vp heauenly hill”) contrasting with its later tumbling down (“reeleth”).

At midday the sun is at its strongest, resembling the prime of youth, yet “mortall lookes,” the visages or eyes of mortals, which are in attendance on the sun’s passage (“goulden pilgrimage”), continue to “adore” its beauty. “Attending” suggests both ‘watching with attention’ and ‘servants attendant’ on a royal progress (“pilgrimage” is from per + ager = through the countryside). After reaching its apex, its “high-most pich,” the sun “with wery car” and enfeebled with age (“Like feeble age”) “reeleth” or staggers downward. Phaeton’s chariot (“car”) was used classically of the sun (compare R3. 5.3.20-1, “The weary Sunne, hath made a Golden set, / And by the bright Tract of his fiery Carre”). The sun’s lack of control causes eyes, that were earlier dutifully drawn to it (“fore dutious”), to be turned away in embarrassment (“conuerted;” ‘to change the direction of the eyes’ [convertere oculos] was a Latinism). 1 They look elsewhere (“an other way”), because the sun’s “high-most pich” has become a “low tract,” the ‘course’ which the sun runs having fallen away.

The couplet applies the metaphor to the youth: “So thou, thy selfe out-going in thy noon.” Being at his height and about to decline, he will attract no eyes to himself and become forgotten (“Vnlok’d on diest”), unless he were to beget a son to carry his image. If “diest” is read sexually, then “Vnlok’d on diest” suggests a solitary and barren expending of seed (“thyselfe out-going”). The climactic “out-going in thy noon” recalls the departing phrase of the impotent Fool in King Lear, “Ile go to bed at noone,” with its allusion to the flower that closes upon itself at noon and droops afterwards, in Gerard’s Herbal, “Go to bed at noone” or salsify. 2


7.1. Cf. Cicero, Orationes in Catalinam 4.1.1.

7.2. Lr. 3.6.85; John Gerard, The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes (London: John Norton, 1597) 594-96.