sonnetCXXIV

If my dear love were but the child of state,
It might for Fortune's bastard be unfathered,
As subject to Time's love or to Time's hate,
Weeds among weeds, or flowers with flowers gathered.
No, it was builded far from accident;
It suffers not in smiling pomp, nor falls
Under the blow of thralled discontent,
Whereto th' inviting time our fashion calls:
It fears not policy, that heretic,
Which works on leases of short-number'd hours,
But all alone stands hugely politic,
That it nor grows with heat, nor drowns with showers.
   To this I witness call the fools of time,
   Which die for goodness, who have lived for crime.

This sonnet continues with the theme of the superiority of a love which is independent of all normal human conventions, and does not seek the favour or approval of kings, princes, states, politicians, times or fashions. It stands above them all and is secure in the knowledge that it is out of reach of any of them, however malicious, erratic, irrational or unpredictable they might be. The contrast is drawn between this love and the love which is perjured, partial, and dependent on court favours, or on the politics of the time. Such debased loves, or those who indulge in them, are time's fools and are the sport of every wind that blows and every rain that falls. But not so for this true love, which remains constant and steadfast, and will outlive the pyramids and time itself.

The 1609 Quarto Version

YF my deare loue were but the childe of ſtate,
It might for fortunes baſterd be vnfathered,
As ſubiect to times loue,or to times hate,
Weeds among weeds,or flowers with flowers                                                                                  gatherd.
No it was buylded far from accident,
It ſuffers not in ſmilinge pomp,nor falls
Vnder the blow of thralled diſcontent,
Whereto th'inuiting time our faſhion calls;
It feares not policy that Heriticke,
Which workes on leaſes of ſhort numbred howers,
But all alone ſtands hugely pollitick,
That it nor growes with heat,nor drownes with                                                                                  ſhowres.
   To this I witnes call the foles of time,
   Which die for goodnes,who haue liu'd for crime.

Commentary

1. If my dear love were but the child of state,
my dear love = my precious (costly?) affection for you. The subsequent lines seem to indicate that it is the poet's love for the youth, rather than the youth himself, which is here referred to.
the child of state = something engendered through considerations of profit and advantage, or the state of the times; something dependent on political fortune and favour. The phrase however is of a somewhat hazy meaning, suggesting not only a love which is politically and mercenarily disadvantaged, but also more indirectly a person loved who is linked to statesmen and women, someone who himself jockeys for position and perhaps toadies to the great ones of the world.
2. It might for Fortune's bastard be unfathered,

It - the first of five 'its' in the sonnet, which, as SB points out, in the midst of successive waves of subjunctives, negatives and vaguenesses stands forth as something 'sure, constant, forthright, simple and blank'. SB p.419. Here it attempts to define my dear love, or what my dear love would be if it were subject to the calculating effects of personal power and advantage.
for = as, being seen as. Fortune's bastard - Fortune was either impersonal or seen as a female goddess. Hence Fortune's bastards are technically the offspring of illicit liaisons with Fortune, the father being unknown. Since Fortune was fairly promiscuous with her favours, the world was littered with her illegitimate children, in the form of brief climbs to the dizzy heights of success by those whom she had temporarily loved. In Elizabethan times, meteoric rises to fame and fortune, followed by an equally spectacular crash, imprisonment, and execution, were not uncommon. The fate of Essex, executed in 1601, was the one notorious case probably closest in date to this sonnet. For Fortune as the harlot, compare the two following comments from Hamlet:
Out, out, thou strumpet, Fortune! All you gods
In general synod take away her power
Ham.II.2.487-8.

Ham. Then you live about her waist, or in the middle of her favours?
Gui. Faith, her privates we.
Ham. In the secret parts of Fortune? Oh most true. She is a strumpet. Ham.II.2.231-4.

unfathered = lacking a visible or known father, having no protection.

3. As subject to Time's love or to Time's hate,
As = as being. The fact that a love which is 'the child of state' is subjected potentially to the love or hatred of Time makes it appropriate to describe it as 'unfathered, like a foundling'.
4. Weeds among weeds, or flowers with flowers gathered.
The line adds a further dimension to the description of Fortune's love child. It is like being a weed indiscriminately growing among other weeds, or like flowers gathered in bundles for display. In either case its projected life will be brief and indifferent. There may be a reference to courtiers' dress. The elaborate costumes of the court and court ceremonies make the individual no more than a weed or flower among other weeds and flowers.
5. No, it was builded far from accident;

 

 

  builded = built. A standard alternative form of the time. Most important is probably the echo from the previous sonnet,
Thy pyramids built up with newer might,
for this points the contrast between the poet's love for the youth, a love which is not the subject of ephemeral change, and the pyramids, which become the playthings of Time at any moment after their construction. Compare for example the thought in Shelley's poem Ozymandias.

 

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said 'Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert...Near them on the sand
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works ye mighty and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away'.

6. It suffers not in smiling pomp, nor falls
It suffers not in = it suffers no harm from, it does not endure the odium of being subjected to.
smiling pomp
= the friendly (but potentially deceitful) visage of those in power. The Machiavellian ideal would be to wield authority with a smile, so that no one would suspect, by a darkened or angry look, that they might be in danger. They could then be removed easily without having had time to prepare counter manoeuvres. However the implication here may be that the favour of great ones is as onerous to bear as their hatred, because it would require eternal vigilance and looking over one's shoulder.
7. Under the blow of thralled discontent,
nor falls / under etc. = nor is it brought low, as discontented factions are brought low, by being cast into prison, or otherwise removed. discontent is an abstract noun personified to stand for those persons in a state who chafe at the existing regime and would have it changed. Such people could be considered to be thralled, i.e. enslaved, by the situation of being devoid of power, or by the constant threat of being physically restrained and cast into prison.
8. Whereto th' inviting time our fashion calls:
Whereto = to which, i.e. to smiling pomp or thralled discontent. The line is not easily understood, and opinions vary as to its meaning. The subject of calls could be either th'inviting time or our fashion, with either being the object. Or perhaps they are both the subject, being in apposition to each other. inviting time probably means 'the time which invites and motivates us to do such and such'. A reasonably safe interpretation would therefore be 'It (my love) is not tempted to follow the swings of fashion which time dictates, either as a courtier walking the knife edge of preferment, or a dissident threatened with punishment'.
9. It fears not policy, that heretic,
policy = the art of making prudent judgements, but especially those relating to statecraft. It often had a pejorative connotation, implying cunning, craftiness and dissimulation (OED 4.a.).
that heretic - perhaps policy personified is thus called because it changes direction so frequently, and thus has no constant beliefs. It is a renegade and keeps faith with no one.
10. Which works on leases of short-number'd hours,
which - sc. policy. It calculates advantages and disadvantages in the short term, but is incapable of producing anything worthwhile or lasting. short-numbered hours = restricted time spans, hours that fly as if they were far shorter than normal.
11. But all alone stands hugely politic,
But it (my love) surmounts all these others by knowing precisely what is important. It outdistances all their policies, and therefore, in that sense, it is vastly more politic than they are.
12. That it nor grows with heat, nor drowns with showers.
To the extent that it is unaffected by any changes in the political climate. It is totally independent of them.
13. To this I witness call the fools of time,
To this = to the fact of the superiority of my love. I witness call = I call as witnesses. the fools of time - the phrase has already been used in Sonnet 116 - Love's not Time's fool, i.e. love is not duped by Time into believing what time wishes it to believe (And other meanings. See the notes on Sonnet 116). Here it is generally thought that the phrase refers specifically to some contemporary individuals or groups of individuals with a common well known purpose. Thus Essex and his confederates might be intended. He was executed in 1601, having humbly declared his loyalty to the Queen, although he had been guilty of armed uprising. Another suggestion is that it refers to the participants in the Gunpowder plot of 1605, who were tried and executed in January 1606. Essex was very popular in his lifetime, and could claim to be dying for the good cause of having sought to protect the Queen. His crime or crimes were the fact of having disobeyed her, and of having fomented rebellion. The Gunpowder plotters could claim, as Catholics, to be dying the deaths of martyrs. Time had presumably duped them into playing the game of politics, or to believe that their cause was justified. They therefore died in pursuit of good, or 'the good', as they perceived it.
14. Which die for goodness, who have lived for crime.
See the note above. The antithesis seems to between dying a good Christian death and living a bad life. The word crime was of more general application in Shakespeare's day, and was used frequently as a synonym for sin. As for example when Hamlet's father's ghost exclaims

.....I am thy father's spirit,
Doomed for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confined to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away.
Ham.I.5.9-12.

and it is used three other times in the sonnets, where the implication is the crime of unfaithfulness, or, in one case, the heinous crime of Time in causing the beloved youth to grow older. Thus we should not necessarily interpret the word here as applying to political crime, or the act of treason, which it was in the case of the Gunpowder plotters. The sentence could apply in a general sense to all hypocrites, almost to all humans, (hypocrite, mon lecteur, mon semblable, mon frere to use Baudelaire's words), all those who have sin on their souls but who are happy enough to attain eternal forgiveness with a death bed repentance. The wording does not help any more in specifying who these fools of Time were, for it is too general and unfortunately there are no further clues. Nor does it help much in settling the moral question of whether or not it is desirable to repent sincerely of one's crimes. If anything, the thought stands against the Christian doctrine of salvation by repentance and forgiveness, for it seems to take a swipe at those who die for goodness, as though it suspects that their repentance cannot be genuine, but is a mere matter of expedience, to be classed alongside all the other dubious acts of those who 'suffer under smiling pomp, or under the blow of thralled discontent'. Such actions, it is implied, are all time serving, calculating, heretical, a species of political debauchery. Yet for a love that is hugely politic and is all alone, (as the heretic might be), the claim to perfection is somewhat undermined by these counter examples. For it differs from them only in being less worldly, its ambition for long lasting success being much the same as that of the fools of Time, who would be glad enough to march onwards to glory for all eternity, were it at all possible.

Nevertheless, these buried contradictions do not surface until after several readings, and the poem carries all before it with its sense of conviction and its vigour of expression. Despite almost everything being expressed through negatives (my love does not do this or is not that etc.), one receives from it a positive sense that it describes a love such as all loves should be. Nothing can now diminish it, nothing can prevent it from being the supreme achievement, nothing can corrupt it or swerve it from its path. It is the non pareil of loves, and will survive even when this insubstantial pageant of our lives has faded, and when all the breathers of this world are dead. Such is its strength that it will outlast the pyramids, and it seems, after all, that this is a fitting way to draw the curtain on this most extraordinary of all loves, as is done in these three sonnets, for nothing else will ever be able to match it.