A commentary on Shakespeare’s 87th sonnet
‘Farewell! thou art too dear for my possessing’. Nobody could accuse Sonnet 87 of failing to begin dramatically. One of the more famous sonnets in Shakespeare’s sequence of 154 poems about love, sex, desire, wigs (see Sonnet 68), and rivalry, Sonnet 87 is also one of the great English poems about deciding to end a relationship. (Indeed, it could have featured, although it didn’t, in our pick of the greatest breaking-up poems.) Before we proceed to our analysis of the poem’s meaning, here’s a quick reminder of Sonnet 87.
Farewell! thou art too dear for my possessing,
And like enough thou know’st thy estimate,
The charter of thy worth gives thee releasing;
My bonds in thee are all determinate.
For how do I hold thee but by thy granting?
And for that riches where is my deserving?
The cause of this fair gift in me is wanting,
And so my patent back again is swerving.
Thy self thou gavest, thy own worth then not knowing,
Or me to whom thou gav’st it else mistaking;
So thy great gift, upon misprision growing,
Comes home again, on better judgement making.
Thus have I had thee, as a dream doth flatter,
In sleep a king, but waking no such matter.
First, here’s a brief paraphrase of the sonnet’s meaning: ‘Farewell! You’re out of my league, and I think you know that, deep down. Because you’re way out of my league, you’re entitled to leave me and go in search of someone else – the contract tying you to me is terminated. After all, I only have you because you allow it, but how do I deserve you exactly? I’ve got nothing special about me that could explain why you’d want to be with someone like me, and so I feel that I’m losing you. You gave yourself to me before you realised just how amazing you are, and I misread the situation; but now I know you better and we’re both a bit wiser, I realise that the best thing to do is to let you go. It was wonderful to possess you, but it was like being in a dream – I felt like a king when asleep, but when I woke, I realised that none of it was real.’
Note the use of weak stresses at the end of each line – what are sometimes called ‘feminine’ line endings. Most of these take the form of present participles or ‘-ing’ words: ‘possessing’, ‘releasing’, ‘granting’, ‘deserving’, ‘wanting’, ‘swerving’, ‘knowing’, ‘mistaking’, ‘growing’, ‘making’. This is relatively rare in the Sonnets, and contributes a sense of bathos or anti-climax to the poem which is in keeping with the Bard’s feeling of deflation. It may not just be a loss of faith in his relationship with the Fair Youth; his admiration for the young man may be on the wane, too. Don Paterson, in his engaging commentary on this poem in his Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets, detects a sarcastic bite to the poem’s opening: ‘thou art too dear for my possessing’ might also be laced with a subtle dig at the Fair Youth, i.e. ‘you’re too high-maintenance for me to bother with’. Similarly, ‘And like enough thou know’st thy estimate’ carries the potential jibe, ‘You have a very high opinion of yourself, that’s for sure’.
We like the metaphor in the opening quatrain, where the poet likens the Fair Youth to a bondsman being released from servitude. Which of us in a relationship hasn’t felt the sentiment that Shakespeare expresses in Sonnet 87? The idea of breaking free from the other person because they clearly think they’re too good for you and you feel like just throwing everything up in the air and sodding off (as a way of showing them what they’ve lost) is a universal feeling. This sonnet says what oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed. Shakespeare’s use of the word ‘misprision’ is interesting in this regard: following the poem’s earlier references to ‘releasing’ and ‘bonds’, it’s as if the word ‘misprision’ (meaning misinterpretation, and chiming with ‘mistaking’ from the previous line) is inviting a pun on ‘prison’, and echoing Shakespeare’s determination to free himself from the shackles of slavish devotion to someone who is unworthy.
There’s a subtle contrast here between the paradox present in some of the earlier sonnets (chiefly Sonnets 82 and 83) and the one which now threatens to come into view: whereas in those earlier sonnets, Shakespeare made out that the best way to praise the Fair Youth was to say nothing (and let his beauty speak for itself), now Shakespeare is implying that the Fair Youth is not worth bothering with because his worth so far exceeds what the Bard deserves. We wouldn’t go so far as to say that this is a deliberate contrast, but it highlights the way in which Sonnet 87 represents a shift away from the message of the previous sonnets. Shakespeare’s feelings towards the Fair Youth appear to be cooling.
One final thought: Don Paterson notes the financial flavour to the language in this sonnet: ‘dear’, ‘estimate’, ‘worth’, ‘riches’, ‘gift’, ‘patent’. He conjectures that the reason Shakespeare is drawn to these economic terms is that the Bard just loved money (he was, after all, a shrewd businessman).
If you found this analysis of Sonnet 87 useful, you can discover more about the Sonnets here. Discover more of Shakespeare’s best sonnets with ‘That time of year thou mayst in me behold‘, ‘Let me not to the marriage of true minds‘, and ‘When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defaced‘.