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.