The Poem

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Sonnet 94 is a typical English or Shakespearean sonnet: fourteen lines of iambic pentameter rhymed abab, cdcd, efef, gg. This rhyme scheme effectively divides the poem into three quatrains and a closing couplet, unlike the Italian or Petrarchan sonnet, which tends to be structured as an octave and sestet. In Sonnet 94, William Shakespeare’s first-person voice of the lover extols the virtue of stoic restraint and suggests that acting on emotions corrupts the natural nobility of a person’s character and, thus, compromises identity itself.

The first line opens the poem with a subject and a restrictive clause that describes the stoic character: Such persons have the power to act, to hurt others, but refuse to do so. The next three lines of the quatrain elaborate on this quality through a series of restrictive clauses: Though such persons may seem to threaten to act, they do not; they move others to act but are themselves unmoved, show little emotion, and restrain themselves from temptation.

Having defined the subject with these restrictive clauses, this rather long opening sentence finally arrives at the verb in line 5: “do inherit.” Persons who can exercise such restraint are the proper recipients of grace (divine assistance or protection) and, in turn, protect the earthly manifestations of grace (“nature’s riches”) from waste. Those who can restrain their emotions and actions, moreover, are in control of their own identities—that is, they are not fickle or quick to change but constant. Such persons truly may be said to follow the advice voiced by Polonius in Hamlet (c. 1600-1601): “To thine own self be true.” Others, the poem continues, rightly must be subservient to the virtues kept alive by such stoic characters.

In line 9, the formal “turn” in the sonnet, the poem shifts to a new conceit, that of the “summer’s flower” as a metaphor for human identity. Though as an individual one recognizes one’s value to oneself as self-evident in the fact of one’s existence, one’s life also has a value to the age and community in which one flourishes: The flowers of summer are “sweet” to the summer itself and contribute to making the summer the pleasant season it is. The speaker adds, however, that if that flower allows itself to be corrupted, then the value of that flower’s identity—not simply to itself, but to its community as well—becomes lost, and, in that event, even weeds seem more dignified.

The couplet reiterates this point: Virtue may be corrupted by actions—“Sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds”—and such corrupted virtue is far more damaging to a community than the baseness and vices of individuals—“weeds”—who had no potential for beauty and virtue in the first place.

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