Sonnet 9

Shakespeare Sonnet 9

IS it for feare to wet a widdowes eye,
That thou conſum’ſt thy ſelfe in ſingle life?
Ah; if thou iſſuleſſe ſhalt hap to die,
The world will waile thee like a makeleſſe wife,
The world wilbe thy widdow and ſtill weepe,
That thou no forme of thee haſt left behind,
When euery priuat widdow well may keepe,
By childrens eyes, her husbands ſhape in minde:
Looke what an vnthrift in the world doth ſpend
Shifts but his place, for ſtill the world inioyes it
But beauties waſte hath in the world an end,
And kept vnvſde the vſer ſo deſtroyes it:
No loue toward others in that boſome ſits
That on himſelfe ſuch murdrous ſhame commits.

Sonnet 9 argues again that the youth should marry and father children. The poet first asks if the reason he has remained single (“consum’st thy selfe in single life”) was a “feare” that, if he were to die, he would leave some woman a widow and in tears (“to wet a widdowes eye”). To ‘consume one self’ meant to ‘waste oneself away’ even to death and was used particularly of self-inflicted death. As in preceding sonnets echoes persist of Narcissus, of whom Golding writes, “Did he consume and melt away . . [and] did wanze away at length / So that in fine remayned not the bodie.” 1 The poet exclaims, “Ah,” a musing and a sigh before the wailing to come. If he were to die without children or yield (“issulesse,” continued in “vnthrift” later), then the world would lament his absence as might a wife without a mate (“makelesse”). The public world would be his widow and forever weep (“still weepe”), because he has left behind no figure of himself, especially since every “priuat widdow” can preserve (“keepe,” also suggesting ‘guard’) in her memory or mind’s eye (“minde”) her departed husband’s figure (“shape”), seen in or through the eyes of her children in whom their father is re-membered. A “priuat widdow,” a Shakespearean coinage, is one who has withdrawn from public life or, tautologically, one who is bereaved (from privatus = bereaved).

Whatever (“Looke what” = whatever) a wastrel or improvident person or one who wastes a resource (“vnthrift”) might expend, he is merely moving the reserve around (“shifts but his place”), because the world continues to enjoy it, wherever it is spent. But where beauty is mis-spent, there is a limit to its line (“hath an end”), and, as the psalmist claims, it leads to the grave: “their beautie shall consume. . to graue” (Ps. 49.14; GV). If beauty is not put to (procreative) use and is hoarded as if by a non-yielding, sexual miser (“kept vnusde”), he will destroy it. Since no outgoing love dwells in his bosom (“No loue . . in that bosome sits”), he is like Narcissus, guilty of self love (“Amor sui”), 2 and one who commits on himself (solitarily and sexually) “murdrous shame,” either ‘shameful self-murder’ through waste or ‘a shame that kills.’ From Aristotle onwards “virtue sits in the bosom” (“in gremio virtus”), not shame or self-murder. 3

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9.1. Golding 3.616-19.

9.2. Ovid, Met. 3.464.

9.3. See John Case, Speculum Moralium Quaestionum in Universam Ethicen Aristotelis (Oxford: Joseph Barnes, 1585) 81.

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