‘Sonnet 146‘ is one of William Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets. It is one of several poems in the ‘Dark Lady’ sequence of sonnets. These poems contend with the speaker’s love for a woman who treats him with contempt and cruelty. In ‘Sonnet 146,’ the speaker talks to the soul, attempting to convince it to focus on inward spirituality and stop allowing him to spend so much time concerned about the physical world. Considering the previous sonnets, it seems unlikely that the speaker is going to be able to cut off ties with the woman who consumes his every thought.
Explore Sonnet 146
’Sonnet 146’ by William Shakespeare is about the speaker’s relationship with the Dark Lady and how it’s taken his focus away from his spiritual health.
In the first line of ‘Sonnet 146,’ the speaker begins by addressing his “Poor soul.” It has to contend with a great deal, including the speaker’s continual focus on the exterior world. He knows it’s wrong of him to spend so much time worrying about earthly pleasures, but he can’t help it. The speaker tries to place some blame on his soul for allowing him to get so off track. In the second half of the poem, the speaker spends the lines attempting to convince his soul to spend its time focused on the speaker’s inward health. If it can, then it will “eat Death,” and once dead, “Death” will be unable to take the speaker’s life. Immortality will follow.
Throughout this poem, the poet engages with themes of immortality and sin. The poet’s speaker is well aware that the path he’s on isn’t one that leads to eternal life in Heaven, or any kind of pleasurable afterlife. He’s too focused on the physical world, and it’s made him into a far more sinful person. The speaker is thinking specifically about his obsession with the Dark Lady. He’s well aware of how unhealthy it is, and he wants, on some level, to get rid of it. He pleads with his soul to force him away from the physical world and into the spiritual world.
Structure and Form
‘Sonnet 146’ by William Shakespeare is a traditional sonnet that follows the pattern Shakespeare popularized. It contains fourteen lines that are divided into two quatrains, or sets of four lines, and one sestet, or set of six lines. They rhyme ABABCDCDEFEFGG as the vast majority of Shakespeare’s sonnets do. There is a good example of half-rhyme with the words “lease” and “excess.”
In iambic pentameter, each line contains five sets of two beats, known as metrical feet. The first is unstressed and the second stressed. It sounds something like da-DUM, da-DUM. The fourteenth line is a particularly good example. The poem can also be divided into three sets of four lines and a final two-line couplet.
Shakespeare makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Sonnet 146’. These include but are not limited to examples of:
- Alliteration: the repetition of words with the same consonant sound. For example, “soul” and “sinful” in line one and “soul” and “servant” in line nine.
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines nine and ten.
- Apostrophe: occurs when the poet’s speaker addresses something or someone who can’t hear or respond to them. In this case, the speaker is talking to his soul. He regards it as his “Poor soul” in the first lines.
Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth,
[……] these rebel powers that thee array,
Why dost thou pine within and suffer dearth,
Painting thy outward walls so costly gay?
In the first lines of ‘Sonnet 146,’ the speaker begins by addressing his soul. This is a literary technique known as an apostrophe. Despite the fact that this soul can’t hear or respond to him, the speaker is talking to it. He calls it “Poor” and “the centre of my sinful earth.” He pities his soul, at the center of his body (which is filled with sin). Furthermore, he wonders why the soul allows him to focus on his “thy outward walls” at such a cost. The speaker is vain and sinful and his soul, for some unknown reason, allows this to go on. The more time the speaker spends worrying about what he looks like and how he appears to others, the worse his inner, spiritual life becomes.
Why so large cost, having so short a lease,
Dost thou upon thy fading mansion spend?
Shall worms, inheritors of this excess,
Eat up thy charge? Is this thy body’s end?
The speaker continues on, asking several more questions that get to the heart of the issue. He doesn’t want to spend so much time worrying about earthly pleasures and pains when he should be concerned with his immortality and his spiritual health. When considered alongside the other sonnets in this series, it’s clear that the speaker is thinking about the vast amount of time he spends thinking about the Dark Lady. She’s consumed his thoughts making it impossible for him to focus on the things in life that really matter.
Life is short, he says, and there isn’t enough time to waste on the fruitless pursuit of this woman. If he continues down this path, he isn’t going to achieve the immortality that he should be worried about.
Then soul, live thou upon thy servant’s loss
And let that pine to aggravate thy store;
Buy terms divine in selling hours of dross;
Within be fed, without be rich no more.
So shalt thou feed on Death, that feeds on men,
And, Death once dead, there’s no more dying then.
In the third and final quatrain, the speaker tells his soul that it would be better if the soul focused on the speaker’s inward health and disregarded the exterior world. This includes the Dark Lady and any qualms the speaker may have with his appearance and age. He says that the body, or pine, should increase the strength of the soul, not decrease it. These directions continue, with the speaker telling the soul that it should “Within be fed, without be rich no more.”
The final couplet, which concludes the poem, says that the soul should follow his advice. If it does, it will “feed on Death” and then enjoy eternal life (“no more dying then”). If it feeds on death, “Death” will be “dead” and unable to touch the speaker.
The meaning is that someone who’s too concerned with outward/external appearance and pleasures should take the time to reassess their priorities. Inward/spiritual health is far more important.
The tone is worried and inquisitive. The speaker spends the lines expressing his concern over the state of his soul while also inquiring into how it’s possible his soul is allowing him to act the way he is.
The speaker may or may not be William Shakespeare. It’s likely that the poet was writing from his perspective, at least to some extent. Readers and scholars will find this theory more or less credible.
Shakespeare wrote ‘Sonnet 146’ as another step in his Dark Lady series of sonnets. He’s tracking his, or his speaker’s, obsession with his mistress. Here, he shows his concern for his spiritual health and reveals that he knows his obsession is unhealthy.
The turn, or volta, is a transition that separates a sonnet into sections. In the case of ‘Sonnet 146,’ there is a turn between the octave and sestet. Here, the speaker starts to provide the soul with solutions. It’s also possible to consider the transition between lines twelve and thirteen as another turn.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Sonnet 146’ should also consider reading other William Shakespeare poems. For example:
- ‘Sonnet 103’ – describes how useless and feeble words are to describe his love for the Fair Youth.
- ‘Sonnet 62’ – is one in a series of sonnets that is focused on the love that Shakespeare, or a speaker he is channeling, holds for a young man.
- ‘Sonnet 43’ – uses images of day and night. It depicts the speaker’s love for the Fair Youth.