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Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The most striking device in the opening five lines of Sonnet 94 is the repeated use of the word “do” in the sense of “perform” (“do none,” line 1); as an intensifier (“do show,” line 2); in both senses (“do not do,” line 2); and finally, again, as an intensifier to emphasize the verb (“do inherit,” line 5). Although the poem is about persons who restrain their actions, this repetition of the most basic word for performing an action, “do,” suggests that actions are being performed. In fact, though, if one looks at the grammar of this first sentence, one sees that all but one of these instances of the word are contained within restrictive clauses, and the main verb of the subject “they” is restrained, as it were, until the second quatrain: “do inherit” in line 5. The sentence thus echoes the sense that the “thing they most do show,” like the appearance of grammatical action in “do,” is restrained. When one does get to that main verb, moreover, it is a verb not of doing but of receiving, of inheriting.

The poem introduces its most significant metaphor in the second quatrain. The speaker compares this stoicism to legal inheritance and ownership of land, land that is then cultivated and made productive. Ownership of land was, in the sixteenth century, a traditional privilege of the nobility, although this rapidly was changing as members of the mercantile middle class accumulated more and more wealth. In lines 7 and 8, this metaphor depicts the relationship between the stoic personality and others in terms of social rank: The former is a lord for whom others are but servants. (It should be noted, however, that both types are, in effect, “stewards,” with some serving the stoic’s “excellence” and the stoic himself serving to protect “nature’s riches.”)

The third quatrain makes a surprising leap from these images of land and social rank to the image of the summer flower. The suddenness of this shift from one image...

(The entire section is 495 words.)