THe forward violet thus did I chide,
Sweet theefe whence didſt thou ſteale thy ſweet that
If not from my loues breath, the purple pride, (ſmels
Which on thy ſoft cheeke for complexion dwells?
In my loues veines thou haſt too groſely died,
The Lillie I condemned for thy hand,
And buds of marierom had ſtolne thy haire,
The Rofes fearefully on thornes did ſtand,
Our bluſhing ſhame, an other white diſpaire: One
A third nor red, nor white, had ſtolne of both,
And to his robbry had annext thy breath,
But for his theft in pride of all his growth
A vengfull canker eate him vp to death.
More flowers I noted, yet I none could ſee,
But ſweet, or culler it had ſtolne from thee.
Sonnet 99 is unique among Shakespeare’s sonnets because it contains 15 lines, a feature leading to much speculation and contrived explanation. Precedents have been found among sonneteers such as Thomas Watson, Barnabe Barnes and Bartholomew Griffin all of whom write sonnets of varying lengths including 15 lines, but the solitariness of the sonnet in Shakespeare’s sequence makes it exceptional. Nor is it likely that it is an early endeavour, that has gone unedited and slipped through to publication: even if it contains awkwardnesses, not even a neophyte sonneteer is likely to have mistakenly written one of 15 lines. The most plausible explanation is that the first line is intended as an introduction for a piece of direct speech like Spenser’s Amoretti 58, which has a superscription, “By her that is most assured to her selfe,” and comprises words attributed to the sequence’s beloved. (Spenser replies in the following adversative Sonnet 59.) In Sonnet 99 Shakespeare’s first line serves as a similar superscription, introducing a piece of direct speech and identifying immediately the violet as a “Sweet theefe.”
The “forward violet” is either a precocious one, early in blooming like the “sweet” or “March” violet (compare Ado 1.3.58, “a very forward March-chicke,” intending a precocious youth) or one of first rank: Gerard in his Herball states that the March violet has “a great prerogatiue aboue others.” In accusing the violet of theft – in Sonnet 35.14 the youth is addressed as “sweet theefe” – the poet is contravening accepted folklore, because the violet was strongly identified with the virtue of honesty. Gerard claims:
Gardens themselues receiue by these [violets] the greatest ornament of all, chiefest beautie and most gallant grace; and the recreation of the minde which is taken heereby, cannot be but verie good and honest: for they [violets] admonish & stir vp a man to that which is comely & honest . . and do bring to a liberall and gentle manly minde, the remembraunce of honestie. 1
The violet is rebuked (“chide”), because it can only have stolen the perfume it displays from the breath of the friend. Its “purple pride” is that which stands out in the veins on its surface. (Gerard observes of the “Damaske Violet” or “Viola Damascena” that its flowers have “a number of black purple veines diuaricated ouer them.”) 2 They thus decorate the violet’s “soft cheeke,” dwelling on its surface and not inside, and contributing to its complexion as might a cosmetic. The violet has “died” or infused colour into “my loues veines,” all “too grosely,” densely or richly but also excessively and without refinement. ‘Purple’ and ‘blue’ were used specifically of blood in veins as they showed through the skin. 3
The poet has censured the lily either for stealing its whiteness from the violet (there was a “white garden Violet” and a “white Damaske violet”) or for comparing its hand to that of the violet, whose flower, “consisting of fiue little leaues, the lowest whereof is the greatest,” was likened to a hand. 4 Lily hands were customary. 5 Marjoram is condemned for stealing its “haire” from the violet’s “hairy stalke.” Gerard remarks on marjoram’s “maruellous sweete smell” and states that its “stalkes are slender . . about which, growe foorth little leaues, soft, and hoarie.” 6 “Roses fearfully on thornes did stand,” intends roses ‘stood out on thorny stems,’ but sugggests roses ‘were tense;’ ‘to stand on thorns’ was used proverbially of anxiety. 7 The red rose by blushing betrays shame, the white rose by being pale betrays despair.
The third rose is the “Damask Rose,” neither “red, nor white,” but mingling the red and white (“stolne of both;” compare Sonnet 130.5, “I haue seene Roses damaskt, red and white”). To this robbery is adjoined (“annexed”) a further robbery: that of the damask rose stealing the scent of the damask violet (“thy breath”). Because the rose’s triple theft (of red, white and scent) is bolder and more forward than the violet’s single theft, in the splendour of its bloom (“in the pride of all his growth”) it is struck down by a “vengeful canker,” the canker-worm that attacks the rose, eating away its inside until it dies. Proverbially the punishment for a flower’s being “forward” was to be afflicted by the canker (see TGV 1.1.45-46, “Writers say; as the most forward Bud / Is eaten by the Canker ere it blow”). The couplet concludes with the poet observing other flowers, but being unable to find any that hadn’t stolen from the violet either its perfume or its colour, both of which the violet had stolen from the youth.
99.1. Gerard, Herball (1597) 698.
99.2. John Gerard, The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes (London: Adam Islip, 1633) 462.
99.3. Compare Ant. 2.5.28-30, “heere / My blewest vaines to kisse: a hand that Kings / Haue lipt, and trembled kissing.”
99.4. Gerard, Herball (1597) 699.
99.5. Compare Spenser, Amoretti 1.1, “lilly hands.”
99.6. Gerard, Herball (1597) 538.
99.7. Tilley T239.