Sonnet 89

Shakespeare Sonnet 89

SAy that thou didſt forſake mee for ſome falt,
And I will comment vpon that offence,
Speake of my lameneſſe, and I ſtraight will halt:
Againſt thy reaſons making no defence.
Thou canſt not (loue) diſgrace me halfe ſo ill,
To ſet a forme vpon deſired change,
As ile my ſelfe diſgrace, knowing thy wil,
I will acquaintance ſtrangle and looke ſtrange:
Be abſent from thy walkes and in my tongue,
Thy ſweet beloued name no more ſhall dwell,
Leaſt I (too much prophane) ſhould do it wronge:     proface (in Folger & Yale Wright)
And haplie of our old acquaintance tell.
For thee, againſt my ſelfe ile vow debate,
For I muſt nere loue him whom thou doſt hate.

Sonnet 89 argues that the friend has forsaken the poet, giving no reason which might allow the poet to reply. The argument evokes that of Ps. 38, where David, “forsaken of his friends,” complains that “I am bowed, and crooked very sore,” laments that “My louers and my friends stand aside,” describes how, “I as a deafe man heard not, and am as a dumme man, which openeth not his mouth. Thus am I as a man, that heareth not, and in whose mouth are no reproofes. . . Surely I am ready to halte (sidenote: I am without hope to recouer my strength), and my sorow is euer before me,” and concludes the psalm, “Forsake me not, O Lord” (GV).

The sonnet’s opening is an outburst, “Say that thou didst forsake mee for some falt.” If the friend would disclose what the fault was, the poet could respond or defend himself, (“I will comment vpon that offence”). (The line is metrically awkward and the sonnet fails to observe the strict division between octet and sestet.) The youth is told to “Speake of my lamenesse,” a moral deficiency or social awkwardness rather than a physical impairment. The sense of ‘lame’ metre or unevenness of metrical feet is also relevant because of Sonnet 89’s closeness to sonnets concerning the rival poet (compare Ham. 2.2.324-5, “and the Lady shall say her minde freely, or the blanke Verse shall halt for’t”). The poet will “straight,” ‘immediately’ as well as ‘not crookedly,’ “halt,” either ‘desist from,’ or, more likely, ‘lack the strength’ (see GV sidenote above) to make defence against the youth’s spoken accusations.

The beloved (“loue”) cannot shame or let the poet fall from favour (“disgrace”) half as much as the poet’s own actions. “To set a forme vpon” is an expression unique to Shakespeare, who uses it once elsewhere to mean ‘to impose form on a void.’ 1 Here it means to set on something a stamp or seal of approval (“forme”). The youth, confirming his abandonment of the poet, would not shame the poet nearly as much as the poet would disgrace himself, if he were to know the youth’s intention (“knowing thy wil”).

The poet will “acqaintance strangle;” he will ‘choke back upon’ or ‘not admit to’ their friendship. Using a false polyptoton, “strangle” / “strange,” he will “looke strange,” either look askance or away, or appear awkward or unmannered. He will absent himself from the youth’s promenades (“Be absent from thy walkes”). He will not allow the youth’s name, now a “sweet beloued name,” to linger on his tongue (“in my tongue / Thy . . name no more shall dwell”), lest he should do it a disservice (“do it wrong”). His state is one of being “too much prophane;” ‘profane’ (from pro + fanum = on the threshold of the temple) intended those on the outside, those not initiated or who haven’t pronounced ‘vows.’ From Vergil’s “Procul o, procul este, profani” (‘Away, away, profane ones’) and Horace’s “Odi profanum volgus et arceo. Favete linguis” (‘I hate the profane crowd and exclude it. Let your tongues be silent’) ‘profane’ was used of those who must remain distant and outside the coterie. (Horace will sing only to the elected youth of Rome [“virginibus puerisque”].) Here the poet will remain remote from the youth and his friends: if his promenades took place in private gardens, as was customary, then the poet will stay outside the enclosure and literarily absent from his inner circle. Excluding himself and staying silent, he will avoid the chance of accidentally (“haplie”) talking of their earlier friendship, their “old acquaintance.” The couplet has him prepared to “vow” that he will take the friend’s side against himself in any argument (“debate;” compare Sonnet 88.3. “Vpon thy side, against my selfe ile fight”), because he must never love someone (himself), whom the youth hates (“For I must nere loue him whom thou dost hate”).


89.1. Jn. 5.7.26, “To set a forme on that indigest / Which he hath left so shapeless and so rude.” Compare Ovid, Met. 1.7, “Quem dixere chaos, rudis indigestaque moles.”

89.2. Vergil, Aen. 6.258, a translation of Callimachus’ Greek; Horace, Odes 3.1.1-2. Compare Ben Jonson, Hymenaei: Or The Solemnities of Masque, and Barriers, Magnificently performed on the eleventh, and twelfth Nights, from Christmas; At Court (London: Valentine Sims, 1606) Opening Song 1-3: “Bid all profane away; / None here may stay / To view our Mysteries.”