Shakespeare (1599) Sonnet 98 continues the romantic themes of Sonnet 97, in which the narrator grieves the absence of his beloved during the "barrenness" of winter and finds it impossible to bear spring or summer without the object of his affection. Pining for his beloved during spring—a time of birdsongs (l. 5), flowers (ll. 6, 9, 10), and delight (l. 11)—the poet of Sonnet 98 yearns for his lover and cannot enjoy the season's gifts of birth, regrowth, and beauty. While new life and beauty are evident, even spurring "heavy Saturn" (associated with old age and Father Time, 1.4) to rejoice, the woeful speaker finds foul company in "April, dressed in all his trim" (l. 2). Although he speaks of "the lily's white," "the deep vermillion of the rose," and of "the sweet smell"—poetically "playing" with spring—several contradictory conjunctions, such as yet, or, nor, and but, reveal that the speaker loves and misses his beloved, and they possibly point to an awareness that his feelings are selfish. Clearly these words reveal his contradictory state of mind and echo and emphasize the winter-spring binary in this and the sonnet before it.
The object of affection is not revealed in Sonnet 98—or in the previous and following sonnets. Not only is the gender of the beloved unclear, so is the precise nature of the relationship between the poet and his loved one. Nevertheless, the repeated use of the word you and its variations, including your, youth, and hue, gives attention to and exposes the poet's fascination with the absent beloved. Written in past tense, this sonnet perhaps indicates that the lovers are no longer separated, or that he is passing judgment and assigning guilt to the beloved, or the narrator could simply be selfish and dramatic in the absence of love and lack of time, two themes found in many of Shakespeare's sonnets. Sonnet 98 also relies on a number of obvious erotic wordplays. The most obvious of the sexual references in Sonnet 98 is the "lily" (l. 9) and the "rose" (l. 10), both expressions of female sexuality. A closer look gives way to phallic reference as well: the alliteration of line 8's "proud lap pluck."
See also Shakespeare, William; Shakespeare's sonnets (overview).
Shakespeare's sonnets: Sonnet 99 ("The forward violet thus did I chide") William Shakespeare (1599) Sonnet 99 is one of a pair of sonnets (with Sonnet 98) whose unexploited insinuations about sexual love give it an unusual illusive dimension. William Shakespeare sets out to answer two unspoken questions about origins: How did certain plants get their aromas? And how did certain plants get their color? In the process, he takes full advantage of traditional Petrarchan conceits. In the couplet, the poet concludes that every flower he has seen has stolen odor or color from his beloved.
This is a 15-line sonnet, the only one Shakespeare wrote. Line 1 is introductory, resulting in a five-line first "quatrain" with an ababa rhyme scheme. Apart from this anomaly, Sonnet 99 is a structurally normal English sonnet, although there is a turn after line 7 as well as at the couplet. If the reader treats the first five lines as a "quatrain," this volta indicates that there is an inverted Italian logic at work here, providing a kind of structural ambiguity echoing the many linguistic ambiguities.
The first line sets up an embedded speech, where the speaker says he scolded the early ("forward") violet. Forward can also mean presumptuous; this ambiguity provides the poet with the basic contrasts that play out through the sonnet. In lines 2-5, the speaker addresses the violet oxymoronically as "sweet thief" (l. 2). This is a traditional conceit, but on this occasion sweet does not describe a mistress, and thief is not the hyperbolic characterization of an attractive person. violets are flowers, "sweet" by nature, and this one is being whimsically accused of a real theft—of stealing "that sweet that smells" (l. 2) from the beloved's breath. The rest of the quatrain, and indeed, the eight-and-one-half lines, shift from aroma to color. The violet, says the poet, gets its color from the beloved's complexion. As with forward, purple (l. 3) has two connotations, red and violet, so the violet is accused of stealing its rich purple from the red blush of the beloved.
In the second quatrain, the speaker shifts so that the rest of the sonnet addresses the beloved: When the speaker says he "condemned" the lily "for thy hand" (l. 6), he is blaming this whitest of flowers for stealing its color from the beloved's fairness. Similarly, the "marje-rom" (marjoram) is accused of stealing its color from the beloved's hair, which thus would seem to be dark auburn—or brown-haired. Alternatively, the marjoram could be guilty of having taken the waviness of the beloved's hair; the ambiguity could be resolved only by identifying the beloved.
Lines 8-12 detail the much more serious and thoroughgoing thefts perpetrated by the roses. These are discovered standing fearfully on thorns (l. 8); the phrase is proverbial, describing a person in a state of painful anxiety. Roses also, of course, stand on the ends of their thorny stems, and "thorns" also traditionally can replace "rose bush" in a synecdoche. The poet personifies the colors of the first two roses: one is "blushing shame," that is, bright red; the other "white despair" (l. 9). The third rose is "nor red nor white" (l. 10), presumably because it has passed its prime and its petals have fallen. The poet exploits this state to indicate the fate of any flower presumptuous enough to have appropriated not only the beloved's color but also the fragrance ("to his robb'ry had annex'd thy breath," l. 11); it has been eaten by "a vengeful canker" (l. 12), the cankerworm. What makes this fate particularly gruesome for this rose is that canker generally attacks buds, not full-blown roses. The heinous crime has produced a shocking outcome. Thus, the poet has built a crescendo up through the levels of felony until he has reached the worst theft and the only explicit punishment.
The couplet moves away from the destruction of the thieves to praise the beloved by asserting that the speaker found no flower "But sweet or color it had stol'n from thee" (l. 14). Every flower in the garden obtained either its aroma or its beautiful hue—or, as in the case of the canker-infested rose, both—from the beloved.
See also Shakespeare's sonnets (overview).
Marjory E. Lange
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