O! never say that I was false of heart,
Though absence seemed my flame to qualify,
As easy might I from my self depart
As from my soul which in thy breast doth lie:
That is my home of love: if I have ranged,
Like him that travels, I return again;
Just to the time, not with the time exchanged,
So that myself bring water for my stain.
Never believe though in my nature reigned,
All frailties that besiege all kinds of blood,
That it could so preposterously be stained,
To leave for nothing all thy sum of good;
For nothing this wide universe I call,
Save thou, my rose, in it thou art my all.
After a period of separation the poet asserts his undying loyalty to the youth. However, he cannot deny that his standards have slipped somewhat, and that he has ranged abroad and tasted other fruit. His guilt is such that he has to acknowledge the stain on the purity of his pure love, which he undertakes to cleanse with tears. The argument in his defence seems to be that all his extraneous attachments have been entirely superficial, for it would be impossible for him to separate himself from his beloved, since they are one, and that no one in the universe, not even the universe itself, could match the sum of beauty and goodness which he beholds and clings to in the wonderful boy, whom he likens once again to a rose, the most perfect flower in creation.
The final couplet, in its totality of commitment and devotion, equals anything the poet has yet said to the beloved youth, and bears testimony to the immortality of his love.
For comments on and description of the rose, in Gerard's Herbal, first published in 1597, and therefore contemporary with the Sonnets, see end of page.
The sonnet seems to spring from an accusation of unfaithfulness. An accusation which the poet denies, using a certain amount of sophistry in the process. He does not deny that he has had other loves, he merely claims that they were nothing in comparison with the great joy of loving what is everything to him, his all, his universe, his rose. Unfortunately these are the excuses of the philanderer throughout the ages, and the formulae of repentance ring even more hollowly than the formulae of prayer repeated in the previous sonnet. However the game of loving declarations and exchanges must be played over once more, and poetry will make it seem true. And despite the apparent cynicism of some of the arguments, the greater preponderance of the sonnet is devoted to reestablishing the rapport and idealism of the initial love when first they met. The sincerity and devotion of the last two lines redeems the otherwise lame excuses in the eyes of all lovers.
It is worth pointing out that the separation and 'ranging' here described could have arisen as a result of the youth's absence, rather than any enforced or wilful wandering of the poet. If the Earl of Southampton was the favoured youth, the estrangement could have been caused by his imprisonment in the Tower of London, after the Essex rebellion in 1601, an imprisonment from which he was not released until the accession of James I to the throne. Such confinement would obviously remove him from contact with his friends, and they would thus have the freedom to roam 'here and there' without excuses having to be made. On Southampton's release the charge of unfaithfulness would then have to be defended, if the former rapture of love was to be renewed.
The 1609 Quarto Version
ONeuer ay that I was falſe of heart,
Though abſence ſeem'd my flame to quallifie,
As eaſie might I from my ſelfe depart,
As from my ſoule which in thy breſt doth lye:
That is my home of loue,if I haue rang'd,
Like him that trauels I returne againe,
Iuſt to the time,not with the time exchang'd,
So that my ſelfe bring water for my ſtaine,
Neuer beleeue though in my nature raign'd
All frailties that beſiege all kindes of blood,
That it could ſo prepoſterouſlie be ſtain'd,
To leaue for nothing all thy ſumme of good :
For nothing this wide Vniuerſe I call,
Saue thou my Roſe,in it thou art my all.