A Short Analysis of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 37: ‘As a decrepit father takes delight’

A summary of Shakespeare’s 37th sonnet

Sonnet 37 is not a classic Shakespeare sonnet. But it does contain some interesting aspects which careful analysis can help us to elucidate. The poem is an extended riff on the idea of Shakespeare as an old, lame, decrepit figure, contrasted with the Fair Youth’s young sprightliness.

As a decrepit father takes delight
To see his active child do deeds of youth,
So I, made lame by Fortune’s dearest spite,
Take all my comfort of thy worth and truth;
For whether beauty, birth, or wealth, or wit,
Or any of these all, or all, or more,
Entitled in thy parts, do crowned sit,
I make my love engrafted to this store:
So then I am not lame, poor, nor despised,
Whilst that this shadow doth such substance give
That I in thy abundance am sufficed,
And by a part of all thy glory live.
Look what is best, that best I wish in thee:
This wish I have; then ten times happy me.

Sonnet 37 is often analysed as a poem in which Shakespeare is ‘taking stock’, considering his relationship with the Fair Youth and what he gains from that relationship. The sonnet might be summarised as ‘you’re only as old as the man you feel’, nudge nudge, wink wink.

To paraphrase the sonnet: ‘Like a weak old father taking delight in his sprightly young son, I – who have been worn down by life – take comfort from you, who are young and worthy and true. For if any of these fine qualities are to be found in you, I attach my love to you and your supply of fine gifts. That way, I am no longer lame or poor or hated by everyone, while your fine shadow lends my existence substance and meaning. I have everything I need thanks to your bounteous supply of good qualities, and just a small part of your greatness is enough to give me life. Whatever is best in this world, and that I wish to find in you, my wish is granted: so I am ten times as happy as I otherwise would be.’

In a sense, Sonnet 37 might be considered a sort of reprise of Sonnet 29, which had argued that whenever the Bard feels hard done by, he takes comfort from knowing that the Fair Youth loves him. But in the interim, we might say, things have changed: the Fair Youth appears to have done something wrong, and so Shakespeare has an additional reason for feeling like the ‘decrepit father’ in the relationship. What’s more, there’s a suggestion that the young man is an aristocrat:

For whether beauty, birth, or wealth, or wit,
Or any of these all, or all, or more,
Entitled in thy parts, do crowned sit,
I make my love engrafted to this store:

These lines sound like somebody praising a person of noble blood, since nobles were considered inherently ‘better’ than we ordinary folk, and possessed the finest qualities. Of course, according to one theory, the Fair Youth was a nobleman – either Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton (1573-1624) or William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke (1580-1630). Some commentators have even interpreted the mysterious ‘Mr. W. H.’ mentioned in the Sonnets’ dedication as a reference to Herbert (or to Wriothesley with his initials curiously reversed). But there may have been a simpler explanation (as Bertrand Russell and Jonathan Bate, among others, have argued): that ‘Mr. W. H.’ was simply a misprint for ‘Mr. W. S.’, meaning Shakespeare.

But this is to get side-tracked. It’s easy to do so with Sonnet 37, since it’s not the finest poem in the Sonnets, nor does it require or even invite much detailed close analysis. But it does offer a slightly new take on the message put forward in Sonnet 29, and we like the ending. Who doesn’t wish to feel ten times happier thanks to the merest association with somebody beautiful, talented, witty, and fine?

One Comment

  1. I have wondered if all these Fair Youth sonnets simply express the speaker’s admiration. That was part of the culture then, the bromance, not romance. It was a male oriented society, even with Bess on the throne. We see the sonnets through our 21st century lenses and perceive admiration for something more carnal. Unfortunate.