Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth,
... ... ... these rebel powers that thee array
Why dost thou pine within and suffer dearth,
Painting thy outward walls so costly gay?
Why so large cost, having so short a lease,
Dost thou upon thy fading mansion spend?
Shall worms, inheritors of this excess,
Eat up thy charge? Is this thy body's end?
Then soul, live thou upon thy servant's loss,
And let that pine to aggravate thy store;
Buy terms divine in selling hours of dross;
Within be fed, without be rich no more:
So shall thou feed on Death, that feeds on men,
And Death once dead, there's no more dying then.
Various moralistic tracts from Mediaeval times onwards lamented the way the soul was neglected in favour of the body, and there was a long tradition of dialogues held between the two. It is probable that the debate goes back to ancient times and to Stoic beliefs, for Stoicism despised worldly and material goods in favour of the spiritual life, and Neo-Platonism elevated the soul to a status well above that of the body.
However this sonnet derives probably from a more homely tradition and relies more upon the moral opprobrium heaped upon extravagant displays of wealth by writers with a puritanical or jealous cast of mind, and perhaps also on sermons delivered from the pulpits.
I set out below two extracts from contemporary authors which give the flavour of the criticism levelled against the society of the time.
It is said that this is one of Shakespeare's profoundly religious sonnets, almost the only religious one. Profoundly meditative might be a better description, since it nowhere mentions God, although it certainly considers the threat of impending death. Within the sonneteering tradition there had also developed a tradition of renunciation. The lover, tired of endlessly battering at the impregnable walls of the beloved's chastity, might as a final protest retire to the contemplative and religious life. To a certain extent the germ of this trend had been sown by Dante and Petrarch. Sidney comes close to it on occasion, as for example in 47
Virtue awake, beauty but beauty is;
I may, I must, I can, I will, I do
Leave following that, which it is gain to miss.
Let her go! A&S.47. After Astrophil and Stella it seems he may have turned his attention to sacred verse, as did Donne and Drummond of Hawthornden, after a youth of sowing much wild oats and other rakishness. Therefore we should perhaps be attuned to seeing this sonnet set within the tradition of renunciation. For although it has the melancholy of the contemplation of mortality, it could be in the nature of a memento mori to the extravagant mistress and her frivolous ways, rather than a reminder to the speaker himself. One only has to read the first line slightly differently, as addressing the beloved, and the whole poem becomes an imprecation against her and a warning that she is knocking at the gates of death. In many ways that would be a more satisfactory interpretation, because Shakespeare always seems to have disapproved of the disguise that clothing gives, in that it hides what the true being is who resides within. Hence Lear's great tirade against clothing in his rage and madness during the storm as he looks at Edgar's nakedness:
Is man no more than this? Consider him well. Thou owest the worm no silk, the beast no hide, the sheep no wool, the cat no perfume. Ha! here's three on's are sophisticated! Thou art the thing itself: unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor bare, forked animal as thou art. Off, off, you lendings! come unbutton here.
[Tearing off his clothes] KL.III.4.101-8.
It therefore seems slightly odd that he, the poet, should find himself painting his own outward walls so costly gay when he has railed against it so much in others. It would also fit in with such poems as Drayton's sonnet 8 which I print below, together with a sonnet from Fidessa, which echoes some of Shakespeare's phrases, as well as the well known sonnet by Sidney 'Leave me o Love, which reachest but to dust'. Of course the memento mori theme is universal, and I do not wish to divert readers too much from what is probably the standard interpretation of the sonnet as a contemplation of the neglect of spiritual values, and the innate triviality of our lives in the face of an ever present mortality. That is mostly its value to modern readers, but the Renaissance audience, familiar with such themes, might have been more inclined to see as its background the love of a fair woman who would not yield, even though her life was hastening to old decay.
Extracts from Harrison and Nashe
Oh how much cost is bestowed nowadays upon our bodies, and how little upon our souls! How many suits of apparel hath the one, and how little furniture hath the other! How long time is asked in decking up of the first, and how little space left wherein to feed the latter!.............
Some lusty courtiers also and gentlemen of courage do wear either rings of gold, stones, or pearl in their ears, whereby they imagine the workmanship of God to be a little amended. But herein they rather disgrace than adorn their persons, as by their niceness in apparel, for which I say most nations do not unjustly deride us, as also for that we do seem to imitate all nations round about us, wherein we be like to the polypus or chameleon; and thereunto bestow most cost upon our arses, and much more than upon all the rest of our bodies, as women do upon their heads and shoulders.
William Harrison, Description of England 1587. 2nd Ed.
We here in London, what for dressing ourselves, following our worldly affairs, dining, supping, and keeping company, have no leisure, not only not to watch against sin, but not so much as once to think of sin. In bed, wives must question their husbands about housekeeping, and providing for their children and family. No service must God expect of us, but a little in Lent, and in sickness and adversity. Our gorgeous attire we make not to serve him, but to serve the flesh. .............
One thing it is for a man to lift himself to God, another thing to lift up himself against God. In pranking up our carcasses too proudly, we lift up our flesh against God. In lifting up our flesh, we depress our spirits. London, lay off thy gorgeous attire, and cast down thyself before God in contrition and prayer, lest he cast thee down in His indignation into hell fire. ..............
Oh, what is beauty more than a wind blown bladder, that it should forget whereto it is born? It is the food of cloying concupiscence, living; and the substance of the most noisome infection, being dead. The mothers of the justest men are not freed from corruption, the mothers of kings and emperors are not freed from corruption. No gorgeous attire (man or woman) hast thou in this world, but the wedding garment of faith. Thy winding sheet shall see thee in none of thy silks and shining robes ; to show they are not of God, when thou goest to God, thou shalt lay them all off. Then shalt thou restore to every creature what thou hast robbed him of. All the leases which dust let out to life, at the day of death shall be returned into his hands.
Thomas Nashe Christs Teares over Ierusalem 1593.
Both these extracts are taken from The Cambridge Anthologies, Life in Shakespeare's England. Compiled by J. D. Wilson. 1911.
There's nothing grieve me, but that Age should haste,
That in my days I may not see thee old!
That where those two clear sparkling eyes are placed,
Only two loopholes then I might behold!
That lovely archèd ivory-polished Brow
Defaced with wrinkles, that I might but see!
Thy dainty Hair, so curled and crispèd now,
Like grizzled moss upon some agèd tree!
Thy Cheek, now flush with roses, sunk and lean!
Thy Lips, with age as any wafer thin!
Thy pearly Teeth, out of thy head so clean,
That when thou feed'st thy Nose shall touch thy Chin!
These Lines that now scornst, which should delight thee:
Then would I make thee read but to despite thee!
M.Drayton Idea Sonn. 8 (1619).
Well may my soul, immortal and divine,
That is imprisoned in a lump of clay,
Breathe out laments until this body pine,
That from her takes her pleasures all away.
Pine then thou loathèd prison of my life!
Untoward subject of the least aggrievance!
O let me die! Mortality is rife!
Death comes by wounds, by sickness, care and chance.
O earth, the time will come when I'll resume thee,
And in thy bosom make my resting place;
Then do not unto hardest sentence doom me!
Yield, yield betimes! I must and will have grace!
Richly shalt thou be entombed! since for thy grave,
Fidessa, fair Fidessa! thou shalt have.
B. Griffin Fidessa Sonnet 28 (1596).
Leave me, O Love, which reachest but to dust!
And thou, my mind! aspire to higher things!
Grow rich in that which never taketh rust!
Whatever fades, but fading pleasure brings.
Draw in thy beams and humble all thy might
To that sweet yoke, where lasting freedoms be!
Which breaks the clouds and opens forth the light
That doth both shine and give us sight to see.
O take fast hold! Let that light be thy guide!
In this small course which birth gives out to death:
And think how evil becometh him to slide,
Who seeketh heaven, and comes of heavenly breath!
Then farewell world! Thy uttermost I see!
Eternal Love, maintain thy love in me!
P. Sidney. Sonnets and Translations.
Splendidis longum valedico nugis
I bid a long farewell to all that bright nothingness.
The 1609 Quarto Version
POore ſoule the center of my ſinfull earth,
My ſinfull earth theſe rebbell powres that thee array,
Why doſt thou pine within and ſuffer dearth
Painting thy outward walls ſo coſtlie gay?
Why ſo large coſt hauing ſo ſhort a leaſe,
Doſt thou vpon thy fading manſion ſpend?
Shall wormes inheritors of this exceſſe,
Eate vp thy charge?is this thy bodies end?
Then ſoule liue thou vpon thy ſeruants loſſe,
And let that pine to aggrauat thy ſtore;
Buy tearmes diuine in ſelling houres of droſſe:
Within be fed, without be rich no more,
So ſhalt thou feed on death,that feeds on men,
And death once dead,ther's no more dying then.