Sonnet 146

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Sonnet 146

Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth,
Feeding these rebel pow’rs that thee array,
Why dost thou pine within and suffer dearth,
Painting thy outward walls so costly gay?
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?
Then, soul, live thou upon thy servants’ 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.

–William Shakespeare


Sonnet 146, which William Shakespeare addresses to his soul, his "sinful earth", is a pleading appeal to himself to value inner qualities and satisfaction rather than outward appearance. Line 1 indicates the main idea by first showing that the poor soul exists on the Earth. However, the words "poor" and "sinful" shows the sorrow of sadness and depression towards the soul.Despite the complication in metaphor, the soul is considering Earth as an unethical and bad place because humans are mortal beings. Lines 3-6 question why he places so much energy and value into outward appearance (which may be considered as social or physical) by using the metaphor of a house gaudily decorated and painted but having nothing short of famine within.

Why dost thou pine within and suffer dearth,

The person is being questioned on why show importance towards life if death will apparently start and constantly go on. Line 4 is a metaphor comparing our bodies to outside walls. Line 4 explains that we focus and concentrate on our bodies and life than we do on death.

Painting thy outward walls so costly gay? The theme the poem therefore teaches us is simply that the afterlife is far more important than now. Life isn't infinite and we should prepare and focus on our death even more.

Lines 7-14 reason that inner enrichment is much more important because the body is ultimately subservient to the soul, and is far more transient. The ending couplet proposes even though death "feeds" on mortal bodies, the soul will be eternal and therefore is victorious.

So shalt thou feed on death, that feeds on men,
And death once dead, there's no more dying then.

The sonnet is notable for its uncharacteristically religious tone and call for moral richness, whereas most sonnets treasure earthly qualities of beauty and love. In its vocabulary and vocative address to the soul the sonnet invites comparison with Psalm 146.[1]

Analysis and Criticism[edit]

Although Michael West has persuasively argued that this sonnet is indebted to the medieval genre of poetic dialogues between soul and body,[2] the extent to which sonnet actually presents conventional Christian arguments about the relationship between body and soul is a matter of considerable critical debate. John Crowe Ransom counters an older tradition of reading the sonnet in straightforward Christian terms by making the general observation that the “divine terms which the soul buys are not particularly Christian: there are few words in the poem that would directly indicate a conventional religious dogma.” [3] B.C. Southam makes an effort to build on Ransom’s passing remark in a more developed argument about the sonnet which seeks to show that Shakespeare’s speaker is inspired more by a “humanist” philosophy that ironically undermines a rigidly Christian “rigorous asceticism which glorifies the life of the body at the expense of the vitality and richness of sensuous experience.”.[4] Southam’s argument for an ironically humanist poem is countered, in turn, by Charles Huttar, who attempts to bring the poem back into alignment with a certain Christian worldview: for example, Huttar claims that “these rebel powers” that “array” the soul in line 2 refer not to “the physical being” or body but rather to the lower powers of the soul itself, the passions or affections. Understood in this way, the sentiment of the poem appears in accord with a certain Christian tradition that rejects “extreme asceticism.” [5]

However, in a long discussion in his edition of the sonnets, Stephen Booth critiques both Southam and Huttar as engaging in “oversimplification” [6] Booth tries to split the difference between these critical perspectives: “It is as unreasonable and unprofitable to argue that Sonnet 146 does not espouse an orthodox Christian position on the relative value of mortal and immortal considerations as it is to deny that the poem generates the ideational static that Ransom and Southam point out.” [7] In Booth’s view, conventional Christian ideas and images “coexist” with seemingly contradictory un-Christian ideas and images: “the incompatible elements, points of view, and responses . . . do not undergo synthesis” [8] For Booth, Sonnet 146 contains multiple, sometimes conflicting, elements that cannot and should not be reduced to a singular, univocal argument about body and soul.

Missing text[edit]

The missing text at the beginning of line two is generally attributed to be a printing error, since in the earliest version of the sonnet the second line begins with a repetition of the last three words of the previous lines, commonly called an eye-skip error, which breaks the iambic pentameter. Shakespeare's intention for the line is a subject of debate among scholars, with most modern scholars accepting the emendation, "feeding", based on internal evidence.[9] Other guesses include "Thrall to", "Fool'd by", "Hemm'd by", "Foil'd by", "Fenced by", "Flatt'ring", "Spoiled by", "Lord of", and "Pressed by".

Unfortunately, none of the "guesses" seem to work. "Feeding," for example, tends to "explain the joke," and does not let the poem build to the implication that the soul itself is culpable in man's struggle for spirit over the corporal self. Perhaps a better foot would be "disrobe."[citation needed]


  1. ^ On the influence of Psalm 146 on the synchronized theme and vocabulary of Sonnet 146, see Fred Blick, "Psalms and Sonnets: 146 and 147," The Upstart Crow, A Shakespeare JournalVol. XXIII (2003): 91-103
  2. ^ Michael West, “The Internal Dialogue of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 146,” Shakespeare Quarterly 25.1 (1974): p. 109-22 [1]
  3. ^ Qtd. in D. A. Stauffer, “Critical Principles and a Sonnet,” The American Scholar 12 (1942-43), p. 52-62.
  4. ^ B.C. Southam, "Shakespeare's Christian Sonnet? Number 146," Shakespeare Quarterly 11. 1 (1960): p. 67-71
  5. ^ Charles A. Huttar "The Christian Basis of Shakespeare's Sonnet 146," Shakespeare Quarterly 19. 4 (1968): 355-365.
  6. ^ Stephen Booth, Shakespeare's Sonnets. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997, p. 512. ISBN 0300085060.
  7. ^ Booth p. 514
  8. ^ Booth, p. 515.
  9. ^ Vendler, Helen. The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets, Cambridge, Mass.:Harvard UP, 1997, p. 611; Duncan-Jones, Katherine. Shakespeare's Sonnets, Arden Shakespeare, 1997, p. 146.