Not mine own fears, nor the prophetic soul
Of the wide world dreaming on things to come,
Can yet the lease of my true love control,
Supposed as forfeit to a confined doom.
The mortal moon hath her eclipse endured,
And the sad augurs mock their own presage;
Incertainties now crown themselves assured,
And peace proclaims olives of endless age.
Now with the drops of this most balmy time,
My love looks fresh, and Death to me subscribes,
Since, spite of him, I'll live in this poor rhyme,
While he insults o'er dull and speechless tribes:
And thou in this shalt find thy monument,
When tyrants' crests and tombs of brass are spent.
Of all the sonnets this is the most difficult to give an adequate summary of, or to delve into its many meanings. It appears to be pregnant with hidden mysteries, and references abound to what appear to be contemporary events, situations and personalities. The majesty of the opening lines fills one with a sense of impending revelation, which indeed follows in the next two quatrains, but unfortunately, as soon as the spotlight of analysis is turned upon them, all the hidden meanings cloak themselves in mist, and the references to peace, mortal moons, the augurs and the balmy times evaporate into uncertain generalisations with no footing anywhere.
Nevertheless, since this has always been seen as an obvious dating sonnet, the effort must be made to place it somehow or other at a specific moment in history. I make out a case below for 1605, (notes to lines 5-8), since this was the date of a lunar eclipse (and a solar one also, a fact which must have kept the soothsayers exceedingly busy). Other recent commentators have opted for 1603 and 1604, and the early date of 1588 which was at one time proposed, based on the alleged reference to the crescent formation of the Spanish Armada, seems now generally to have been abandoned as unworkable. Coupled with the fact that Sonnets 99 and 104 refer respectively to 1599 and 1604, it seems appropriate that we have here also a date within the likely time span of composition.
Below I set out a list of the historical events which modern scholarship has suggested is referred to in the sonnet, together with the line which contains the reference.
It is important however to separate the question of the potential historical reference points, which may or may not be dateable, from the wider question of what the poem is attempting to say.
The first quatrain, taken in the context of what follows, seems to suggest that the prognostications of doom that the poet's fears and the spirit of the world had prompted were entirely wrong. They have wrongly suggested that the poet's love is circumscribed by time and death, whereas he now knows it to be everlasting. This is confirmed in the second quatrain by the descriptions of failure and error of the augurs in giving misleading and false predictions, for the dooms and catastrophes that they foretold have turned out instead to be times of peace and tranquility, and a quickening of love. Death has been conquered, despite the prognostications of soothsayers, and the rapacity of Time, and the beloved youth, through the force of this verse, will outlive the monuments of all kings and princes, however opulent they may be.
POSSIBLE HISTORICAL REFERENCES
5. The mortal moon hath her eclipse endured,
See the note on this line below, where I argue for the date 1605, and the lunar eclipse in October of that year. Other dates and events suggested are as follows.
1. 1595. The year of another lunar eclipse. I have not opted for this date because none of the other references, to peace, to crowning and to the balmy time, none of these are congruent to that or even to the following year. The moon was said to be mortal because it died every lunar month.
2. 1595-6. The year of Elizabeth's grand climacteric, when she was 63. Being the product of two mystic numbers, seven and nine, such a year in a person's life was thought to be supremely critical. (See commentaries on Sonnet 63 and Sonnet 81). The identification of Elizabeth with the moon, or Diana, was a commonplace of the courtly and literary flattery of the time, so it is easy to accept that the mortal moon could have referred to her. However it is unclear why a grand climacteric year should be referred to as an eclipse, and the subsequent references to peace etc. do not seem to be appropriate .
3. 1599. Elizabeth was rumoured to be seriously ill, but survived her illness.
4. 1603. The year of Elizabeth's death. This requires us to accept that hath her eclipse endured means 'has suffered her own death', a possible interpretation, but by no means certain. The other events referred to follow on from her death.
5. 1605. The year of a lunar eclipse in October. The subsequent events referred to are still equally valid if we accept this slightly later date.
7. Incertainties now crown themselves assured,
The incertainties are probably those which relate to James I, Elizabeth's successor. James VI of Scotland was never acknowledged by Elizabeth as heir to the throne. There were at least 12 other contenders, and the possibility of civil war loomed. In the event the transition from Elizabeth I to James I (James VI of Scotland became James I of England and Scotland) ran smoothly, and there was widespread rejoicing. The use of the word crowned helps to fix the reference more securely as relevant to a king. James acceded to the throne in March 1603, and had a modest coronation on 25th July 1603, but there was a severe outbreak of the plague in London, causing the king and court to leave. His ceremonial entry into London, which was done on a grand scale, did not take place till the spring of 1604. It is probable that this sonnet post dates the triumphal entry, since the new reign would hardly have the opportunity to show itself in its true colours before the court was re-established in the capital.
8. And peace proclaims olives of endless age.
James I boasted of the peace he had initiated and secured on his accession to the English throne. He ended the war with Spain, which had lasted, albeit sporadically, for the previous twenty years. The Peace terms were agreed in late 1604.
9. Now with the drops of this most balmy time,
The imagery is essentially that of a plant being refreshed by the rain, but balm was a rich unguent used at the coronation to anoint the monarch, and Shakespeare in Richard II cites it as symbolic of the sacred person of the king.
Not all the water in the rough rude sea
Can wash the balm off from an anointed king. R2.III.2.54-5.
In the history plays, it seems, for Shakespeare, balm is associated with kingship. On the other hand it is worth noting that for the only two other uses of the word balmy in the corpus the word does not have this meaning, but conveys the more usual sense of 'soft, fragrant, soothing, delicious'. More significant is perhaps the fact that these two occurrences are found in Othello, a play which is thought to have been written in 1604.
I'll smell thee on the tree.
Oh balmy breath, that dost almost persuade
Justice to break her sword! Oth.V.2.16
To have their balmy slumbers waked with strife. Oth.II.2.259.
Its use here could therefore pertain as much to the soft and pleasant enjoyment of peacetime pursuits, as to the political achievement of peace with all nations which James claims to have effected.
10. My love looks fresh,
The two main contenders for the title of the beloved youth had reasons for rejoicing when James ascended the throne. Southampton was released by the king from the tower on 10 April 1603, as one of the first acts of his accession. And Pembroke was installed as a Knight of the Garter on 25 June 1603.
For further information on all these points of dating, see JK pp.313-19 and KDJ Intro. pp.21-4. (See General notes for these refs.)
The 1609 Quarto Version
NOt mine owne feares,nor the prophetick ſoule,
Of the wide world,dreaming on things to come,
Can yet the leaſe of my true loue controule,
Suppoſde as forfeit to a confin'd doome.
The mortall Moone hath her eclipſe indur'de,
And the ſad Augurs mock their owne preſage,
Incertenties now crowne them-ſelues aſſur'de,
And peace proclaimes Oliues of endleſſe age.
Now with the drops of this moſt balmie time,
My loue lookes freſh,and death to me ſubſcribes,
Since ſpight of him Ile liue in this poore rime,
While he inſults ore dull and ſpeachleſſe tribes.
And thou in this ſhalt find thy monument,
When tyrants creſts and tombs of braſſe are ſpent.