Every now and then I like to post one of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Of the entire collection of 154 this one, No. 126, is undoubtedly the strangest. It marks the end of the series of poems addressed to an unknown young man and is thought to have been given to the fair youth on his 27th birthday, marking the end of a relationship that lasted nine years. The following sonnets are addressed to another unknown person, but of the opposite Experts generally regard it as a kind of envoi, which is normally a short stanza at the end of a long poem, but in this case it is a poem in itself occurring at the end of a sequence. What’s strange about it is that it isn’t actually a sonnet at all. It consists of twelve lines rather than the usual fourteen, but the missing two lines are presented in most editions as two pairs of parentheses as shown below. Moreover, the rhyme scheme (consisting of six couplets) doesn’t fit with the pattern of the rest of the Sonnets, so even if he had filled in the two blanks at the end it would still have been an oddity.
So what was the reason for this curious verse? Perhaps Shakespeare deleted the final couplet because he felt the lines were somehow inappropriate? Perhaps he meant the fair youth to finish it himself, or issue an invitation to others to do likewise? Perhaps the poem is simply unfinished? Perhaps the poet wanted to demonstrate that the relationship with his beloved ended prematurely.
More likely than any of these interpretations, in my opinion, is that furnished by looking at the typical structure of a Shakespearean Sonnet. The last two lines usually express the poet’s consolation in the face of what has come before. Here there is none. It’s over. Read it in this light and I think it becomes even more moving to anyone who has experienced any kind of love and has had to face the fact that it is finally over.
O thou, my lovely boy, who in thy power
Dost hold Time’s fickle glass, his sickle, 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.