‘Sonnet 94,’ also known as ‘They that have pow’r to hurt, and will do none,’ is number ninety-four of one hundred fifty-four sonnets that the Bard wrote. Of this series, sonnets 1-126 belong to Shakespeare’s famous Fair Youth sequence. These poems are all devoted, in one way or another, to a young, beautiful man. There has been a great deal of speculation about who this young man could possibly be, but no single identity has ever been decided upon.
This particular sonnet shows the speaker feeling slightly more negatively towards the youth than he has in the past. Rather than expressing a willingness to live and die for the youth, he is through an extended metaphor, desiring the ease with which the youth could lose his beauty and goodness.
Sonnet 94 William Shakespeare They that have power to hurt, and will do none, That do not do the thing they most do show, Who, moving others, are themselves as stone, Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow; They rightly do inherit heaven's graces, And husband nature's riches from expense; They are the lords and owners of their faces, Others, but stewards of their excellence. The summer's flower is to the summer sweet, Though to itself, it only live and die, But if that flower with base infection meet, The basest weed outbraves his dignity: For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds; Lilies that fester, smell far worse than weeds.
The poem uses metaphors and imagery to describe those who are in God’s good graces and will reign over the earth and those who are not. When one uses their beauty to satisfy their own desire, that’s a bad thing. The speaker worries over the effect of such an action and believes that if it would ruin one’s soul. He uses the metaphor of a flower with a parasite losing its value.
Explore more poems by Shakespeare.
‘Sonnet 94 ’ by William Shakespeare is a fourteen-line traditional Shakespearean sonnet. This form requires that the sonnet be made up of three quatrains, or sets of four lines, and one concluding couplet or set of two rhyming lines. The poem follows a consistent rhyme scheme that conforms to the pattern of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG and it is written in iambic pentameter. Iambic pentameter means that 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 last two lines (known as a couplet) are a rhyming pair. They often, but not always, bring with them a turn or “volta” (in Italian) in the poem. They’re sometimes used to answer a question posed in the previous twelve lines, shift the perspective, or even change speakers.
Shakespeare makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Sonnet 94 ’. These include but are not limited to examples of alliteration, caesura, and metaphor. The latter, metaphor, is seen throughout the poem in addition to allusion. When one reads this poem along with all the other Fair Youth poems it is very clear that the poet is alluding to the Fair Youth’s nature and his capacity for doing things that go against his otherwise admirable morality. This is seen in ‘Sonnet 94’ through an extended metaphor.
A metaphor is a comparison between two, unlike things that do not use “like” or “as” is also present in the text. When using this technique a poet is saying that one thing is another thing, they aren’t just similar. When it is extended, it is taken beyond a simple phrase and into an entire stanza or poem. In this case, the poet uses the metaphor of a flower to depict the corruption of a human’s soul.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “heaven’s” and “husband” in lines five and six as well as “summer sweet” in line nine.
Caesura occurs when a line is split in half, sometimes with punctuation, sometimes not. The use of punctuation in these moments creates a very intentional pause in the text. A reader should consider how the pause influences the rhythm of one’s reading and how it might precede an important turn or transition in the text. For instance, line one reads: “They that have pow’r to hurt, and will do none”. The comma changes what is important about the line.
They that have pow’r to hurt, and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who moving others are themselves as stone,
Unmovèd, cold, and to temptation slow,
In the first lines of ‘Sonnet 94,’ the speaker begins by setting out the attributes that he believes are pleasing to God and heaven. It is not revealed until the end of the second quatrain what the lines are leading up to. At this point, he just lists out different ways that people act. He thinks about those who have the “pow’r to hurt” (an example of syncope) and do not do so. These people, as well as those who are beautiful but do not give in to temptation, are pure and worthy of God’s affections.
They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces,
And husband nature’s riches from expense.
They are the lords and owners of their faces;
Others but stewards of their excellence.
The speaker believes that those he described in the first stanza are the ones who are going to “inherit heaven’s graces”. They are the people who will become stewards of the earth and keep everything from falling to disrepair. They are the “lords and owners of their faces” because they can control their desires. The “Others” are only “stewards” of their beauty and “excellence”. They use their beauty to a specific end.
The summer’s flow’r is to the summer sweet,
Though to itself it only live and die.
But if that flow’r with base infection meet,
The basest weed outbraves his dignity.
For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.
In the third and final quatrain of ‘Sonnet 94’, the speaker seems to change directions. He starts talking about “The summer’s flow’rs” and how they seem “sweet” to those who experience them. But, to the flower, the experience might be different. It might experience life as simple progress from life to death.
The speaker is working with an extended metaphor for value and purity, as relates to the Fair Youth and his actions, in this sonnet. He considers the flower further, suggesting that if it let itself get infected with a parasite then weeds would be more valuable than it is. One’s value is tied up entirely with one’s deeds. If someone, the youth, acts poorly, then that will rot one’s nature until it is destroyed.