sonnetXCIV

They that have power to hurt, and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow;
They rightly do inherit heaven's graces,
And husband nature's riches from expense;
They are the lords and owners of their faces,
Others, but stewards of their excellence.
The summer's flower is to the summer sweet,
Though to itself, it only live and die,
But if that flower with base infection meet,
The basest weed outbraves his dignity:
   For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
   Lilies that fester, smell far worse than weeds.

This is often thought to be the most enigmatic of the Sonnets. In the past it was presented as the type and model of a detached observation on human nature, but nowadays greater emphasis is placed on setting it in the context of the surrounding sonnets, 87-96, in which the youth is portrayed as potentially fickle and ready to abandon the pledges he has made, a beauteous flower, but corrupted at the core. The sonnet is cast as a series of meditative essays on a certain type of personality, and no reference is made to the speaker or the person addressed, as if the use of 'I' and 'you' and personal pronouns were being studiously avoided. It may be that it was written in response to a development of the situation outlined in 90-93, where the youth seems to be ready to abandon the poet, to forget promise past, and to cast him aside. All those foregoing sonnets were written with suggestions of uncertainty, as if the poet were unable to know if the youth had abandoned him or not. Now it is possible that some act or failure to act, or some statement, made in the charmed circle of the youth's admirers, has convinced the poet that his beloved is one of those fortunate few who moves others but is himself 'as stone', and that all along he has given a false impression of what he intends to do. Therefore there are grounds for cautious optimism, or so the poet thinks, for the youth perhaps will remain faithful after all, despite his previous behaviour. And there is hope that all will now be well, after the ravages of suspicion which have so much damaged the former trust. But alas there is a threat that some festering evil will shortly destroy the poet's hopes. For sweetest things often turn sour, and his optimism may well prove to be unfounded.

The 1609 Quarto Version

THey that haue powre to hurt,and will doe none,
That doe not do the thing,they moſt do ſhowe,
Who mouing others,are themſelues as ſtone,
Vnmooued,could,and to temptation ſlow:
They rightly do inherrit heauens graces,
And husband natures ritches from expence,
They are the Lords and owners of their faces,
Others,but ſtewards of their excellence:
The ſommers flowre is to the ſommer ſweet,
Though to it ſelfe,it onely liue and die,
But if that flowre with baſe infection meete,
The baſeft weed out-braues his dignity:
   For ſweeteſt things turne ſowreſt by their deedes,
   Lillies that feſter,ſmell far worſe then weeds.

Commentary

1. They that have power to hurt, and will do none,
They that have power to hurt - the hurt which these people can do is presumably on an emotional and personal level, rather than physical, political, social, financial, or whatever. This seems to be confirmed by lines 3-4. HV however characterises the poem as working through 'a tone not of infatuation but of social reproof and moral authority' (p.406) and that the power of the aristocrat to do or not do as he pleases, whereas others of lower class do not have such freedom, is here criticised. Note that this phrase is the subject of a long opening sentence which extends from here to line 8.
and will do none = choose not to do any harm; deliberately do not harm.
none = no hurt, harm, injury, is inferred from the verb. Proverbially it was thought to be noble to have power to act and not to use that power. The Latin tag was posse et nolle, nobile.
2. That do not do the thing they most do show,

the thing they most do show - it is not clear what the thing is that these people most show. SB glosses it as 'what their appearance suggests they are most likely to do'. GBE gives 'that do not exercise the power that they so abundantly appear to possess', and thinks that it refers to physical beauty. KDJ thinks it might refer to sexual activity, since thoughts of such are provoked by the beauty of these people. JK gives a gloss similar to that of SB, but also adds the possibility that the stance described is hypocritical - 'who do not act in the way one is led to expect they will', 'who do one thing, while seeming to do another'. In this case 'the thing' which was threatened to be done may have been the abandonment by the youth of the poet, an abandonment which is prepared for and almost accepted as fact in 91-93. Here it may be that the abandonment is itself abandoned, or at least put on ice, for the poet seems to think that some lurking other motive or hidden corruption may yet be waiting in the future to destroy him. See the introductory note above for further points.

 

3. Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
moving others - causing emotional upheaval in others? stirring others to action?
are themselves as stone - generally in Shakespeare being 'as stone' was pejorative. Cf.
You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things!
Oh you hard hearts, you cruel men of Rome.
JC.I.1.36-7.
And:
My heart has turned to stone. I strike it and it hurts my hand.
Oth.IV.1.179-80.
See also comments on the next line.
4. Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow;
These attributes are usually seen as unflattering, for even the virtue of being slow to respond to temptation can be interpreted in a harsh light, as being evidence of an unfeeling heart. A possibly illuminating insight into the type of character alluded to here is Caesar's description of himself shortly before being downed by the conspirators:
I could be well moved if I were as you:
If I could pray to move, prayers would move me;
But I am constant as the Northern Star,
Of whose true fixed and resting quality
There is no fellow in the firmament
. JC.III.1.58-62.
Caesar evidently thought much of himself, but Shakespeare's portrayal of him at this point in the play is obviously critical.
5. They rightly do inherit heaven's graces,

This line reverses the reader's negative attitude to those described, for it invokes the tradition of the beatitudes in which heaven's blessing is foretold for those who are meek and merciful. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Matt.5.5. Not that one would assume that in the cold deference of an aristocrat, if that is what is being described, there is anything praiseworthy in a Christian sense, but the mere echoing of these words from the Gospels forces one to reappraise the situation in a more favourable light.

rightly = as of right, justly, appropriately.
inherit = receive as a possession; possess. As in Lear:
But to the girdle do the gods inherit
KL.IV.6.125

heaven's graces = the blessings of heaven.

6. And husband nature's riches from expense;

husband ... from = use sparingly, manage with care and economy, protect.
nature's riches = the youth's beauty?; the richness and abundance of nature?
expense = waste, extravagance, ruin. This and the next two lines are puzzling. It is not at all clear what nature's riches are and how those 'who have power' prevent them from being wasted, especially as they are described as having hearts of stone. If the beauty of the youth is referred to as typifying nature's riches, then it would seem that such a one preserves it by not using it, or only using it sparingly. But how does one 'use' beauty, or how, in defiance of this, could one be profligate with it? Is the implication simply that such a pretender does not give himself wholeheartedly to sexual license, but husbands himself from overuse? Or does the phrase refer generally to the wealth and diversity of nature which the powerful of this world control in some way? Thus giving the somewhat diffuse meaning 'They employ the abundant gifts of nature which are bestowed upon them thoughtfully, economically, and with an eye to prudent management. I.e. they look after their own interests first and foremost.'



7. They are the lords and owners of their faces,
This line is generally taken to mean 'They exercise perfect self-control'. However there is a suggestion of hypocrisy, in being not what one seems superficially. They (these lords who have power to hurt) control their faces to present to the world an image by which they wish to be known, but underneath their motives are deeply suspect.
8. Others, but stewards of their excellence.
Another troublesome line. The antecedent of their is either they of the previous line, or stewards of this line. Thus, the others (the other people of this world) are mere accessories to those who are lords and owners of their faces, serving them in a menial capacity, and helping them to make use of nature's riches (with a possible play on the word 'excellence' as a term of address, i.e. his excellence, your excellency, etc.). Or, others who have nature's gifts are not in control of those gifts, but merely administer them as if they were stewards. Steward is used in its old sense of household manager, or as OED.1.a. defines it: 'An official who controls the domestic affairs of a household, supervising the service of his master's table, directing the domestics, and regulating household expenditure; a major-domo'.

9. The summer's flower is to the summer sweet,

The poet considers another analogy. Perhaps these people are like flowers, their life and justification being in themselves. They do not require external approbation, any more than a flower does. Even so a flower contributes to the summer's sweetness. In the same way these lordly faces are sweet to humanity by their mere existence.

10. Though to itself, it only live and die,

This suggests a self-directed and selfish existence. The flower is indifferent to all other things that live and to all events that occur around it, living, blooming and dying in solitary splendour. KDJ notes an echo here from Paul's Epistle to the Romans:
For none of us liveth to himself, and no man dieth to himself. For whether we live we live unto the Lord, and whether we die we die unto the Lord.
Rom.14.7-8.
Perhaps as relevant is the implication of virginal aloofness, as in the reference to a nun's life in Midsummer Night's Dream:
But earthlier happy is the rose distilled,
Than that which withering on the virgin thorn
Grows, lives and dies in single blessedness
. MND.I.1.76-8.

11. But if that flower with base infection meet,
The poet still worries that all is not as it seems. His love is a beautiful flower, one who has inherited nature's wealth, a lord and owner of all he surveys, but underneath that fine exterior he may be corrupt. This has been the leitmotif of the previous three sonnets, the next two, and indeed of some earlier ones (e.g. 69-70). It is therefore no surprise to find that the image of a flower brings in its train the image of disease and decay.
12. The basest weed outbraves his dignity:
The basest weed = the most lowly plant.
outbraves = puts on a more splendid display, outvies, outshines.
his dignity = the flower's dignified appearance and splendour. Note however that 'weeds' also meant garments, so there is a secondary meaning of 'the basest garments would outdo him in splendour (if he were corrupt)'.
13. For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;

This is apparently proverbial, based on the Latin optima corrupta pessima which translates as 'the best things, when corrupted, become the worst'. Plus another proverb which runs 'What is sweet in the mouth is oft sour in the maw'. The latter is obviously closer to the sweet/sour contrast which Shakespeare enjoys. There are other uses of it in the plays, as, for example: Things sweet to taste prove in digestion sour. R2 I.3. which sounds almost proverbial. But it is the bitter-sweet of love which especially makes it appropriate to the Sonnets, and there are two other occasions where Shakespeare points the contrast between the supposed sweetness of the beloved and the sourness of reality:

That I an accessary needs must be
To that sweet thief which sourly robs from me.
35

Were it not thy sour leisure gave sweet leave
To entertain the time with thoughts of love,
39

By their deeds - It is noticeable however that no deeds have been imputed to the persons depicted here. Such deeds as are mentioned are only those of potential, or of inaction, although one suspects that emotional betrayal is really what is hinted at, as in 33-5, 40-2 etc.

14. Lilies that fester, smell far worse than weeds.

This could mean either that lilies when they fester smell far worse than weeds when they fester, or that lilies festering smell far worse than weeds, festering or not. Shakespeare seems to think that weeds had a bad smell in any case, as in Sonnet 69:
To thy fair flower add the rank smell of weeds.
There are some weeds which have a notoriously powerful smell, Black Horehound or Stinking Roger, for example. The literal truth of the foul smell of rotting lilies seems to be universally accepted. SB assures us that anyone who has been around a church after Easter will know it for a fact. But it is more for its dramatic and metaphoric content that it is here used, since the fairest flowers are expected to be fair in every sense, and never to smell foul.
fester = rot, decay,putrefy. Lilies are not especially noted for their perfume, but we should also remember that Elizabethan lilies might have differed considerably from modern varieties. The mention of lilies so soon after the reference to the summer flower that to itself only lives and dies brings to mind the biblical echo from the Sermon on the Mount:
Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin. And yet I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Matt.6.28-9.
The biblical 'lily of the field' was without doubt a wild flower, perhaps like our Loddon lily. The flowers I show here are exotic varieties.

The line is also known from 'The Reign of King Edward the Third', a play published anonymously as a Quarto edition in 1596. Shakespeare and Marlowe have been put forward as candidate authors for various parts of it. There is no doubt that some of it is thematically related to the Sonnets. JK gives the fullest readily available account of the points of contact and similarity. (Sonnets & A Lover's Complaint, Penguin, 1995, pp.293-5.) It is impossible to say which way the flow of influence ran, but it is clear that Shakespeare either wrote parts of it, or knew the play well.