Sonnets for Advent 24: Sonnet 146

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This is Shakespeare’s most religious sonnet and is not unlike the conceit of John Donne’s ‘Death be not proud’. The poem is damaged and in need of emendation since the 1609 quarto repeats ‘my sinful earth’ at the beginning of the second line. Editors over the centuries have suggested more than eighty alternative readings, among the most compelling are ‘Spoiled by’ (Colin Burrow), ‘Feeding these’ (Helen Vendler – also claimed by Katherine Duncan-Jones who doesn’t collate Vendler’s edition – this reading was first conjectured by Sebastian Evans in 1893), and ‘Rebuke’ (C. K. Pooler, 1918), the reading adopted here. At first blush Sonnet 146 appears to be Christian in tone (the inner life should be fed and death is finally conquered), but it’s not exactly resurrection that is being described here, and the separation of body and soul has more to do with Plato. This sonnet is another example of Shakespeare using the form to produce an essay in miniature, and it can also be read as the poet’s prayer to his own ‘poor soul’. You might like to know that ‘aggravate’ in line 10 carries the meaning of ‘augment, or increase’.

Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth,
Rebuke these rebel powers that thee array;
Why dost thou pine within and suffer dearth,
Painting thy outward walls so costly gay?
Why so large cost, having so short a lease,
Dost thou upon thy fading mansion spend?
Shall worms, inheritors of this excess,
Eat up thy charge? Is this thy body’s end?
Then, soul, live thou upon thy servant’s loss,
And let that pine to aggravate thy store.
Buy terms divine in selling hours of dross;
Within be fed, without be rich no more.
So shall thou feed on death, that feeds on men,
And death once dead, there’s no more dying then.

Click on the post below to hear me read Sonnet 146.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this Sonnet for Advent series.

Happy Christmas from every one at The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust!

You might like to visit a similar Shakespeare for Advent project led by students at the University of Tubingen by clicking here.

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Author:Paul Edmondson

Head of Research and Knowledge and Director of the Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival for The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Follow Paul on Twitter @paul_edmondson
  • Andrea Campana

    Just a quick observation, even though it is January, and Advent is certainly over. Sonnet 146 is an address to the soul, which is the very essence of the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius. The exercitant engages in a colloquy with his soul as he imagines Christ on the cross. The sonnet itself, as well as the entire sonnet sequence and “The Phoenix and the Turtle,” is an appeal to choose Christ and thus immortality for the soul over sinful earthly man, who is associated with death. The notion of “feeding” certainly relates to the Eucharist, which is the body and blood of Christ. Politically, the sonnet says to the lay Catholic: choose Christ and the Church over the monarchy and the Oath of Supremacy. The essential message of the Jesuits centered on embracing Christ in this life in order to guarantee immortality of the soul in the next life. Most importantly, the sonnet is an appeal. It is an appeal to join the Jesuit mission. What the sonnet does is urge and persuade. Notice how its number–146–equals the number of letters in the sonnets’ dedication. The sonnets in their entirety are an appeal to Catholics to hold firm and resist the temptation of conforming to Anglicanism. A total of 126 sonnets are dedicated to the Fair Youth, alluding to the 126 days between the capture of Edmund Campion on July 17, 1581 and the final day of his trial on which he was sentenced to death. Likewise, Philip Howard, who converted to Catholicism after witnessing the trial of Campion, made his “Fourfold Meditation” a total of 126 stanzas. Howard’s poem speaks of the punishment awaiting the Queen after death. The sonnets say to the Fair Youth Henry Wriothesley: remember your family’s bravery in supporting Campion. (His grandfather, Anthony Browne, was the first member of Parliament to denounce the Oath, while Henry’s great uncle, Francis Browne, sheltered Campion and helped Campion print some of his work.) The Dark Lady is none other than the Queen.

  • Jinny Webber

    Thank you for this series! I’ve enjoyed reading, and listening to them and have posted links on my Facebook as an Advent treat to friends. A lovely idea! Jinny Webber, Santa Barbara, CA.

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