This is Shakespeare’s most religious sonnet and is not unlike the conceit of John Donne’s ‘Death be not proud’
. The poem is damaged and in need of emendation since the 1609 quarto repeats ‘my sinful earth’ at the beginning of the second line. Editors over the centuries have suggested more than eighty alternative readings, among the most compelling are ‘Spoiled by’ (Colin Burrow), ‘Feeding these’ (Helen Vendler – also claimed by Katherine Duncan-Jones who doesn’t collate Vendler’s edition – this reading was first conjectured by Sebastian Evans in 1893), and ‘Rebuke’ (C. K. Pooler, 1918), the reading adopted here. At first blush Sonnet 146 appears to be Christian in tone (the inner life should be fed and death is finally conquered), but it’s not exactly resurrection that is being described here, and the separation of body and soul has more to do with Plato. This sonnet is another example of Shakespeare using the form to produce an essay in miniature, and it can also be read as the poet’s prayer to his own ‘poor soul’. You might like to know that ‘aggravate’ in line 10 carries the meaning of ‘augment, or increase’.
Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth,
Rebuke these rebel powers 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 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 shall thou feed on death, that feeds on men,
And death once dead, there’s no more dying then.
Click on the post below to hear me read Sonnet 146.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this Sonnet for Advent series.
Happy Christmas from every one at The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust!
You might like to visit a similar Shakespeare for Advent project led by students at the University of Tubingen by clicking here.