Your love and pity doth the impression fill,
Which vulgar scandal stamped upon my brow;
For what care I who calls me well or ill,
So you o'er-green my bad, my good allow?
You are my all-the-world, and I must strive
To know my shames and praises from your tongue;
None else to me, nor I to none alive,
That my steeled sense or changes right or wrong.
In so profound abysm I throw all care
Of others' voices, that my adder's sense
To critic and to flatterer stopped are.
Mark how with my neglect I do dispense:
You are so strongly in my purpose bred,
That all the world besides methinks y'are dead.
A sonnet which seems to be so complex that no amount of teasing away at its lines can give an entirely satisfactory meaning to them. Lines 7, 8, 12, 13, and 14 are especially difficult. However it is worth focussing on the general theme, a theme which dominates the sonnet to such an extent that its force and presence overrides any particular difficulties and carries all before it like a river in torrent. That theme is summed up in line 5, You are my all the world, and in various forms it appears, disappears and re-appears. Thus 'What care I who talks of me, as long as you are aware of me'; 'For me, no one else in the universe exists apart from you. Other than that there is nothing'; 'Nothing, no force, no substance, no influence, can change what I feel for you'; 'I cast aside everything else in this world into the most bottomless pit, apart from my love for you'; 'I am deaf to everything which is uttered, aside from anything you might say, to which I am all ears'; 'I neglect myself entirely, and I listen only to you. That is how I organise my life'. 'You are my motives, my intentions, my everything. there is nothing else in me which has any strength'; 'You are my all the world. everything else in comparison with that is death and is in fact dead'.
In its totality of commitment and capitulation of self to the will of another there is very little in literature which compares with this sonnet. If anything it is close to the mystical sense of fulfilment achieved by devoting oneself entirely to the service of God. And in fact the mere claim that 'You are my all the world' does tread on the borders of religion, and almost offers a challenge to it. For where in the context of this all consuming devotion does the christian belief that Christ is the arbiter of right and wrong fit in? Perhaps the profound abysm in which the poet throws all care is really the abysm of hell, for there is certainly a hint of biblical reference in the introduction of the adder's sense, the adder being the serpent which brought about the fall of the human race and the expulsion from paradise.
With all these connections the sonnet links to the three others close by, 105, 106 and 108, all of which tread the thin line between blasphemy and humour, between sacred and profane. The love described here is close to idolatrous, if not actually so, and the poet admits that he has lost all knowledge of criticism, both of himself and of the youth.
The extent to which any reader takes all this abject but inspired self-abnegation seriously depends to a certain extent on that reader's personality. It is possible that we are intended to question it, to see it as being impossible because it is so extreme, even to see it as a spoof of courtly love taken to its ultimate limits. But it is also possible to take it as being deadly serious, a true account of a soul in love, a soul which sets no limits on the extent of its devotion, and in pursuit of that love will climb to the topmost heights of heaven, or sink in terror to the extremest regions of hell.
The 1609 Quarto Version
YOur loue and pittie doth th'impreſſion fill,
Which vulgar ſcandall ſtampt vpon my brow,
For what care I who calles me well or ill,
So you ore-greene my bad,my good alow?
You are my All the world,and I muſt ſtriue,
To know my ſhames and praiſes from your tounge,
None elſe to me,nor I to none aliue,
That my ſteel'd ſence or changes right or wrong,
In ſo profound Abiſme I throw all care
Of others voyces,that my Adders ſence,
To cryttick and to flatterer ſtopped are:
Marke how with my neglect I do diſpence.
You are fo ſtrongly in my purpoſe bred,
That all the world beſides me thinkes y'are dead.