Textual Misunderstanding in Sonnet no. 146

Shakespeare-Cover-SonetsIn the 1609 quarto of the Sonnets the only source we have for them, the text of Sonnet no. 146 has puzzled readers and critics alike. The confusion comes in the first two lines of this sonnet where the three words,”my sinful earth,” are repeated at the beginning of line two after just being written at the end of line one. The quarto reads thus:

“Poor soul the center of my sinful earth,

[My sinful earth] these rebel powers that thee array.”

I put the words that are supposedly a mistake in brackets for easy reference.

The website www.shakespeare-online.com says that, “It is manifest that the second line as thus given is wrong, but how it is to be corrected is a matter concerning which the opinions of critics have very greatly varied.”

Emendations of the first three words of the second line are multitudinous. Including: fool’d by, shamed by, foiled by, hemm’d by, spoiled by, fenced by, pressed by and others.

I write to dispute the claim that the second line is corrupt in the 1609 quarto, and to contend that this was just how Shakespeare wrote it.

The website www.utm.utoronto.ca/ claims that “foiled by” is the best emendation. They say,  “The soul has been foiled by the body, and so the sonnet begins, ‘poor soul.’ Poor soul whose success has been thwarted by the desires of the body. A phrase that reveals that how the soul has been foiled by the body is that of “rebel powers” (Line 2). A rebel is one who opposes the rightful ruler, one who acts against the known authority. The soul is this higher authority, but it has been foiled by these ‘rebel powers,’ the desires of the body. The body is clearly the antagonist and so it is logical that it would be blamed for foiling the prospects of the soul.”

My interpretation of this sonnet is somewhat different, and it involves no emendation of the text. In my opinion when the poet refers to “my sinful earth” in the first line he is referring to his own body. “Sinful” in the respect that he is human and falls into the trap of sin just like any other human being. In the second line when he says “my sinful earth” I strongly believe he is referring to his beloved as in his sinful love with another man. The sonnet’s first four lines read thus:

“Poor soul the center of my sinful earth,

My sinful earth these rebel powers that thee array,

Why dost thou pine within and suffer dearth,

Painting thy wallls so costly gay?”


His beloved’s powers are his charms of youth which are rebelling by him aging older and inching closer to death. The poet points out that as he does “array” himself, presumably in fine apparell and with vanity; he is neglecting his soul by not being humble.

“Why so large a cost, having so short a lease,

Dost thou upon thy fading mansion spend?

Shall wormseat up thy charge?”

When the poet asks, “Why dost thou pine within,” he is talking about the youth pining for the poet’s love and trying to impress him.(“Painting thy walls so costly gay“). The handsome youth is the poet’s sinful earth. Sinful because forbidden by the laws of absolute righteousness.

The poet importunes his beloved to “Buy terms divine…there’s no more dying then.” Presumably inheriting eternal life. This is one of the few Shakepeare sonnets that strikes an overt religious tone; which may refer to the biblical verse Romans 6:7

“For he that is dead is freed from sin.”



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