sonnetCXXII

Thy gift, thy tables, are within my brain
Full charactered with lasting memory,
Which shall above that idle rank remain,
Beyond all date, even to eternity:
Or, at the least, so long as brain and heart
Have faculty by nature to subsist;
Till each to razed oblivion yield his part
Of thee, thy record never can be missed.
That poor retention could not so much hold,
Nor need I tallies thy dear love to score;
Therefore to give them from me was I bold,
To trust those tables that receive thee more:
   To keep an adjunct to remember thee
   Were to import forgetfulness in me.

The poet admits to having given away, or to having lost, a notebook which was a gift to him from the youth. The insignificance of the event has led commentators to believe that the detail must be biographical, for it is too trivial to be part of a traditional sonnet sequence of lofty sentiments, and therefore probably relates to an actual incident. The idea of tables (a notebook) to record the loved one's perfections had already been used by Ronsard in one of his sonnets, an extract of which is given below. The difference seems to be that Ronsard's sonnet expresses the ideal of a sublime love, whereas Shakespeare seems to relate much more to the untidiness of lived experience. He has committed a serious fault in carelessly giving away a gift which he appears not to have used. Yet this was from the beloved whom he claimed to love more than anything else in the world. He can only excuse this fault by claimimg that all is retained forever in the security of his mind, or, if not forever, for as long as he lives and breathes. This is something of a descent from the heights of immortality. But what else can be done - the fault has been found out and an excuse must be invented? In the circumstances this is not a bad one, and the youth has the additional satisfaction of being told that he will always be at the forefront of his lover's thoughts.

 

It is possible that the poem is the result of a gradual cooling off over a longish period . The youth was away, (perhaps imprisoned in the Tower) and the lack of contact led to forgetfulness, a disregard of the past and the discarding of the notebook. On his unexpected return the youth enquired after it, and had to be met with evasions and excuse. It seems unlikely that the notebook is the one referred to in sonnet 77, now filled with the youth's own memoranda. For the giving away of such a treasure would be an unforgivable act, rather like the loss of Desdemona's handkerchief. I have therefore taken the view that this gift is a separate one, a blank notebook, given to the poet for him to record his observations. Something of a superfluity we might conjecture, for the plays contain so much more than any tables might have held, that to demand that he keep a further adjunct to himself imports a thoughtlessness in the youth that no reading could remedy.

Il ne falloit, Maitresse, autres tablettes
Pour vous graver, que celles de mon coeur,
Où de sa main Amour nostre veinquer
Vous a gravée, et vos graces parfaite.

Ronsard Les Amours diverse (1578) Sonn 4.

 

No other notebook would be needed, Mistress, to write you down, than that of my heart, where Love, the great vanquisher, has inscribed you with his own hand, you and all your perfections.

The 1609 Quarto Version

TThy guift,,thy tables,are within my braine
Full characterd with laſting memory,
Which ſhall aboue that idle rancke remaine
Beyond all date euen to eternity.
Or at the leaſt,ſo long as braine and heart
Haue facultie by nature to ſubſiſt,
Til each to raz'd obliuion yeeld his part
Of thee,thy record neuer can be miſt:
That poore retention could not ſo much hold,
Nor need I tallies thy deare loue to skore,
Therefore to giue them from me was I bold,
To truſt thoſe tables that receaue thee more,
   To keepe an adiunckt to remember thee,
   Were to import forgetfulneſſe in mee.

Commentary

1. Thy gift, thy tables, are within my brain
tables = a notebook in which occasional observations, aphorisms, remarks of friends, etc. were written. Hamlet jots down in his tables that 'one may smile, and smile, and be a villain'. Ham.I.5.108. It seems to have been a common practice among gentlemen of the period to keep such a book. There is no modern equivalent, except perhaps that of keeping a diary, but the habit of writing in tables seems to have been widespread in Elizabethan times, and more of a shared experience than that of confiding one's thoughts to a diary. OED 2.b. gives 'A small portable tablet for writing upon, esp. for notes or memoranda'. It seems more likely that one would give as a gift an empty notebook for the friend to fill, (as in Sonnet 77), rather than that one would make a gift of 'tables' already crammed with the record of one's best thoughts. (See the introductory note).
are within my brain - i.e. the contents are recorded in my memory. Subsequent reading of the sonnet, however, suggests that the 'tables' were only blank sheets of notepaper, so the implication of this line is 'The thoughts which I intended to record on these blank sheets of paper are etched forever in my memory. The physical presence of the paper itself is superfluous'.
are
- the plural verb is used because tables is either a singular or plural noun, depending on whether one visualises it as a bundle of blank leaves, or as a single item.
2. Full charactered with lasting memory,
Full charactered = written out in full. Shakespeare uses to character meaning 'to write' in Polonius' advice to Laertes:
These few precepts in thy memory
Look thou character
. Ham.I.3.58-9.
lasting memory = memory which does not fade.
3. Which shall above that idle rank remain,
Which - the antecedent is dubious. 'Thy gift, thy tables' is the first option, but since it clearly will not last for all eternity, and has already been lost, it is probably best to take the last mentioned item, the poet's lasting memory, which is promised to last beyond all date.
idle rank = trivial list of items (which I would have recorded had I kept the book). The word rank also suggests social precedence. idle has a wide range of derogatory meanings. Compare for example
With burdocks, hemlock, nettles, cuckoo-flowers,
Darnel, and all the idle weeds that grow
In our sustaining corn.
KL.IV.4.4-6.
4. Beyond all date, even to eternity:
Beyond all date = forever, beyond any possible final date or termination.
5. Or, at the least, so long as brain and heart
Or, at the least - This qualification immediately seems to undermine the thought of the poem, because the lofty ideas of immortality are suddenly thrown aside in favour of the body's decay. Perhaps the desire is to contrast the constancy of love with the frailty and impermanence of human life.
6. Have faculty by nature to subsist;
have faculty by nature = have their nature so constructed as to....
to subsist
= to survive, to exist.
7. Till each to razed oblivion yield his part
Till each = until each one, brain and heart. They were the source of thoughts and emotions.
razed oblivion = oblivion, which razes all things to the ground; oblivion, which is so destructive that it is itself razed to the ground. to raze is to flatten, to level to the ground. A verb usually used to describe the action of armies after they have conquered a city.
yield his part / Of thee
= gives up its memory of you. The construction leads one first to read it as 'till each one gives up its existence', but the commencement of the next line forces a revision of the meaning. It also creates a sort of breathlessness, so that the phrase thy record never can be missed acquires a special character, etching it in the memory.
8. Of thee, thy record never can be missed.
thy record = the things recorded of you in the notebook, hence, by extension, a record of you as you were then.
missed = lost, seen to be missing, because destroyed.
9. That poor retention could not so much hold,
That poor retention = that notebook, which has only limited space to record details of you, and is therefore a wretched thing in comparison with my memory.
10. Nor need I tallies thy dear love to score;
tallies = notches on a board, adjuncts to memory.
to score
= to mark on a tally board. Debts were marked (notched, scored) on a tally stick, which was then cut in half, the debtor and the creditor each keeping half of the stick. The reference may be more general however and relate to any sort of marking as a record of articles consumed or used in some way. OED.2.a. gives an example from 1577 : In buieng of drinke, by the firkin or pot, The tallie ariseth, but hog amendes not. Shakespeare does not use the word other than here, and he only uses tally once, in a revealing passage from Henry VI Part II:
Thou hast most traitorously corrupted the youth of the realm in erecting a grammar school; and whereas, before, our forefathers had no other books but the score and the tally, thou hast caused printing to be used, and, contrary to the king, his crown and dignity, thou hast built a paper-mill.
2H6.IV.7.29-34.
11. Therefore to give them from me was I bold,
them = the tables.
was I bold
= I was confident that it was all right to do so.
12. To trust those tables that receive thee more:
to trust = because I could trust and rely on.
those tables that receive thee more
= the other tables, i.e. my brain, which is more receptive to you and therefore keeps a better record.
13. To keep an adjunct to remember thee
an adjunct = something in addition, something attached to another object. A memento or reminder. From the Latin adiunctio = a joining to, a union.
14. Were to import forgetfulness in me.
Were to import = would indicate, would imply.
forgetfulness in me
- which obviously cannot be, since my love for you prevents me from ever forgetting you.