Forms and Devices

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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 to another seemingly unrelated one is characteristic of Shakespeare’s methods in the sonnets. It is also perhaps one reason that his contemporary, Ben Jonson, said of Shakespeare, sufflaminandus erat (that he needed to put on the brakes, to restrain his free ways with the language). One need not share, however, in Jonson’s criticism of his illustrious friend. Instead, one should see this leap as a device that, like metaphor itself, leads one to new and surprising perspectives on its subject.

The natural beauty of the flower is also responsible to its environs, as the stoic is to nature’s riches and as others are to the stoic himself. Additionally, its natural beauty, like the nobility of the stoic, can be so corrupted by “deeds” that it becomes inferior to those of less beauty or those of lower social rank—“weeds.” The final rhyme of these two words, “deeds” and “weeds,” makes emphatic the connection between unrestrained action and the corruption of personal identity and social responsibility.

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