‘Sonnet 99,’ also known as ‘The forward violet thus did I chide,’ is number ninety-nine of one hundred fifty-four sonnets that Shakespeare wrote. In this series, sonnets 1-126 belong to Shakespeare’s famous Fair Youth sequence. These poems are all devoted to a young, unknown man. There has been a lot of speculation about who this young man could possibly be, but no single identity has ever been decided upon. This sonnet picks up where ‘Sonnet 98’ left off, speaking about the youth in relation to themes of spring, new life, and nature.
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Summary of Sonnet 99
Throughout this poem, the speaker accuses various flowers, such as a lily and a rose, of stealing bits of the Fair Youth’s appearance. He expresses his belief that the roses hold the youth’s breath and his complexion and the violet has been dyed with the youth’s blood. All of these examples are attempts to convey to the reader how like natural beauty the Fair Youth’s appearance is.
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Structure of Sonnet 99
‘Sonnet 99 ’ by William Shakespeare is a single stanza poem that is made up of fourteen lines. It is a good example of the English or Shakespearean sonnet (sometimes also known as the Elizabethan). 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.
Literary Devices in Sonnet 99
Shakespeare makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Sonnet 99 ’. These include but are not limited to examples of alliteration, caesura, and imagery. Imagery refers to the elements of a poem that engage a reader’s senses. Traditionally, the word “image” is related to visual sights, things that a reader can imagine seeing, but imagery is much more than that. It is something one can sense with their five senses. In the case of ‘Sonnet 99,’ imagery is one of the most important techniques. It can be seen through the various comparisons between the youth and the flowers.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “steal,” “sweet,” and “smells” in line two as well as “purple pride” in line three.
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. The third line is a good example of this technique. It reads: “If not from my love’s breath? The purple pride”.
Analysis of Sonnet 99
The forward violet thus did I chide:
Sweet thief, whence didst thou steal thy sweet that smells,
If not from my love’s breath? The purple pride
Which on thy soft cheek for complexion dwells
In the first lines of ‘Sonnet 99,’ the speaker picks up where he left off in ‘Sonnet 98’. He spent the previous fourteen lines describing how spring has no meaning to him when the Fair Youth is not there with him. All the elements that normally please the speaker were meaningless to him.
The first quatrain describes how the speaker spoke to the violet as if it were able to hear him, a technique known as an apostrophe. He scolded it, or “chided” it about its beauty. The speaker felt that the violet had to have gotten its beauty from the Fair youth, there is no one else, he thinks, who could’ve provided it. The purple is so proud that the violet must have gotten it from dying itself in the youth’s blood. The fourth line of this quatrain is enjambed, requiring the reader to go to the fifth line in order to find out what happens next.
In my love’s veins thou hast too grossly dyed.
The lily I condemnèd for thy hand,
And buds of marjoram had stol’n thy hair;
The roses fearfully on thorns did stand,
The speaker also describes how he “condemnèd” the lily in his hand for stealing its pure white color from the youth’s “hand” and the “buds of marjoram” for taking the youth’s hair. These lines are all good examples of personification. The imbues these plants with human abilities. There is also an example of syncope in these lines of ‘Sonnet 99’ with “stol’n”.
One blushing shame, another white despair;
A third, nor red nor white, had stol’n of both,
And to his robb’ry had annexed thy breath;
But for his theft, in pride of all his growth
A vengeful canker ate him up to death.
More flow’rs I noted, yet I none could see
But sweet or color it had stol’n from thee.
In the third and final quatrain of ‘Sonnet 99,’ the speaker describes a rose that is somewhere between red and white. They blushed knowing they too were guilty of taking something from the youth. There was on in particular that had stolen the youth’s breath and his complexion. In what the speaker obviously believes was a well-deserved death, a “canker” or a worm, ate the rose for his crime. After going through these troubling flowers, the speaker looks around and does not see any others that he thinks took anything from the young man.