Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 497
Sonnet 91 by William Shakespeare is a relaxed work when compared to its predecessor, Sonnet 90 (“Then hate me when thou wilt, if ever, now”). The initial quatrain of Sonnet 91 is clear; it remarks that there are those who glory in birth, skill, wealth, strength, and worldly possessions.
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The poet is establishing in the first quatrain a platform from which he will depart. The seemingly sardonic nature of this introduction becomes clear with the reference in line 3 to the “new-fangled ill”—a description of clothes that are fashionable but ugly. The unattractiveness of material possessions serves as a metaphor that is related to the implicit ugliness of the other attributes mentioned. The second quatrain begins by excusing the vanities of those who prize the attributes listed in the first quatrain. The narrator simply says that each person’s “humor”—personality or temperament—finds some joy that it particularly prizes. The quatrain ends, however, with the speaker turning to his own preferences. He interjects that none of those individual tastes suit him. Further, he states, he is able to do them all one better in “one general best.”
That “general best” is named in the first line of the third quatrain, where the narrator identifies it as the love of the woman he loves. He then explicitly states that his love means more to him than high birth, skill, and material wealth or possessions. This idea separates him from those mentioned in the first quatrain, for he has put his love above all else. The narrator, however, omits a comparison with the strength that is prized by some in the first quatrain.
In the final couplet, Sonnet 91 abruptly assumes a paradoxical tone. The apparent adulation of the previous quatrain gives way to the narrator’s recognition of the power that his lover holds over him and of the vulnerable, if not tenuous, position in which he has placed himself. The narrator admits that this love makes him “wretched” in one respect: He recognizes that his lover can take from him what he desires most—she herself. The end result of such an action would leave him even more wretched.
The departure in the last couplet from the initial quatrains illustrates the irony of love: One is wretched while in love and one is wretched when love has ended. The other attributes first mentioned and then disregarded by the narrator are all elements in which the possessors have some kind of control; they are all theirs to lose and cannot be taken from them. All those attributes either must be relinquished by neglect or bad decisions or must be willingly released. This is not the case with love. The final couplet of Sonnet 91 illustrates the vulnerability of one who succumbs to love. Once this has occurred, the lover is at the mercy of his beloved; it is the one whom he adores who holds his happiness. The narrator fears that he may one day lose the one thing he holds dearest.