A commentary on Shakespeare’s 94th sonnet
Considered one of the most challenging and ambiguous of all the Sonnets, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 94, beginning ‘They that have power to hurt, and will do none’, is, for our money, also one of the top five best sonnets in the whole sequence. One scholar and poet, J. H. Prynne, has even written a whole book about this one sonnet. Before we proceed to an analysis of this enigmatic poem, here’s a reminder of Sonnet 94.
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.
First, a brief paraphrase of the sonnet, by way of summary: ‘There are those who have the power to hurt others, because of the beauty they possess; but they don’t hurt anyone, even though they can. They inspire sexual desire in those, but are themselves cool and unaffected, and not easily tempted. These people deserve our praise, and that of heaven, too. They are like lords in their greatness, who own it outright; we others are like stewards who merely look after their excellence. The flower that blooms in the summer is sweet, even though the flower itself neither knows nor cares how sweet it is; but if that sweet flower is infected, then even the lowliest weed is more dignified and honourable. Sweet things which turn sour, do so because they become corrupted; weeds are preferable to rotting and festering lilies.’
As Don Paterson points out in his entertaining commentary on this poem in his Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets, there is a slight flaw in the closing sentiment of Sonnet 94, for ‘a lily will fester just by sitting in a vase’. (Paterson does go on to acknowledge that this flaw in the poem’s conceit is a trivial one.) The flaw is, indeed, trivial enough to set to one side: we know what Shakespeare means by the analogy between beautiful people and beautiful lilies. It’s human nature, unfortunately, to enjoy seeing the mighty fallen, to gloat at the downfall of those whom we consider to be superior to us because of wealth, fame, power, or attractiveness – all of which, assuming the Fair Youth of the Sonnets was indeed a nobleman, the young man would have possessed, if we take Shakespeare’s word for it that the Fair Youth was sexually attractive. Part of the reason many people enjoy celebrity-based reality TV shows (and celebrity gossip in tabloids and magazines) probably stems from this urge to gloat: it cuts two ways, encompassing both aspiration (we wish we were as rich, famous, and attractive as them) and a desire for superiority (they’re human just like us, and in fact, when they err or decline, they have much further to fall than the likes of us).
However, is it really that simple? Is this the straightforward meaning of Sonnet 94, that attractive people who have ugly personalities – beautiful people who use others and exploit their feelings, for instance – are worse than plain old ugly people who were nothing special to begin with? William Empson, in his Some Versions of Pastoral, argued that Sonnet 94 is actually ironic. After all, is it really a favourable quality to be unmoved and cold as ‘stone’? After all, we talk about unfeeling and uncaring people having ‘hearts of stone’, and there is something unsettling about the idea of such coldness being held up as a desirable trait. Similarly, the people Shakespeare praises in Sonnet 94 are ‘slow to temptation’, not immune to it altogether. They are ultimately fallible like the rest of us. And is it really a healthy thing to feel that you ‘own’ your beauty as a lord owns a manor? Self-possession is one thing, but lording it over others because you’re superior – and the talk of lords and stewards clearly implies such a hierarchy – isn’t a positive personality trait. (Elsewhere in the Sonnets, we can detect signs of the Fair Youth’s vanity and narcissism, making this part of Sonnet 94 even more barbed.) As Empson noted in his analysis of the poem, ‘Both owner and flower seem self-centred and inscrutable, and the cold person is at least like the lily in that it is symbolically chaste, but the summer’s flower, unlike the lily, seems to stand for the full life of instinct.’
Yet the point about Sonnet 94 is that both readings – ‘straight’ and ironic – work, and we can find good evidence for both interpretations of the sonnet in the poem itself. This is why it has attained such high status among the Sonnets, and why it continues to divide critics and readers. Which interpretation do you favour – should we take Shakespeare’s words at face value, or are there signs that he is guiding us towards quite a different conclusion?
If you found this analysis of Sonnet 94 useful, you can discover more about the Sonnets here.