Were't aught to me I bore the canopy,
With my extern the outward honouring,
Or laid great bases for eternity,
Which proves more short than waste or ruining?
Have I not seen dwellers on form and favour
Lose all and more by paying too much rent
For compound sweet, forgoing simple savour,
Pitiful thrivers, in their gazing spent?
No; let me be obsequious in thy heart,
And take thou my oblation, poor but free,
Which is not mixed with seconds, knows no art,
But mutual render, only me for thee.
Hence, thou suborned informer! a true soul
When most impeached stands least in thy control.
This is effectively the final sonnet to the youth, the next one being a sort of envoi or farewell sonnet. It is linked closely to the two preceding ones, and echoes their ideas. Critics have also picked out two closely related texts which seem to have a bearing on this sonnet. Part of the first scene of Othello contains many verbal echoes. The following words and phrases are relevant: second, forms and visages of duty, thrive, obsequious, outward, extern. The full extract is printed at the end of the page. The second text is the Communion Service from The Book of Common Prayer, (1559) of which the portions significant in this context are printed below. (A link is also given to the complete text).
It is always difficult to dissect the relationship between any two written works. Here we would expect the sonnet to resemble closely the Othello extract and the Communion Service to be only a distant cousin. In fact the opposite seems to be the case, for the harsh dictums of Iago are of a Machiavellian cynicism and are a total rejection of the doctrine of the Eucharist. Whereas the Communion Service reaches right to the heart of the themes of the sonnet. So it is not a matter of the use of similar words that is relevant, but what those words seek to convey. We may perhaps most profitably use the Othello resemblance as a pointer to the date of the sonnet. Other than extern, the words themselves are not uncommon. It is the combined use of all of them in both sonnet and play which is unusual. One may therefore hesitantly suspect a proximity in date of composition of the two pieces. Since Othello is fairly reliably dated to circa 1604, and many commentators have thought that the references to the canopy and the smiling pomp of the previous sonnet may be remembrances of the coronation procession of James I, which took place on March 15th 1604, we may conjecture that post that date, say 1604/5, is the most probable date of composition. As one of the most densely worded and richly allusive of all the sonnets, we should rightly expect it to be of a later date anyway, and these small pointers help to confirm that impression.
Further details of the links with the thoughts expressed in parts of the Communion Service are given in the appropriate notes below, especially in those for lines 8, 10, 11 and 12.
Two further points may be mentioned. The first is the problem of the suborned informer, who suddenly and unexpectedly makes his appearance in the final couplet. There is no unanimity of agreement as to whom or what it refers, whether to a real assailant, or a shadow image, or the youth himself, or Time the great enemy of all. Perhaps all of these possibilities were intended, and I certainly do not propose to adjudicate on the issue. Readers must make up their own minds on the reasons or implications of the sudden introduction of this strange figure in a couplet which can seem to be unrelated to the remainder of the poem.
Secondly there is the question of the contrast between the Latinate words which are so predominant throughout and their Anglo Saxon counterparts. The contrast is between compound sweet and simple savour, and reaches its apogee in the Latinate oblation opposed to poor but free, and me for thee. HV for example makes much of these contrasts. The truest love is also the least adulterated with foreign admixtures and can only be expressed in native language, and not through imported words. Such perhaps is one of the messages of the sonnet. It is possible to read into it also, (although HV does not), a statement of faith in the ideals of the English reformation, and a rejection of the Latin mumbo jumbo of the Roman Church and the Catholic mass. Shakespeare could thus be indirectly showing his loyalty to the crown and to the articles of the Anglican faith. This may be one of the undercurrents of meaning with which the poem abounds. However the politics of religion at that time were so complex, and religious loyalties so much twisted into a knot through the rival claims of patriotism and conscience, that I have no doubt that it would be possible to prove also that the poem demonstrates exactly the opposite. The Latinate words occur in the Tridentine Mass and the echoes could well be from that, rather than from the Anglican Communion service, which itself derives from the Mass. (See the Introductory Notes for further discussion of these points.) Readers again must decide this matter according to their own consciences and inclinations.
The 1609 Quarto Version
WEr't ought to me I bore the canopy,
With my extern the outward honoring,
Or layd great baſes for eternity,
Which proues more ſhort then waſt or ruining?
Haue I not ſeene dwellers on forme and fauor
Loſe all,and more by paying too much rent
For compound ſweet;Forgoing ſimple ſauor,
Pittiful thriuors in their gazing ſpent.
Noe,let me be obſequious in thy heart,
And take thou my oblacion,poore but free,
Which is not mixt with ſeconds,knows no art,
But mutuall render onely me for thee.
Hence,thou ſubborndI nformer, a trew ſoule
When moſt impeacht,ſtands leaſt in thy controule.