Shakespeare’s Sonnet XCIV and Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching

The majority of William Shakespeare’s poems were written in the form of a Sonnet, which is “a 14-line poem with a variable rhyme scheme, originating in Italy and brought to England” in the early seventeenth century. “The sonnet traditionally reflects upon a single sentiment, with a clarification or turn of thought in its concluding lines. There are many different types of sonnets. The Petrarchan sonnet, perfected by the Italian poet Petrarch, divides the 14 lines into two sections: an eight-line stanza [octave] rhyming ABBAABBA, and a six-line stanza [sestet] rhyming CDCDCD. John Milton’s ‘When I Consider How My Light is Spent’ and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s ‘How Do I Love Thee?’ employ this form. The Italian sonnet is an English variation on the traditional Petrarchan version. The octave’s rhyme scheme is preserved but the sestet rhymes CDDCEE. Wyatt and Surrey developed the English (or Shakespearean) sonnet, which condenses the 14 lines into one stanza of three quatrains [verses of four lines] and a concluding couplet, with a rhyme scheme of ABABCDCDEFEFGG” (www.poemhunter.com). Most of Shakespeare’s poems that we read today have been converted from Shakespeare’s original 1609 Quarto  format to language that is more recognisable to modern readers. However, we still have to work at deciphering some words of the older language. In my last blog, I discussed I discussed # 18, sometimes called the Summer Sonnet. In this blog, I present Shakespeare’s Sonnet XCIV (94) below and then offer commentary afterward.

Sonnet XCIV (94)

They that have power to hurt, and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow;
They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces,
And husband nature’s riches from expense;
They are the lords and owners of their faces,
Others, but stewards of their excellence.
The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet,
Though to itself, it only live and die,
But if that flower with base infection meet,
The basest weed outbraves his dignity: 
For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester, smell far worse than weeds.

Some critics have discussed Sonnet 94 as being associated with several sonnets that precede it. However, I shall give my reflections on the Sonnet as if it were a free-standing verse. Since there are only 14 lines in this, and other, sonnets, I will dispense with the line numbering.  The tone of the speaker is detached and it almost reads as a wisdom poem, like ones we read in Proverbs of the Bible, or of the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu, which was written more than 2000 years ago.

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Lao Tzu

Shakespeare writes, “They that have power to hurt, and will do none, that do not the thing they show most.” In Chapter II of the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu offers a passage with a similar didactic tone and on a similar theme:

Therefore the Master

acts without doing anything

and teaches without saying anything.

Things arise and he lets he lets them come;

Things disappear and he lets them go.

He has but doesn’t possess,

acts but doesn’t expect.

When his work is done, he forgets it.

That’s why it lasts forever.

Both poems teach philosophic and moral lessons, i.e., a strong man possesses the most power when he uses it only sparingly to help others. Both writers emphasize that the powerful do not aim to own objects or control the outcomes of events. Shakespeare writes that the strong move others but “are themselves as stone,” where Lao Tzu interjects, “the Master acts without doing anything and teaches without saying anything.” Expressing a more Biblical view, Shakespeare preaches that only the “rightly do inherit heaven’s graces.” He also observes that the power and fame of the strongest men are often noted by “others,” who are the “stewards of their excellence.” Expressing the same idea in a more Taoist way, Lao Tzu notes that a powerful man “teaches without saying anything.” For both Shakespeare and Lao Tzu, those who are both powerful and wise are not attached to their achievements. Shakespeare illustrates a similar idea in the line, “The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet, though to itself, it only live and die.” As if the two Master poets are in dialogue with each other, Lao Tzu states that the wise man “acts but doesn’t expect. When his work is done, he forgets it.” We can only wish that the famous and powerful people we read about today would follow the advice given by Lao Tzu and Shakespeare. Instead, they often offer us endless obnoxious proclamations of their own virtues on the internet, television, and in entertainment magazines. Perhaps, Shakespeare recognized that powerful people had the potential for both good and bad, when he concluded his sonnet with these memorable last two “twist” lines:”For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds; Lilies that fester, smell far worse than weeds.” The word “fester”‘ means ” to rot.” Shakespeare, here, is comparing a lily to a man of wisdom and beauty and a weed to a common man. Though the lily might have once been more powerful and appeared more beautiful than the weed, it  smelled far more putrid after its fall. In the modern media, we are constantly reminded  of some of men and women who had quick and “sour” downfalls after experiencing highly visible and famous careers. Perhaps, we might think of some examples like Richard Nixon, Bill Cosby, or Lindsay  Lohan. I try my best not to think of fallen celebrities very often. Instead, I do think about the great wisdom and economy of words from the poems of Lao Tzu, who lived about 500 BCE, and William Shakespeare, who lived about 2000 years after the great Taoist Master. In Lao Tzu’s last line, he concludes, “That’s why it [wisdom poetry] lasts forever.” I believe that is also why we also still remember the sweetest smelling poetic lilies of both ancient Masters.

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Murray Ellison received an M.A. in Education from Temple University (1973), an M.A. in English Literature from Virginia Commonwealth University (2015) and a Doctorate in Education from Virginia Tech in 1987. He is married and has three adult employed daughters. He retired as the Virginia Director of Community Corrections for the Department of Correctional Education in 2009. Currently, he serves as a literature teacher, board member, and curriculum advisor for the Lifelong Learning Institute in Chesterfield, Virginia. He is the Chief Editor of  www.LitChatte.com,  an editor for the “Correctional Education Magazine,” and editing a book of poetry written by an Indian mystic. He also serves as a board member and volunteer tour guide at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond Virginia. You can write to Murray by leaving a Comment on this Blog, or at ellisonms2@vcu.edu. You can also receive automatic postings from www.Litchatte.com by submitting your email address on the dialogue tab to the right of this Blog.

Murray Ellison at the Poe Museum
Murray  at the Poe Museum

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