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Shakespeare Sonnet 9: “Is it for fear to wet a widow's eye”

The Shakespeare 154-sonnet sequence remains essential in my poetry tool kit. Masterfully crafted, they dramatize love, beauty, and truth.

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 9: “Is it for fear to wet a widow's eye”

In Shakespeare sonnet 9 from the thematic group, “The Marriage Sonnets,” in the classic sonnet sequence, the older and supposedly wise speaker is now querying the lad about another likely reason for the young man's remaining single: does he perhaps fear enrolling some poor woman as a member in that pathetic lot called widowhood? Of course, the speaker knows this is not true. He is merely conjuring up every accusation that he can hurl at the lad as he tries to influence the young man's behavior.

The speaker's dramas keep getting more and more stark as he seems to grow more and more desperate to have the young man marry and produce beautiful offspring. It seems that no accusation is too severe. Appealing to the young man's vanity seems to get him nowhere, so he decided to appeal to the lad's sense of shame. No young man would want to be accused of committing murder like a common misanthrope.

For a brief introduction to this 154-sonnet sequence, please visit "Overview of the Shakespeare Sonnet Sequence."

Sonnet 9: “Is it for fear to wet a widow's eye”

Is it for fear to wet a widow's eye,
That thou consum'st thy self in single life?
Ah! if thou issueless shalt hap to die,
The world will wail thee like a makeless wife;
The world will be thy widow and still weep
That thou no form of thee hast left behind,
When every private widow well may keep
By children's eyes, her husband's shape in mind:
Look! what an unthrift in the world doth spend
Shifts but his place, for still the world enjoys it;
But beauty's waste hath in the world an end,
And kept unused the user so destroys it
No love toward others in that bosom sits
That on himself such murd'rous shame commits.

Reading of Sonnet 9

Shakespeare Sonnet Titles


The Shakespeare 154-sonnet sequence does not feature titles for each sonnet; therefore, each sonnet's first line becomes the title. According to the MLA Style Manuel: "When the first line of a poem serves as the title of the poem, reproduce the line exactly as it appears in the text." APA does not address this issue.

Commentary

Sonnet 9 finds the speaker querying the young man about yet an additional possible, though rather absurd, reason for his failure to marry: does the lad fear rendering some poor woman a widow?

First Quatrain: A Blunt Question

Is it for fear to wet a widow's eye,
That thou consum'st thy self in single life?
Ah! if thou issueless shalt hap to die,
The world will wail thee like a makeless wife;

In the first quatrain, the speaker bluntly puts the question to the young man: do you linger in bachelorhood because you are afraid of causing some young woman to suffer if you should die? The speaker goes on approaching the subject from every angle, as he chides the young lad for not taking a wife. The notion now is crossing the speaker's mind that the young man may not want to take the chance of leaving behind a crying widow.

The speaker as usual is creating a solid, yet rather flimsy, straw man to allow the young man to watch him strike it down. But the speaker's spin on such a fear is that if the young man dies "issueless," that is, without offspring, he will make the whole world sad crying for him, not just a poor woman who would then be without a mate upon his death. Thus, the speaker wants the young man to think in broader terms than just one family.

Second Quatrain: Mourning the Loss of a Generation

The world will be thy widow and still weep
That thou no form of thee hast left behind,
When every private widow well may keep
By children's eyes, her husband's shape in mind:

The speaker frames his claim quite clearly as he repeats: not only one woman would weep if you shuffle off, but the whole world with weep and suffer if you fail to leave without issuing forth some lovely offspring. If the young man died, the world would not only mourn his loss, but it would also mourn that fact that such a fine, human specimen left behind no beautiful children to take his place.

If, however, the young man takes the advice of his elder, upon his possible demise, his widow would have their beautiful children who allow her to remember and and enjoy the pleasing appearance of her spouse. The speaker hopes again to play on the sympathy of the young man, while offering him logical possibilities to consider. The young man's single life is found wanting in every way in the eyes of this speaker, who might be considered meddling in affairs which are none of his business.

Third Quatrain: Urging with Logic

Look! what an unthrift in the world doth spend
Shifts but his place, for still the world enjoys it;
But beauty's waste hath in the world an end,
And kept unused the user so destroys it.

In the third quatrain, the speaker offers another supposedly logical argument to support his urging the young man to marry and produce offspring. When a spendthrift extravagantly squanders his money on things he does not need, he does not really do any damage in the world; he moves things around a bit. The money and the material things still belong to world. But when one wastes one's beauty, one wastes something of value, and its value is precious because it will end. If one does not pass on one's beauty and pleasing qualities by siring pleasing offspring, he simply destroys that beauty. The speaker plays on the vanity as well as the sympathy of the young man, as he uses his powers of persuasion.

Couplet: Misanthropic Selfishness

No love toward others in that bosom sits
That on himself such murd'rous shame commits.

In the couplet, the speaker hurls a stark but exaggerated notion: that the young man's behavior is bordering on misanthropy. The speaker frankly opines that the young man could not possibly possess a loving heart and affection toward his fellow human beings, if he is so selfish as to waste his beauty and pleasing qualities on himself, while failing to father the next generation of beauty and pleasing qualities. The speaker accuses the young man of committing a "murderous shame"—an exaggeration aimed at stirring the lad to action.

Shakespeare Identified Lecture, Mike A'Dair And William J. Ray

© 2020 Linda Sue Grimes