Sonnet 146

If ever there were a Shakespearean sonnet appropriate for a Sunday, it’s probably this one.

146

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, that feeds on men,
And Death once dead, there’s no more dying then.

Shakespeare to a large degree avoided Christian references in his plays and poetry, which was probably wise in Elizabethan England: The war between the Protestant and Catholic faiths had seesawed back and for since Henry VIII, and plenty of people had ended up dead, usually in very unpleasant ways. And so this Dark Lady Sonnet (there’s no explicit mention of her here, but the sins here are carnal ones) is a bit unusual in that the Poet is starting to worry about the eternal disposition of his soul.

This argument between one’s eternal soul and the aging of the temporal body, in this poem imaged as a fading mansion, concludes that it’s time to stop trying to prop up that failing body:

Painting thy outward walls so costly gay?
Why so large cost, having so short a lease,
Dost thou upon thy fading mansion spend?

The whole thrust of this poem is pretty straightforward: Neglect your worldly body so that you might enrich your soul. Which leads you to one of Shakespeare’s most lovely couplets:

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

But what makes this sonnet famous (at least in literary circles) isn’t Shakespeare’s rare dalliance into matters piously religious, but those missing words in the second line: In the original Folio, that blank space is filled with ‘My sinful earth.’ Yes–that’s right, the phrase ‘My sinful earth’ is repeated, at the end of line 1 and at the start of line 2.

This is, if you know anything about meter and about Shakespeare’s unerring genius for economy and beauty of language, IS IMPOSSIBLE. The Bard wouldn’t have a) messed up his meter in line 2 with those three words and b) wouldn’t have repeated himself so stupidly. The pervading argument goes that some idiot printer made an error.

So what are those lost words? That’s where all the fun begins. Critics, scholars, poets and gadflies have been arguing for centuries what the Bard must’ve intended. Short of a séance or traveling back in time, we’ll never know. But here are some suggestions, none of which really work beautifully if you take into account meter, cadence, imagery and theme:

Trapp’d these rebel powers that thee array;

or….

Ring’d

Fenced

Foil’d

Pressed

Hemm’d

Fool’d

Which do you like? All this sound and fury, caused by an idiot, which in the end probably signifies nothing.

The image of an old woodcut is of an Elizabethan era printing press. They had movable type, but it was still laborious and prone to error.

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