Sonnet 91

Shakespeare Sonnet 91

SOme glory in their birth, ſome in their skill,
Some in their wealth, ſome in their bodies force,
Some in their garments though new-fangled ill:
Some in their Hawkes and Hounds, ſome in their Horſe.
And euery humor hath his adiunct pleaſure,
Wherein it findes a ioy aboue the reſt,
But theſe perticulers are not my meaſure,
All theſe I better in one generall beſt.
Thy loue is bitter then high birth to me,                                              better
Richer then wealth, prouder then garments coſt,
Of more delight then Hawkes or Horſes bee:
And hauing thee, of all mens pride I boaſt.
Wretched in this alone, that thou maiſt take,
All this away, and me moſt wretched make.

Sonnet 91, like Sonnet 37, observes the rules and examples laid down by Puttenham for the rhetorical figure, “Comparison,” or, “Paragon,” a term Puttenham is reluctant to use since it is reserved by those at court for praising “horses, haukes, hounds” and other riches:

Though we might call this figure very well and properly the [Paragon] yet dare I not so to doe for feare of the Courtiers enuy, who will haue no man vse that terme but after a courtly manner, that is, in praysing of horses, haukes, hounds, pearles, diamonds, rubies, emerodes, and other precious stones: specially of faire women whose excellencie is discouered by paragonizing or setting one to another. 1

Puttenham’s examples, “horses, haukes, hounds,” are taken from Horace’s Ars Poetica, which lists among the attributes of youth that they ‘glory in horses and hounds’ (“gaudet equis canibusque”). Thomas Drant’s Elizabethan translation expands the reference to “Horse, hauke, or hownde, flaunt, & carousts.” 2 Shakespeare in Sonnet 91, and in its adversative Sonnet 96, shows a knowledge of both Puttenham and Drant as well as Horace himself. The Ars Poetica describes four ages of man: ‘the child who . . joys to play with his peers;’ ‘the unbearded youth who glories in his horses and hounds . . who is profligate with money, who is proud (“sublimis”) and who gives his love as quickly as he takes it away;’ ‘the grown man who pursues wealth (“opes”) and connections and who seeks after honours;’ ‘the old man who is cantankerous and querulous, and who praises the time when he was a boy and censures the ways of youth.’ Finally, Horace argues, “perticulers” (“partes”) of any one age should not be transferred to another, because ‘every age has its own adjunct properties’ (“in adiunctis aptis”). 3

The sonnet is divided rhetorically: “Some glory in their birth,” where “glory” (Horace’s “gaudet”) means ‘revel in,’ or “boast” of (line 12), or ‘take delight in’ their “birth” or ‘pedigree.’ Some glory in their “skill,” their ‘ability’ or ‘wit’ or even ‘art.’ Some glory in their “wealth,” some in their “bodies force,” “bodies” being either body’s or bodies’. Some glory in their “garments though new-fangled ill,” a phrase that is doubly condemnatory: garments that are new-fangled were ones that were faddish (Drant’s “flaunt”) and already ill (compare Cym. 5.4.134, “Be not, as is our fangled world, a Garment, / Nobler then that it couers”). The “Horse” in which some glory is a ‘body or troop of horse’ rather than a single animal. The concluding observation, “euery humour has his adiunct pleasure,” transfers Horace’s final adjunctive caution to the four humours which inhabit the body – choler, melancholy, phlegm and blood – and which influence a person’s disposition. Each humour has its adjoining gratification (“adiunct pleasure”), but in each person one humour by itself was thought often to dominate: “Wherein it findes a ioy aboue the rest.” Yet all these distinguishing qualities (“perticulers,” Horace’s “partes”) are not the standard, by which the poet’s paragon will be praised (“are not my measure”). The poet can “better” all the above “in one generall best,” a singular overall perfection, to be identified as “Thy loue.”

To the poet the friend’s love (“Thy loue”) is better than “high birth.” It is “Richer then wealth, prouder then garments cost,” where “prouder” intends, ‘more glorious’ than the cost of garments. The love is “Of more delight then Hawkes or Horses bee.” Indeed the poet can claim that “hauing thee, of all mens pride I boast.” In possessing the friend (even physically?) he glories in that in which all men would take pride. The couplet, however, drawing on Horace’s claim that ‘youth gives and as quickly takes away his love’ (“cupidusque et amata relinquere pernix”), changes the poem’s tenor, as the poet realizes that being possessed of the youth’s love is highly tenuous and that the love might easily be withdrawn. That thought alone distresses him: “Wretched in this alone, that thou maist take / All this away, and me most wretched make.”


91.1 Puttenham 195-6.

91.2. Horace, Drant A6v-A7r.

91.3. Horace, Ars Poetica 158-78 passim: “puer . . gestit paribus conludere;” “inberbus iuuenis . . / gaudet equis canibusque . . prodigus aeris, / sublimis cupidusque et amata relinquere pernix;” “virilis . . quaerit opes et amicitias, inseruit honori;” “senes . . difficilis, querulus, laudator temporis acti / se puero, castigator censorque minorum;” “Ne forte seniles / mandentur iuueni partes pueroque uiriles; / semper in adiunctis aeuoque morabitur aptis.” Jonson renders the final line as “In fitting proper adjuncts to each day” (Jonson, Art of Poetry 11, 254).

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