The forward violet thus did I chide:
Sweet thief, whence didst thou steal thy sweet that smells,
If not from my love's breath? The purple pride
Which on thy soft cheek for complexion dwells
In my love's veins thou hast too grossly dy'd.
The lily I condemned for thy hand,
And buds of marjoram had stol'n thy hair;
The roses fearfully on thorns did stand,
One blushing shame, another white despair;
A third, nor red nor white, had stol'n of both,
And to his robbery had annexed thy breath;
But, for his theft, in pride of all his growth
A vengeful canker eat him up to death.
More flowers I noted, yet I none could see,
But sweet, or colour it had stol'n from thee.
This sonnet, although being ostensibly an amplification of the closing couplet of the preceding one, is pervaded by a new theme which predominates to the extent of swamping all previous considerations. That theme is the idea of theft, of which all the flowers cited are found guilty, in that they have stolen colour, scent, beauty, essence, being from the beloved. Yet it is impossible to escape the recollection that previously the youth has been addressed in exactly the same terms here applied to the violet, sweet thief. The couplet of Sonnet 35 claims
That I an accessary needs must be
To that sweet thief which sourly robs from me.
and in Sonnet 40 the poet declares
I do forgive thy robbery, gentle thief,
Although thou steal thee all my poverty;
In both these cases the sweet thief accused of sour robbery is the young man himself, who appears to have stolen the poet's mistress. In this sonnet it is not the youth who is the guilty party, at least not obviously so, it is the various conventional beauties of nature, the violet, lily, marjoram and rose, which have committed theft. It is difficult however to dislodge from one's mind the previous accusations made against the youth, and one is tempted to conclude that theft is inherent in nature - the youth is stolen from, but he will steal, or has already stolen from others. All things steal from each other and the world is an amoral place to live in. Even the 'sugared sonnets', or some of them, were themselves stolen (see next paragraph), and there is nothing surprising in the discovery that flowers steal their beauty from the youth.
Uniquely among the 154 Sonnets, this alone has 15 lines instead of the usual 14. Various conjectures have been advanced: it is an early sonnet, or an experimental one; it is a draft version, unrevised and to a certain extent incomplete; it is a copy of certain 15 line sonnets found in other writers' sonnet sequences; it is a trial which was not repeated subsequently. I would like to advance instead the humdrum theory that this is a 'dating' sonnet and refers us explicitly to the year 1599. In like manner sonnet 104 refers to 1604, by the simple expedient of giving us double threes, hence supplying the missing 6 of 1604. For this sonnet the crucial number is found by taking its unique fifteen lines and this number is joined with the sonnet number 99 to give the date 1599. It seems simple enough, once the scheme is devised, for how else, if one wished to mark a date, would one go about doing it in a sonnet sequence? And it is the sort of number game in which the Elizabethans took great delight. Clearly there are many instances in which Shakespeare has taken great care with the placing of particular sonnets at certain numerical junctures - 12, 49, 60, 63, 81 for example. It seems plausible that 99 would be regarded as a number requiring special care - it is one before the full century, and it is the product of 9 and 11, two critical numbers. It also ties in with the other traditional dating sonnet, 104, which, with its multiples of three, readily yields the number 99.
Of course such matters are entirely conjectural, and ideas, however plausible, are not verifications of themselves. In favour of the adoption of this theory I should mention the predominant theme of this sonnet, that of theft, which links closely to the publication by William Jaggard in 1599 of stolen copies of two of the sonnets, 138 and 144, in The Passionate Pilgrim. Two editions appeared that year, and the assumption that it was piratical is based on an apology by Thomas Heywood in 1612, when Jaggard published a third edition which included some works by Heywood. According to Heywood's 1612 testimony, Shakespeare had been offended by Jaggard's presumption in publishing works under his name, and Heywood clearly did not wish that he himself should be associated with the theft. (For further dertails see KDJ, Introduction, pp.1-6). There were no copyright laws in those days, so an author could not protect work from unscrupulous borrowers other than by arranging the publication him/herself. This Shakespeare eventually did by publishing the Sonnets in 1609, some time after Jaggard's piratical publication. The reasons for the delay are unknown to us. Perhaps Shakespeare was still writing sonnets at the time, and regarded the sequence as incomplete. But Jaggard may have been a 'sweet thief' in that he stole sweets, the 'sugared sonnets' mentioned by Francis Meres in his Palladis Tamia of 1598.
Critics have often observed in this sonnet a certain weariness, as if the poet had become tired of all the fantasical comparisons and now regarded them as false. This may possibly also link in with the numbering, in that 99 marks the end of a century, and 100 starts a new phase, a new life, in which the poet has to excuse himself for a long silence. His silence may stem from weariness in oft repeating the same thing, and the artificiality of the genre, or simply from a tiredness in love, such as Byron sang in one of his most famous lyrics.
For the sword wears out the sheath,
And the heart wears out the breast,
And the soul must pause to breathe,
And love itself have rest.
Most commentators think that Shakespeare was strongly influenced by the following sonnet, written by Henry Constable, prior to 1592:
My Ladies presence makes the roses red,
Because to see her lips they blush for shame.
The lilies leaves, for envy, pale became,
And her white hands in them this envy bred.
The marygold abroad the leaves did spread,
Because the suns and her power is the same.
The violet of purple coloure came,
Dy'd with the bloud she made my heart to shed.
In briefe, all flowers from her theyre vertue take;
From her sweet breath theyre sweet smells doe proceed;
The living heate which her eybeames doe make
Warmeth the ground, and quickneth the seede.
The rayne, wherewith she watereth those flowers,
Falls from myne eyes, which she dissolves in shewers.
The points of contact are mainly in the first part of the poem. Roses, blush, shame, lilies, hands, violet, purple, dyed, flowers, sweet and breath are common to both sonnets, a list which seems to outdistance the probability of mere coincidence.
Shakespeare probably remembered this Constable sonnet, consciously or unconsciously, and used elements of it when writing his own. The theme was tradtional and comparison of one's beloved with the beauty of flowers was not new. Since this sonnet was probably written some time after Constable's, (see note on dating above), it is doubtful if the reader was meant to remember the Constable original and refer back to it. It is more likely that the unconscious memories fused themselves in Shakespeare's mind and produced his own unique product from the basic elements.
The 1609 Quarto Version
THe forward violet thus did I chide,
Sweet theefe whence didſt thou ſteale thy ſweet that
If not from my loues breath,the purple pride, (ſmels
Which on thy ſoft cheeke for complexion dwells?
In my loues veines thou haſt too groſely died,
The Lillie I condemned for thy hand,
And buds of marierom had ſtolne thy haire,
The Rofes fearefully on thornes did ſtand,
Our bluſhing ſhame,an other white diſpaire:
A third nor red,nor white,had ſtolne of both,
And to his robbry had annext thy breath,
But for his theft in pride of all his growth
A vengfull canker eate him vp to death.
More flowers I noted,yet I none could ſee,
But ſweet,or culler it had ſtolne from thee.