Shakespeare (1599) Sonnet 90 continues the thought developed in Sonnet 89. The speaker asks that, if the beloved young man plans to hate him, he do it now, so that this most disastrous blow will mitigate all later pain. If the hatred comes later, after lesser setbacks have occurred, it will strike an already grieving man as catastrophe. The sonnet is built around elements of time's contrasts—then/when, now/then, first/last—and comparisons. All of these elements blend to make a poignant statement of the speaker's lack of confidence in the beloved's reliability.
The first word of this English sonnet, Then, sets up the relation with when and the paired now (ll. 1-2), and connects with Sonnet 89 when understood as "therefore." The speaker is not certain the young man ever will hate him, but if he is going to, the speaker asks that he show it now. Already "the world is bent my deeds to cross" (l. 2)—that is, everyone is determined to frustrate the speaker's goals. If the beloved joins "with the spite of fortune" (l. 3), the speaker must bow only once, whereas if the beloved "drop[s] in for an after-loss" (l. 4), the speaker's suffering is extended. "After-loss" is colored by expressions such as "afterthought," which emphasizes the casual, incidental nature of the deed.
The second quatrain rephrases and reiterates the plea: Do not come to beat down a defeated man, begs the speaker. "Give not a windy night a rainy morrow, / To linger out a purpos'd overthrow" (l. 7) adds a meteorological image to the military metaphor in which it is embedded. It also incorporates a bit of weather-wise folk wisdom: It was common to assert that a windy night promised a calm day, or that the coming of rain would calm blustering winds. In any event, the speaker begs the beloved not to prolong his agony.
The third quatrain shows again the conditional nature of the speaker's preoccupation: "If thou wilt leave me . . ." (l. 9). Here his concern is that he not be abandoned by the young man "last," after "petty griefs have done their spite" (l. 10), because this would not be a petty grief, but "the very worst" (l. 12). The couplet underscores the message: If you leave me, any other disaster will not seem disastrous by comparison.
Sonnet 90 pays the young man quite a compliment by yielding to him absolute influence over the speaker, who does not portray himself in a very positive light. Throughout this sonnet, the speaker's uneasiness remains unsupported by any facts. He offers no evidence in this poem that there is a reason for the projected desertion; it seems to be all in his mind. His only, and reiterated, concern is that, if the beloved leaves him, it should be at a time when it will dwarf all other disasters: "But in the onset come, so shall I taste / At first the very worst of fortune's might" (ll. 11-12). This second reference to "fortune" (also in l. 3) suggests that the speaker is unaware of having done anything to deserve his friend's departure, but he fears it anyway. This anxiety links Sonnet 90 thematically with the sonnets around it.
See also Shakespeare, William; Shakespeare's sonnets (overview).
Marjory E. Lange
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