Dr. Anita Obermeier
28 February 2001
„A Canker in a Fragrant Roseš: The Tension between Beauty and Virtue in Shakespeare‚s „Sonnet 95š
„Sonnet 95š of Shakespeare‚s „blond young manš sonnets depicts a tension-filled variation on the classic blazon. The poet seems torn between the „shameš (1) that taints his subject and the „sweetsš (4) of the subject‚s beauty. The initial imagery of a „cankerš (2) within a „roseš (2) serves to set up the sexual overtones that dominate the poem, as well as to create the sense of strain between disapproval and attraction that heightens throughout each quatrain. Shakespeare develops this imagery to ensnare the subject in an increasingly agitated opposition between his physical beauty and his behavioral repulsiveness. Though the poet claims that he „cannot dispraise but in a kind of praiseš (7), the closing couplet goes counter this, bringing the sense of antagonism between the poet‚s admiration and his disapproval full circle. The couplet serves as a warning that the physical beauty and virility that have dominated the young man‚s life will end, destroying the „mansionš (9) where he hid his moral failing through the quatrains.
The opening quatrain of Sonnet 95 serves to expose the contrast between the young man‚s physical and moral states. This quatrain, despite permitting the young man‚s „beautyš (3) to dominate the sense of his „sinsš (4), also begins to assert the idea that he will suffer for his vice. The opening image of „How sweet and lovelyš (1) dominates the completion of the thought „dost thou make the shameš (1) through both rhythm and diction. While Shakespeare sets the opening in perfect iambic rhythm, the insertion of a pyrrhic foot to begin the statement of the young man‚s „shameš (1) weakens the idea, allowing the sense of the young man‚s physical loveliness to dominate.
However, the imagery surrounding the young man‚s beauty also implies its corrupting influence. The use of the word „cankerš (2), while singularly appropriate to the plant image of a „roseš (2), also implies both a corrupting influence and the possibility of sores resulting from venereal disease. Though canker sores are generally associated with the mouth, connecting a canker to a rose plays upon the sexuality generally associated with flower imagery. In keeping with the understatement of the vice in the first quatrain, Shakespeare limits the idea of consequences to this one, nearly imperceptible, image. The closing of the first quatrain again emphasizes the „sweetsš of the young man‚s physical perfection, adding weight to the thought with an initial trochee. However, Shakespeare here begins to emphasize the consequences of the young man‚s behavior, with the idea that he does his „sins encloseš (4), offering the idea he has bound his vices to himself, trapping himself within them.
The second quatrain develops the poet‚s tension from facing the dilemma of being „that tongue that tells the storyš (5) of the subject of the poem. This quatrain presents the idea of the young man‚s beauty as a faćade. Though Shakespeare feels inspired to make „lasciviousš (6) comment on the young man‚s „sportš (6), implying the lecherous nature of the young man and his (probably many) sexual encounters. However, in spite of opening this particular quatrain with implications of the lewd nature of the young man, Shakespeare himself, trying to relate the young man‚s tale, is influenced by the young man‚s beauty. The repetition in lines 7-8, „dispraise in a kind of praise,š and „naming thy nameš gives a sense of hesitance to the quatrain, presumably bred of Shakespeare‚s inability to commit himself to relating this tale objectively. However, in closing with the idea that the young man‚s name „blesses an ill reportš (8), Shakespeare commits himself to the idea that, though the subject‚s physical countenance may beautify the presentation, the nature of the report is still „illš (8) and therefore inherently not healthy and not normal.
Having created such a clear tension in the first and second quatrains, Shakespeare begins to exploit and resolve it in the third. This quatrain manipulates the previous arguments through the closeness of antipodal images, the personification of vice, and intense rhythmical variation. The opening two lines of this quatrain, both beginning with trochee, call attention to the idea of „those vicesš (9) that afflict the young men having consciously chosen the „mansionš (9) of his beauty. This personification of vice as an independent force attaching itself to this young man implies a sort of helplessness on the part of the young man as an unwitting servant of his lascivious nature. The second, spondaic foot in line 10 places an unexpected emphasis on „theirš habitation, adding force to the idea of the vices as a dominant force upon the young man.
The imagery that closes this quatrain emphasizes the shallowness of „beauty‚s veilš (11). The diametric opposition between „beautyš and „blotš (11), which are so close to one another in the poem, offers a sense of the thinness of the ability of beauty‚s ability to cover the stains on the young man‚s history and character. This thought is furthered in the final line of the quatrain, in which „all things turn to fair that eyes can seeš (12). Though this thought initially seems positive, focusing upon the „fairš (12) nature of that which is seen about the young man, the limiting „that eyes can seeš (12) implies the incomplete, vain nature of the young man‚s fairness, implying that that which is not beheld with the eyes will not „turn to fairš (12). The perfect iambic pentameter of these two lines (11-12) serves to give them the force of truth, making them easily acceptable while presenting highly complex and contradictory images.
The closing couplet works as the culmination of both the initial sexual imagery and as the judgment of the young man‚s overriding physical qualities. The warning to „take heedš (13) serves to force the idea that there is a danger in the previously stated opposition. However, the phallic imagery of the „large privilegeš (11) of which the young man should be aware helps to complete the poem‚s consideration of physical beauty in place of virtue by drawing the poem back to the sexual overtones set up in the beginning. The warning that „the hardest knife ill-used doth lose his edgeš (12) forces the idea that age leads to physical impotence, thereby leaving physical beauty the transient domain of the young, and virtue the permanent domain of all.
The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Eds. M. H. Abrams and Stephen Greenblatt.
7th ed. 2 vols. New York: Norton, 2000. 1:1041-42.
"canker, n." Oxford English Dictionary. Ed. J. A. Simpson and E. S. C. Weiner. 2nd ed.
Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989.