sonnetCXII

Your love and pity doth the impression fill,
Which vulgar scandal stamped upon my brow;
For what care I who calls me well or ill,
So you o'er-green my bad, my good allow?
You are my all-the-world, and I must strive
To know my shames and praises from your tongue;
None else to me, nor I to none alive,
That my steeled sense or changes right or wrong.
In so profound abysm I throw all care
Of others' voices, that my adder's sense
To critic and to flatterer stopped are.
Mark how with my neglect I do dispense:
   You are so strongly in my purpose bred,
   That all the world besides methinks y'are dead.

A sonnet which seems to be so complex that no amount of teasing away at its lines can give an entirely satisfactory meaning to them. Lines 7, 8, 12, 13, and 14 are especially difficult. However it is worth focussing on the general theme, a theme which dominates the sonnet to such an extent that its force and presence overrides any particular difficulties and carries all before it like a river in torrent. That theme is summed up in line 5, You are my all the world, and in various forms it appears, disappears and re-appears. Thus 'What care I who talks of me, as long as you are aware of me'; 'For me, no one else in the universe exists apart from you. Other than that there is nothing'; 'Nothing, no force, no substance, no influence, can change what I feel for you'; 'I cast aside everything else in this world into the most bottomless pit, apart from my love for you'; 'I am deaf to everything which is uttered, aside from anything you might say, to which I am all ears'; 'I neglect myself entirely, and I listen only to you. That is how I organise my life'. 'You are my motives, my intentions, my everything. there is nothing else in me which has any strength'; 'You are my all the world. everything else in comparison with that is death and is in fact dead'.

In its totality of commitment and capitulation of self to the will of another there is very little in literature which compares with this sonnet. If anything it is close to the mystical sense of fulfilment achieved by devoting oneself entirely to the service of God. And in fact the mere claim that 'You are my all the world' does tread on the borders of religion, and almost offers a challenge to it. For where in the context of this all consuming devotion does the christian belief that Christ is the arbiter of right and wrong fit in? Perhaps the profound abysm in which the poet throws all care is really the abysm of hell, for there is certainly a hint of biblical reference in the introduction of the adder's sense, the adder being the serpent which brought about the fall of the human race and the expulsion from paradise.

With all these connections the sonnet links to the three others close by, 105, 106 and 108, all of which tread the thin line between blasphemy and humour, between sacred and profane. The love described here is close to idolatrous, if not actually so, and the poet admits that he has lost all knowledge of criticism, both of himself and of the youth.

The extent to which any reader takes all this abject but inspired self-abnegation seriously depends to a certain extent on that reader's personality. It is possible that we are intended to question it, to see it as being impossible because it is so extreme, even to see it as a spoof of courtly love taken to its ultimate limits. But it is also possible to take it as being deadly serious, a true account of a soul in love, a soul which sets no limits on the extent of its devotion, and in pursuit of that love will climb to the topmost heights of heaven, or sink in terror to the extremest regions of hell.

The 1609 Quarto Version

YOur loue and pittie doth th'impreſſion fill,
Which vulgar ſcandall ſtampt vpon my brow,
For what care I who calles me well or ill,
So you ore-greene my bad,my good alow?
You are my All the world,and I muſt ſtriue,
To know my ſhames and praiſes from your tounge,
None elſe to me,nor I to none aliue,
That my ſteel'd ſence or changes right or wrong,
In ſo profound Abiſme I throw all care
Of others voyces,that my Adders ſence,
To cryttick and to flatterer ſtopped are:
Marke how with my neglect I do diſpence.
   You are fo ſtrongly in my purpoſe bred,
   That all the world beſides me thinkes y'are dead.

Commentary

1. Your love and pity doth the impression fill,
This line clearly proceeds from the closing couplet of the previous sonnet
Pity me then, dear friend, and I assure ye,
Even that your pity is enough to cure me.

impression = indentation, scar, hollowness, depression. The image is that of a brand or mark seared by a branding iron. See the previous sonnet, line 5:
Thence comes it that my name receives a brand.
The idea is further developed in the next line. The impress of the branding iron is effectively removed (filled up, cured) by the pity and love of the youth, as one would fill up deep wrinkles with cosmetics. Felons who were branded often tried to disguise the mark by various means.

2. Which vulgar scandal stamped upon my brow;
See the note above. vulgar scandal = widespread gossip; malicious and base defamation. vulgar is connected with the Latin word vulgus, meaning the crowd of plebs, the rabble, the mob. The particular scandals or defamations referred to are not known. The language seems to be too strong to be describing only the inconvenience and social disadvantages caused by being a playwright and actor upon the stage.
stamped upon my brow
- refers probably to the disfiguring mark inflicted on a criminal's forehead (brow) by a branding iron, a practice dating back to Roman times and beyond. Figuratively the slanderers have branded the poet as a felon for his misdemeanours. KDJ thinks that the phrase may refer also to printing, and the pirated edition of the Passionate Pilgrim, with two sonnets stolen from Shakespeare, 138 and 144, sonnets which, taken out of context, could be seen as in some way being a source of scandal to the author.
3. For what care I who calls me well or ill,
'It is a matter of complete indifference to me whether anyone reports good of me, or if they report evil, as long as etc.'
who calls me well or ill = who praises or dispraises me. The phrase to call someone meaning 'to describe or comment on them' is not a usual idiom, but the context seems to fix the meaning here. There is also a pun in who calls me well, which is equivalent to who calls me by my name, Will. The pronunciation of the two words might have been the same, and the rhyme with ill assists with the punning association.
4. So you o'er-green my bad, my good allow?
So = as long as, provided.
o'er-green = cover over with green, make something look verdant and fresh (as opposed to old, evil, and decaying).
my good allow = admit that I have good points.
5. You are my all-the-world, and I must strive
You are my all the world - an echo of the couplet of 109:
For nothing this wide universe I call,
Save thou, my rose, in it thou art my all.

and other such all embracing claims, as

And thou, all they, hast all the all of me. 31

There is something so absolute, so totally self-effacing and blindly devoted in this declaration that one almost feels guilty to be present, as if one were a furtive eavesdropper hearing vows destined only for private ears. Other sonnets of the period, although they talk of the agony, the hopelessness, the infinity of love, always contrive to do so in poetic language. Here and in several other sonnets, (13.13, 22.9-10, 31.14, 48.7, 71.6, 72.3, 88.13, 108.4-6, 109.5 & 14, 112.4, 125.12, 126.1), the language is direct and unadorned, as if it deliberately eschews any ornament and will announce itself truthfully without any distraction of rich and extravagant phrase or garment. Of course there are a variety of ways of interpreting this. One could take it for example as the words of a sophisticate in love trapping his victim, i.e. the words are but empty formulae. Or it could be a caricature of the language of lovers, a tongue in cheek echo of the real world with all the nonsense and farrago of love which it contains. Or perhaps the poet wishes to parody the world of sonneteering by driving it to new extremes. (For what man in the real world calls another man his rose?) Or it could be deadly serious, the absolute truth, for the presence of such a direct and simple phrase in the midst of so much complexity invites one to read it as such.

6. To know my shames and praises from your tongue;
To know ... from your tongue = to take you as the arbiter of what is good and bad in me; to understand, when you tell me, the things which dishonour me, or are worthy of praise. As the pole star of his universe, his 'all the world', the poet must rely on the beloved for guidance in all things, to know if they are right or wrong.
7. None else to me, nor I to none alive,
7-8 - Two crucial lines which do not have a transparent meaning. Commentators have wrestled with the problem of deciphering them for the last two hundred years. Part of the difficulty is that this line lacks a verb, and the following line, which depends on this one because of the connecting word 'that', does not make clear what is subject or object, and has an awkward 'or.....or' clause embedded in it which might work in a variety of ways. I give some of the possible interpretations below. Readers desirous of more extensive explanations should consult SB pp. 364-372.

1). No one else exists for me, and I exist for no one, apart from you.
2). I listen to no other words (tongues), other than yours, and I live only for you.
3). No one else speaks to me, and I speak to no one else who is alive.

8. That my steeled sense or changes right or wrong.
That = with the result that
my steeled sense = my hardened resolution; my obdurate perceptions;
or changes right or wrong = changes either what is right or what is wrong (into what you dictate as right and wrong).
This meaning depends on taking steeled sense as the subject of the verb changes, and taking the or...or clause as if it were or right or wrong, i.e. either right or wrong.
KDJ adopts the emendation
my steeled sense o'erchanges right or wrong
which suggests that the steeled sense of the poet transmutes right and wrong (into their opposites??).
None of these meanings is entirely satisfactory. George Steevens, one of the earliest Shakespeare editors, glossed these two lines as:
'You are the only person who has the power to change my stubborn resolution either to what is right, or to what is wrong'.
It indeed appears that they are saying something like this, but whether the phraseology was intended to suggest other meanings, whether it should be emended, whether it is deliberately obscure, it is impossible for anyone now to determine.
9. In so profound abysm I throw all care
In so profound abysm = in such a deep chasm, into some remote abyss; into hell (the bottomless pit). See the introductory note above.
all care
= all concern for the outside world, all consideration of others (apart from you).
10. Of others' voices, that my adder's sense
voices = words, comments, strictures. The pronuncitation apparently was the same as for vices.
my adder's sense
= my hearing, which is like that of the adder, who apparently stops up his ears to external sound rather than listen to unpleasantness. It was believed that the adder, for some obscure reason, (perhaps to avoid being told that he was an evil serpent), blocked up his ears by placing one firmly on the ground and stopping the other with the tip of his/her tail. Probably the myth arose through sightings of adders lying intertwined on the hot ground. Also, the biblical passage in the Psalms is probably here alluded to: 'The wicked are estranged from the womb: they go astray as soon as they be born, speaking lies. Their poison is like the poison of a serpent: they are like the deaf adder that stoppeth her ear: which will not hearken to the voice of charmers, charming never so wisely'. Ps.58.3-5.

See also the introductory note above.

11. To critic and to flatterer stopped are.
critic = one who makes critical comments on my conduct. (The word did not at that time mean a critic or commentator of the theatre).
stopped = blocked up, to prevent hearing anything either from critics or flatterers. Only the voice of the youth is listened to.
12. Mark how with my neglect I do dispense:
my neglect = neglect of myself; neglect of others.
dispense = explain, excuse; get by. The mark how at the beginning (= observe how) suggests that the explanation of how he behaves is to follow in the couplet.
13. You are so strongly in my purpose bred,
'You are so deeply ingrained in my mind and person'. 'My purposes and motives are so deeply reliant on you'. 'You are my all the world' (line 5).
14. That all the world besides methinks y'are dead.
Several readings and interpretations of this line are possible. 1). All the world in comparison with you is as if dead. 2). All the world, apart from me, thinks you are dead (because you occupy me entirely and they cannot see you). 3). Setting aside all the rest of the world, I think it must be dead [taking y' as equivalent to th' ]. 4.) I ruminate on the fact that all the rest of the world, apart from you, is dead.