Second Life Dross

admin 11/22/2021

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Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth,
[...] 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 shalt thou feed on Death, thatfeeds on men,
And Death once dead, there’s nomore dying then.

Summary: Sonnet 146


The speaker addresses this poem to his soul, asking itin the first stanza why it, the center of his “sinful earth” (thatis, his body), endures misery within his body while he is so concernedwith maintaining its “paint[ed]” outward appearance—that is, whyhis soul allows his exterior vanity to wound its interior life.He asks his soul why, since it will not spend long in the body (“havingso short a lease” in the “fading mansion”), it spends “so largecost” to decorate it, and he asks whether worms shall be allowedto eat the soul’s “charge” after the body is dead. In the thirdquatrain, the speaker exhorts his soul to concentrate on its owninward well-being at the expense of the body’s outward walls (“Letthat [i.e., the body] pine to aggravate [i.e., increase] thy store”). Hesays that the body’s hours of “dross” will buy the soul “terms divine”;and admonishes the soul to be fed within, and not to be rich without.In the couplet, the speaker tells the soul that by following hisadvice, it will feed on death, which feeds on men and their bodies;and once it has fed on death, it will enjoy eternal life: “And deathonce dead, there’s no more dying then.”

Read a translation of Sonnet 146 →


Sonnet 146,an austerely moralizing self-exhortation to privilege the innerenrichment of the soul over the outer decoration of the body, isalso the site of the most virulent textual controversy of any ofShakespeare’s poem in the sequence. The way the poem is printedin its first edition, its first two lines read: Poor soule, the centerof my sinfull earth, My sinfull earth these rebbel poweres thatthee array.... The repetition of the phrase “my sinful earth” atthe start of the second line has long been chalked up to a printer’smistake; it almost certainly could not have been Shakespeare’s intentionto break his meter so egregiously for the sake of such a heavy-handedrepetition. (In the 1590s,any text that was to be printed had to be set into the printingpress letter by letter, a painstaking and often mind-numbing processthat resulted in many mistakes of this nature.) As a result, criticshave debated for what seems the better part of four centuries overwhat the “missing” text might have been. “Trapp’d by these rebelpowers”? “Ring’d” by them? “Fenced”? “Foil’d”? “Pressed with”? Possiblealternatives are literally endless; most recent editors of the sonnetshave avoided conjecture for that very reason.

Apart from the textual controversy, Sonnet 146 presentsthe relatively simple idea that the body exists at the expense ofthe soul, so that decorating or adorning the body, or even worryingabout its beauty, can only be accomplished at the soul’s expense.The speaker of this sonnet feels trapped by his preoccupation withhis outward appearance, and urges himself—by addressing his neglectedsoul, which he concedes has the decision-making power over the body—toneglect the body as a way to enrich the soul and help it towardheaven (“Buy terms divine in selling hours of dross”). In this sense,Sonnet 146 isone of comparatively few sonnets to strike a piously religious tone:in its overt concern with heaven, asceticism, and the progress ofthe soul, it is quite at odds with many of the other sonnets, whichyearn for and celebrate sensory beauty and aesthetic pleasure.


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