O fate, O fault, O curse, child of my bliss;
What sobs can give words grace my grief to show?
What ink is black enough to paint my woe?
Through me, wretch me, even Stella vexed is.
Yet Truth—if caitiff’s breath may call thee—this
Witness with me; that my foul stumbling so
From carelessness did in no manner grow;
But wit, confused with too much care, did miss.
And do I then myself this vain ‘scuse give?
I have (live I, and know this?) harmed thee;
Though worlds ’quit me, shall I myself forgive?
Only with pains my pains thus eased be,
That all thy hurts in my heart’s wrack I read;
I cry thy sighs, my dear; thy tears I bleed.
I suggest you click here to open the sonnet in a separate window, so that you can refer directly to it as you read on through the analysis.
Reading notes: “even” in line 4 has one syllable, while “vexed” (line 4), “harmed” (10), and “eased” (12) all have two.
To whom is he speaking as the poem opens? The phrase “child of my bliss” tips us off that the clear evil addressed as fate, fault, and curse stems from the speaker’s adoration of Stella. Line 4 makes clear that he has again caused her offense, while the intervening lines 2 and 3 seek an outlet in poetry—in this very poem—to make it right with her.
It is no easy task. He makes his strongest effort in the second quatrain, calling on Truth herself as a character witness, and pleading that his mistake can not be called “careless” (literally, a lack of caring), but rather a misunderstanding (weakness of “wit,” or intellect) caused by “too much care.”
This comes out, of course, rather lamely, like Claudio’s “Yet sinned I not but in mistaking,” in Much Ado About Nothing 5.1. The first half of the sestet acknowledges the feebleness of the effort: his “’scuse” (excuse) is “vain”; how can he go on living if he has caused her harm?; in that circumstance, if “worlds” should “’quit” (acquit) him of wrongdoing, he could still not forgive himself.
The final, paradoxical tercet is the argument he hopes will trump all: since her hurts, sighs, and tears are all perforce his as well, he shares her pain—and indeed, more than shares it, since the poem ends with a clever trope that is both chiasmus and catachresis: “I cry thy sighs, my dear, thy tears I bleed.”
Next time (weekend of February 5): Sonnet 94
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.