Sonnets 121–130

Sonnet 121
'Tis better to be vile than vile esteem'd,
When not to be receives reproach of being;
And the just pleasure lost, which is so deem'd
Not by our feeling, but by others' seeing:
For why should others' false adulterate eyes
Give salutation to my sportive blood?
Or on my frailties why are frailer spies,
Which in their wills count bad what I think good?
No, I am that I am, and they that level
At my abuses reckon up their own:
I may be straight though they themselves be bevel;
By their rank thoughts, my deeds must not be shown;
     Unless this general evil they maintain,
     All men are bad and in their badness reign.

Sonnet 122
Thy gift, thy tables, are within my brain
Full character'd with lasting memory,
Which shall above that idle rank remain,
Beyond all date; even to eternity:
Or, at the least, so long as brain and heart
Have faculty by nature to subsist;
Till each to raz'd oblivion yield his part
Of thee, thy record never can be miss'd.
That poor retention could not so much hold,
Nor need I tallies thy dear love to score;
Therefore to give them from me was I bold,
To trust those tables that receive thee more:
     To keep an adjunct to remember thee
     Were to import forgetfulness in me.

Sonnet 123
No, Time, thou shalt not boast that I do change:
Thy pyramids built up with newer might
To me are nothing novel, nothing strange;
They are but dressings of a former sight.
Our dates are brief, and therefore we admire
What thou dost foist upon us that is old;
And rather make them born to our desire
Than think that we before have heard them told.
Thy registers and thee I both defy,
Not wondering at the present nor the past,
For thy records and what we see doth lie,
Made more or less by thy continual haste.
     This I do vow and this shall ever be;
     I will be true despite thy scythe and thee.

Sonnet 124
If my dear love were but the child of state,
It might for Fortune's bastard be unfather'd,
As subject to Time's love or to Time's hate,
Weeds among weeds, or flowers with flowers gather'd.
No, it was builded far from accident;
It suffers not in smiling pomp, nor falls
Under the blow of thralled discontent,
Whereto th' inviting time our fashion calls:
It fears not policy, that heretic,
Which works on leases of short-number'd hours,
But all alone stands hugely politic,
That it nor grows with heat, nor drowns with showers.
     To this I witness call the fools of time,
     Which die for goodness, who have lived for crime.

Sonnet 125
Were't aught to me I bore the canopy,
With my extern the outward honouring,
Or laid great bases for eternity,
Which proves more short than waste or ruining?
Have I not seen dwellers on form and favour
Lose all and more by paying too much rent
For compound sweet; forgoing simple savour,
Pitiful thrivers, in their gazing spent?
No; let me be obsequious in thy heart,
And take thou my oblation, poor but free,
Which is not mix'd with seconds, knows no art,
But mutual render, only me for thee.
     Hence, thou suborned informer! a true soul
     When most impeach'd, stands least in thy control.

Sonnet 126
O thou, my lovely boy, who in thy power
Dost hold Time's fickle glass, his fickle hour;
Who hast by waning grown, and therein show'st
Thy lovers withering, as thy sweet self grow'st.
If Nature, sovereign mistress over wrack,
As thou goest onwards, still will pluck thee back,
She keeps thee to this purpose, that her skill
May time disgrace and wretched minutes kill.
Yet fear her, O thou minion of her pleasure!
She may detain, but not still keep, her treasure:
     Her audit (though delayed) answered must be,
     And her quietus is to render thee.

Sonnet 127
In the old age black was not counted fair,
Or if it were, it bore not beauty's name;
But now is black beauty's successive heir,
And beauty slander'd with a bastard shame:
For since each hand hath put on Nature's power,
Fairing the foul with Art's false borrowed face,
Sweet beauty hath no name, no holy bower,
But is profan'd, if not lives in disgrace.
Therefore my mistress' eyes are raven black,
Her eyes so suited, and they mourners seem
At such who, not born fair, no beauty lack,
Sland'ring creation with a false esteem:
     Yet so they mourn becoming of their woe,
     That every tongue says beauty should look so.

Sonnet 128
How oft when thou, my music, music play'st,
Upon that blessed wood whose motion sounds
With thy sweet fingers when thou gently sway'st
The wiry concord that mine ear confounds,
Do I envy those jacks that nimble leap,
To kiss the tender inward of thy hand,
Whilst my poor lips which should that harvest reap,
At the wood's boldness by thee blushing stand!
To be so tickled, they would change their state
And situation with those dancing chips,
O'er whom thy fingers walk with gentle gait,
Making dead wood more bless'd than living lips.
     Since saucy jacks so happy are in this,
     Give them thy fingers, me thy lips to kiss.

Sonnet 130
My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red, than her lips red:
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask'd, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound:
I grant I never saw a goddess go,--
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
     And yet by heaven, I think my love as rare,
     As any she belied with false compare.


  1. In the final couplet of Sonnet 125, the speaker addresses a “suborned informer”—“suborned” meaning bribed and “informer” meaning accuser. By one reading, the “suborned informer” is someone who has accused the speaker of being one of the “pitiful thievers” who has attached himself to the youth for personal gain. By another interpretation, the couplet is a final address to Time, with the speaker insisting that Time will never be able to destroy his love since he has a “true soul” that defies Time’s control. Yet another explanation is that the “suborned informer” is the fair youth. By this reading, the fair youth has accused the speaker of infidelity or declining affections. In response, the speaker implores the youth to banish those doubts and instead recognize the fidelity of the speaker’s soul.

    — Marissa, Owl Eyes Staff
  2. Whereas the speaker’s relationship with the fair youth was emotional and often spiritual, his relationship with the dark lady is sensual. As he watches her play music, he personifies the instrument and grows jealous of it. The jacks “leap to kiss the tender inward of [her] hand” and the speaker envies the fact that the instrument receives her touch rather than him. There was minimal tactile and sensuous imagery in the fair youth sequence, reflecting the chaste and loving nature of that relationship in contrast to the far more physical one between the speaker and the dark lady. The playful, yearning tone of Sonnet 128 contrasts with the grief and shame that consume the speaker in Sonnet 129.

    — Marissa, Owl Eyes Staff
  3. Sonnet 127 marks the start of the sequence of sonnets addressed to the “Dark Lady.” The dark lady sequence adopts a very different attitude towards its subject than the fair youth sequence. From the start, the speaker insists that his mistress is not beautiful by traditional standards. However, he admires her authenticity as she refuses to wear a “borrowed face,” attaining beauty because she does not try to cover up her lack of it. Sonnet 127 recalls the sentiments expressed in Sonnet 68 about cosmetics and how they “slander” true beauty. The mistress’s eyes, which are “raven black,” are dressed like “mourners,” emphasizing the death of beauty—in terms of societal standards and, perhaps, the speaker’s departure from the fair youth. The dark lady is the opposite of the youth, but the speaker cannot help but be drawn to her.

    — Marissa, Owl Eyes Staff
  4. In Elizabethan England, the phrase “Quietus Est” would be written on receipts of debts that had been paid. In Sonnet 126, the speaker compliments the youth on having aged well while also reminding him that Nature cannot preserve him forever. Though Nature considers the fair youth her “treasure,” she will eventually be forced to settle her debt with Time and Death and hand him over to their ravages. The tone of this sonnet is tender and wistful, with the speaker having made peace with the fact that the youth will someday die. Rather than continuing to fight against Time, the speaker instead reminds the youth of the reality of aging, urging him to live well while he is still youthful.

    — Marissa, Owl Eyes Staff
  5. Sonnet 126 marks the end of the fair youth sequence and is often regarded as an envoi—a section at the end of a poem or sequence for closing statements. Many of the themes from the sonnet sequence are brought up in Sonnet 126, including mortality, beauty, the casting of the fair youth as Nature’s beloved, and the fickleness of Time, Death, and Nature. It is also structurally divergent from the rest of the sequence, featuring 12 lines made up of couplets. The absence of the final couplet can be read in various ways. The missing ending may represent a kind of intermission, a ghostly pause between the fair youth and dark lady sequences. It may be that, rather than using the final two lines to end on an optimistic note about how Time can be defeated, the conclusion of Sonnet 126 represents a concession to the reality of Time’s onslaught and a final farewell to the beloved fair youth.

    — Marissa, Owl Eyes Staff
  6. The first two quatrains of Sonnet 125 detail the actions of those “pitiful thievers” who strive for fame, fortune, or other earthly pleasures at the cost of achieving anything truly eternal. The volta shifts the poem into a final address to the fair youth as the poet offers himself completely to the youth. He urges a “mutual render[ing],” or mutual exchange of love, with no cunning or impure intentions. Despite their mutual transgressions, infidelities, and aged visages, the speaker and the youth share an eternal and unbreakable bond.

    — Marissa, Owl Eyes Staff
  7. The meaning of the final couplet of Sonnet 124 has been heavily debated. By a straightforward reading, this line recalls Sonnet 116, in which the speaker intoned that “Love’s not Time’s fool.” The “fools of time” are those who have been duped into fickleness by Time and who “die for goodness” by repenting their sins on their deathbed, despite having “lived for crime.” This may also be a reference to the rival poet, who was fooled by time into pursuing the temporary pleasures of money and fame rather than true love, which the speaker claims is eternal. However, many scholars believe that these lines, and Sonnet 124 as a whole, are a more specific reference to a contemporary political event, such as Essex’s Rebellion (1601) or the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, with the “fools of time” being those who were led to seek glory after Time duped them into believing that they were on the side of “goodness.”

    — Marissa, Owl Eyes Staff
  8. Continuing from Sonnet 123, Sonnet 124 asserts the constancy of the speaker’s love for the fair youth. His love is not a “child of state,” or product of circumstance, but rather something sturdy and “far from accident[al].” No political changes, momentary passions, or fluctuations of fortune can alter the steadfast nature of the speaker’s love. The speaker sees his love for the youth as the pinnacle of what love should be: steadfast and eternal, not subject to “Time’s love or Time’s hate” as the more fickle feelings of others are.

    — Marissa, Owl Eyes Staff
  9. Though the relationship between the speaker and the youth has deteriorated, sonnets 123 to 126, the last four poems in the fair youth sequence, represent the speaker’s final affirmation of devotion and eternal love to the fair youth. In Sonnet 123 the speaker addresses Time, denouncing its effects on love and aging. He notes that because human existence is so fleeting, people value what is old because it has withstood the ravages of Time. Rather than allow his love for the fair youth to fade into history, the speaker vows to “be true” and defy Time’s attempts to undermine his love. The phrase “this shall ever be” adds an element of timelessness to the statement, emphasizing that the speaker wants his love for the youth to be eternal.

    — Marissa, Owl Eyes Staff
  10. Sonnet 122 sees the speaker admitting to having given away a “table,” or notebook, a gift from the youth. In Sonnet 77, the speaker gifted the youth just such a notebook to record what his “memory cannot contain” and encouraged him to “enrich” the book and “profit” from the reflections it could offer him. Now, in Sonnet 122, the speaker has discarded a similar gift on account of it being unnecessary, since his memory is more “lasting” and better equipped to hold his love for the youth. That the speaker willingly discarded a gift from the youth suggests that their relationship may be increasingly diminishing.

    — Marissa, Owl Eyes Staff
  11. For in-depth look at “Sonnet 130,” read our expert analysis on its own page.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  12. For in-depth look at “Sonnet 129,” read our expert analysis on its own page.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  13. This sonnet expresses the speaker’s disillusionment with love, sexuality, and the act of sex. He associates sex with “lust in action,” “a heaven that leads men to hell,” an “expense of spirit,” and a “waste of shame.” The over-zealous pursuit of love, for the speaker, has transformed lust into empty loathing.

    — Sarah, Owl Eyes Staff
  14. Throughout this sonnet, the speaker criticizes hypocrisy. He believes that it is better to act poorly than to act righteously in order to please others. By asking “why should others’ false adulterate eyes / Give salutation to my sportive blood?”, the speaker condemns those who act in order to be deemed good in the eyes of others. The speaker concludes that if others consider his character or actions to be vile, their judgments reflect their own vile characters and “rank thoughts.”

    — Sarah, Owl Eyes Staff
  15. The dominant image throughout the sonnet equates love to “swallow’d bait.” This comparison suggests that like rats and other lowly creature, lovers motivated by uncontrolled lust are driven mad by primal urges.

    — William Delaney