Richard Sibbes, Sermon on Canticles 5:2 (e)


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Sibbes ends the sermon with the observation that to be “awake” is a “blessed state”. It is to be in a state of holy communion with God in Jesus Christ and thus is a “happy” condition.

Since a “waking” state is blessed state, that provokes the question, How am I be in waking state. As he puts it:

Quest.How shall we do to keep and preserve our souls in this waking condition, especially in these drowsy times?

If 17thCentury England was a “drowsy time”, what would Sibbes say about the current world?

He provides a series six answers:

Consider the importance of being awake

Stir up the exercise of faith

Pray for the presence of the Spirit

Stir up a godly fear

Keep company with other Christians

You will see that these answers concern both private and public actions. His application concerns our thoughts, our affections, our behavior. We must be considered with both our physical and our spiritual environment. In short, he prescribes a general way of life:

First, must consider the importance of staying awake:

Ans. 1. Propound unto them waking considerations.

He develops this answer in three parts. The first consideration is our need for remaining awake. He begins with the observation that we fall asleep because is not sufficient reason to stay awake (in these drowsy times).  What then will give us good reason to stay awake:

To see, and know, and think of what a state we are now advanced unto in Christ; what we shall be ere long, yet the fearful estate we should be in, if God leave us to ourselves! a state of astonishment, miserable and wretched, beyond speech, nay, beyond conceit! [conceit means conception, idea]

We fall asleep because we lose sight of the blessing of being awake. Only when we become drowsy do the things of this world increase in their appeal:

We never fall to sleep in earthly and carnal delights, till the soul let its hold go of the best things, and ceaseth to think of, and to wonder at them.

To sharpen this consideration, Sibbes asks us to consider the shortness of life:

Make the heart think of the shortness and vanity of this life, with the uncertainty of the time of our death; and of what wondrous consequentit is to be in the state of grace before we die.

This consideration has special consideration for us today since it was written by a man 400 years dead. When we hear this from one who is alive, death seems distant. But when the speaker has already died.

Finally, a judgment is coming and when that judgment comes we will be wholly dependent upon the grace of God:

The necessity of grace, and then the free dispensing of it in God’s good time, and withal the terror of the Lord’s-day, ‘Remembering,’ saith St Paul, ‘the terror of the Lord, I labour to stir up all men,’ &c., 2 Cor. 5:11.

Indeed it should make us stir up our hearts when we consider the terror of the Lord; to think that ere long we shall be all drawn to an exact account, before a strict, precise judge. And shall our eyes then be sleeping and careless? These and such like considerations out of spiritual wisdom we should propound to ourselves, that so we might have waking souls, and preserve them in a right temper.

Second, he counsels us to stir up faith. He makes a couple of related points here. First, faith is a grace which keeps the spiritual life awake. Without faith, there will be no other life. Second, the heart of man, our identity, our soul is conformed to that which it perceives. That is the nature of human beings being in the image of God, we are reflective creatures:

The soul is as the object is that is presented to it, and as the certainty of the apprehension is of that object.

When the soul perceives God by grace, the greatness of the object conforms and enlivens the soul and keeps it awake.

He then counsels how to stir up the soul in faith. Consider the end of all things:

When a man believes, that all these things shall be on fire ere long; that heaven and earth shall fall in pieces; that we shall be called to give an account, [and that] before that time we may be taken away—is it not a wonder we stand so long, when cities, stone walls fall, and kingdoms come to sudden periods? When faith apprehends, and sets this to the eye of the soul, it affects the same marvellously. Therefore let faith set before the soul some present thoughts according to its temper. Sometimes terrible things to awaken it out of its dulness; sometimes glorious things, promises and mercies, to waken it out of its sadness, &c.

When we are in ease, consider the dangers which reside that estate:

When we are in a prosperous estate let faith make present all the sins and temptations that usually accompany such an estate, as pride, security, self-applause, and the like. If in adversity, think also of what sins may beset us there. This will awaken up such graces in us, as are suitable to such an estate, for the preventing of such sins and temptations, and so keep our hearts in ‘exercise to godliness,’ 1 Tim. 4:7; than which, nothing will more prevent sleeping.

Third, he counsels that we,

Pray for the Spirit above all things. It is the life of our life, the soul of our soul. What is the body without the soul, or the soul without the Spirit of God? Even a dead lump. And let us keep ourselves in such good ways, as we may expect the presence of the Spirit to be about us, which will keep us awake.

Fourth, keep our mind and affections filled with “light” that we may be awake. This is similar to Paul’s counsel:

Philippians 4:8–9 (ESV)

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

The principle here articulated is that we will avoid dissonance and conflict in the matters upon which we dwell and the life we lead. We will want there to be a consistency with our thoughts, our attentions and our behavior.

What makes men in their corruptions to avoid the ministry of the word, or anything that may awake their consciences? It is the desire they have to sleep. They know, the more they know, the more they must practise, or else they must have a galled conscience. They see religion will not stand with their ends. Rich they must be, and great they will be; but if they suffer the light to grow upon them, that will tell them they must not rise, and be great, by these and such courses.

Conversely, a mind filled with light will desire light, “A gracious heart will be desirous of spiritual knowledge especially, and not care how near the word comes.”

In short, we will continue on the direction in which we have begun by sheer heart-inertia. “Sleep is a work of darkness. Men therefore of dark and drowsy hearts desire darkness, for that very end that their consciences may sleep.”

Fifth, he counsels to stir up the fear of God.

Ans. 5. Labour to preserve the soul in the fear of God: because fear is a waking affection, yea, one of the wakefullest. For, naturally we are more moved with dangers, than stirred with hopes. Therefore, that affection, that is most conversant about danger, is the most rousing and waking affection. Preserve therefore the fear of God by all means. It is one character of a Christian, who, when he hath lost almost all grace, to his feeling, yet the fear of God is always left with him. He fears sin, and the reward of it, and therefore God makes that awe the bond of the new covenant.

He makes this a distinguishing feature of Christian maturity, “One Christian is better than another, by how much more he wakes, and fears more than another. Of all Christians, mark those are most gracious, spiritual, and heavenly, that are the most awful and careful of their speeches, courses, and demeanours; tender even of offending God in little things.”

But it is not merely fear of correction; it is a fear of loss:

 He is afraid to lose that sweet communion any way, or to grieve the Spirit of God. Therefore, always as a man grows in grace, he grows in awfulness, and in jealousy of his own corruptions.

We must exercise steady consideration of our dangers so that we maintain a godly fear. In particular, we should fear those sins which are most likely to affect us personally:

Those that will keep waking souls, must consider the danger of the place where they live, and the times; what sins reign, what sins such a company as they converse with, are subject unto, and their own weakness to be led away with such temptations. This jealousy is a branch of that fear that we spake of before, arising from the searching of our own hearts, and dispositions. It is a notable means to keep us awake, when we keep our hearts in fear of such sins as either by calling, custom, company, or the time we live in, or by our own disposition, we are most prone to.

Here is a true observation: we are each fit for particular sins. We may be fit by disposition, situation, habit, experience. Any number of social and psychological factors may dispose us to some particular sin, but we do have particular sins:

There is no Christian, but he hath some special sin, to which he is more prone than to another, one way or other, either by course of life, or complexion. Here now is the care and watchfulness of a Christian spirit, that knowing by examination, and trial of his own heart, his weakness, he doth especially fence against that, which he is most inclined to; and is able to speak most against that sin of all others, and to bring the strongest arguments to dishearten others from practice of it.

Sixth and finally, we must be careful of our company:

Ans. 6. In the last place it is a thing of no small consequence, that we keep company with waking and faithful Christians, such as neither sleep themselves or do willingly suffer any to sleep that are near them.

We will be encouraged either to wake or sleep by the company we keep. We are greatly influenced by our company, therefore, we must keep the right company. He provides a list tailored to his immediate audience. It is interesting to consider how different and how similar he exhortation sounds:

Certainly a drowsy temper is the most ordinary temper in the world. For would men suffer idle words, yea, filthy and rotten talk to come from their mouths if they were awake? Would a waking man run into a pit? or upon a sword’s point? A man that is asleep may do anything. What do men mean when they fear not to lie, dissemble, and rush upon the pikes of God’s displeasure? When they say one thing and do another, are they not dead? or take them at the best, are they not asleep? Were they awake, would they ever do thus? Will not a fowl that hath wings, avoid the snare? or will a beast run into a pit when it sees it? There is a snare laid in your playhouses, gaming houses, common houses, that gentlemen frequent that generally profess religion, and take the communion. If the eye of their souls were awake, would they run into these snares, that their own conscience tells them are so? If there be any goodness in their souls, it is wondrous sleepy. There is no man, even the best, but may complain something, that they are overtaken in the contagion of these infectious times. They catch drowsy tempers, as our Saviour saith, of those latter times. ‘For the abundance of iniquity, the love of many shall wax cold,’ Mat. 24:12. A chill temper grows ever from the coldness of the times that we live in, wherein the best may complain of coldness; but there is a great difference. The life of many, we see, is a continual sleep.

He then cautions against leisure:

Let us especially watch over ourselves, in the use of liberty and such things as are in themselves lawful. It is a blessed state, when a Christian carries himself so in his liberty, that his heart condemns him not for the abuse of that which it alloweth, and justly in a moderate use. Recreations are lawful; who denies it? To refresh a man’s self, is not only lawful, but necessary. God know it well enough, therefore hath allotted time for sleep, and the like. But we must not turn recreation into a calling, to spend too much time in it.

The trouble with permissible things is that we easily become careless, not seeing the danger:

Where there is least fear, there is most danger always. Now because in lawful things there is least fear, we are there in most danger. It is true for the most part, licitis perimus omnes, more men perish in the church of God by the abuse of lawful things, than by unlawful; more by meat, than by poison. Because every man takes heed of poison, seeing he knows the venom of it, but how many men surfeit, and die by meat! So, many men die by lawful things. They eternally perish in the abuse of their liberties, more than in gross sins.

Sibbes concludes with excellency of being awake:

We will conclude this point with the meditation of the excellency of a waking Christian. When he is in his right temper, he is an excellent person, fit for all attempts. He is then impregnable. Satan hath nothing to do with him, for he, as it is said, is then a wise man, and ‘hath his eyes in his head,’ Eccles. 3:4. He knows himself, his state, his enemies, and adversaries, the snares of prosperity and adversity, and of all conditions, &c. Therefore, he being awake, is not overcome of the evil of any condition, and is ready for the good of any estate. He that hath a waking soul, he sees all the advantages of good, and all the snares that might draw him to ill. Mark 13:37. What a blessed estate is this! In all things therefore watch; in all estates, in all times, and in all actions. There is a danger in everything without watchfulness. There is a scorpion under every stone, as the proverb is, a snare under every blessing of God, and in every condition, which Satan useth as a weapon to hurt us; adversity to discourage us, prosperity to puff us up: when, if a Christian hath not a waking soul, Satan hath him in his snare, in prosperity to be proud and secure; in adversity to murmur, repine, be dejected, and call God’s providence into question. When a Christian hath a heart and grace to awake, then his love, his patience, his faith is awake, as it should be. He is fit for all conditions, to do good in them, and to take good by them.

And his conclusion:

Let us therefore labour to preserve watchful and waking hearts continually, that so we may be fit to live, to die, and to appear before the judgment seat of God; to do what we should do, and suffer what we should suffer, being squared for all estates whatsoever.



Shakespeare’s Sonnet 8 Notes


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Detail of “The Musicians” (about 1595) by Caravaggio

[1]      Music to hear, why hear’st thou music sadly?

[2]       Sweets with sweets war not, joy delights in joy.

[3]       Why lov’st thou that which thou receiv’st not gladly,

[4]       Or else receiv’st with pleasure thine annoy?

[5]       If the true concord of well-tunèd sounds,

[6]       By unions married, do offend thine ear,

[7]       They do but sweetly chide thee, who confounds

[8]       In singleness the parts that thou shouldst bear.

[9]       Mark how one string, sweet husband to another,

[10]     Strikes each in each by mutual ordering,

[11]     Resembling sire and child and happy mother

[12]     Who, all in one, one pleasing note do sing;

[13]     Whose speechless song, being many, seeming one,

[14]     Sings this to thee: “Thou single wilt prove none.”


This sonnet continues the refrain, that it would be wrong to refrain from marriage and a child. Here, the overarching metaphor is the harmony of music. The object of the poem is hearing music, which should bring him pleasure; but the beautiful music is also unsettling him. Why? Because the music is a harmony of parts, a “marriage”, where one sound stands relation to the other sounds, like a husband and wife, like a father, mother and child. But the object, being single, cannot enjoy the harmony.

First Stanza

[1]       Music to hear, why hear’st thou music sadly?

[2]       Sweets with sweets war not, joy delights in joy.

[3]       Why lov’st thou that which thou receiv’st not gladly,

[4]       Or else receiv’st with pleasure thine annoy?


The first two lines begin with an accented syllable:



The effect is to quickly demand the attention. It poses a question: Why does music sound unhappy to you? That does not make sense

Sweets with sweets war not – there is no discord in two sweet sounds.

Joy delights in joy.

Why is this music troubling you? Shakespeare is here mixing the themes of music and love. There is a missing pleasure in your hearing of this music.

Shakespeare will pick up this idea and develop as the introductory lines to the Twelfth Night:

If music be the food of love, play on;
Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.
That strain again! it had a dying fall:
O, it came o’er my ear like the sweet sound,
That breathes upon a bank of violets,
Stealing and giving odour! Enough; no more:
‘Tis not so sweet now as it was before.
O spirit of love! how quick and fresh art thou,
That, notwithstanding thy capacity
Receiveth as the sea, nought enters there,
Of what validity and pitch soe’er,
But falls into abatement and low price,
Even in a minute: so full of shapes is fancy
That it alone is high fantastical.

There is the same receiving of music, and yet the troubled receiving. The Duke’s love both craves and is cannot bear the musick.

Second Stanza:

[5]       If the true concord of well-tunèd sounds,

[6]       By unions married, do offend thine ear,

[7]       They do but sweetly chide thee, who confounds

[8]       In singleness the parts that thou shouldst bear.

If there is a trouble in hearing the music, then the fault is not in the music, but in you who hear the music. The music is “true concord” and “well-tuned sounds”.  There is no fault described in the sound. But there is a fault somewhere, because sounds, “do offend thine ear”.

In the beginning of line 6, Shakespeare puns on the word “married” to introduce a new theme in this discussion of music and the pleasure in hearing music. The “true concord” of harmony is here said to be “unions married”.

The reason for the displeasure in the music is not in the music, but that the concord of the music “sweetly chide thee”. Why? Because being single, the harmony of parts, the marriage of the sounds beckons you to a similar marriage, but you are single.

There are endless speculations about the story behind these sonnets. But this particular sonnet seems to suggest a back story that Shakespeare is writing to someone who is hesitating at a marriage.

Third Stanza

[9]       Mark how one string, sweet husband to another,

[10]     Strikes each in each by mutual ordering,

[11]     Resembling sire and child and happy mother

[12]     Who, all in one, one pleasing note do sing;

In the third stanza, he speaks of the harmony brought about in the music by developing the sounds in terms of a family. One string is “sweet husband to another”. The musician strikes one string and then another, “by mutual ordering”. The concourse of the sounds creates a resemblance, as a sire and child and mother in order together bring about “one pleasing note”. The parts do all sing together to create beauty.


[13]     Whose speechless song, being many, seeming one,

[14]     Sings this to thee: “Thou single wilt prove none.”

The song is “speechless” because it is just music. The various notes are not many but “one”. And this harmony of notes without words is singing: If you will be single, you will be nothing.

Richard Sibbes, Sermons on Canticles 5.2 (d)


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Sibbes next considers the distinguishing marks of a true Christian and a hypocrite. He locates the fundamental difference as a difference in the heart – not a difference in the displayed behavior. He raises this issue here from the text. There is sleep – the displayed behavior; but the heart wakes.

Obs.3. A Christian is what his heart and inward man is.

It is a true speech of divines, God and nature begin there. Art begins with the face and outward lineaments, as hypocrisy, outward painting and expressions; but grace at the centre, and from thence goes to the circumference. And therefore the church values herself here by the disposition and temper of her heart. Thus I am for my outward carriage, &c. ‘I sleep, but my heart, that waketh.’

If this is true, then it is a ground for testing. So we should begin with testing our own conscience:

Therefore, let us enter into our consciences and souls, for the trial of our estates, how it is with our judgments. Do we allow of the ways of God and of the law of the inward man?

Notice the nature of the trial: do we submit to the law and ways of God in our heart, where no other can see the outcome?

He then gives some detail to the question of whether “we allow the ways of God”. How do our affections (desires, will, emotions) respond to this law:

How is it with our affections and bent to good things? how with our hatred, our zeal? Is it not more for outward things than for inward?

He then draws an illustration of one man speaking to another: are you with me in this warfare?

We know what Jehu said to Jonadab, when he would have him into his chariot, ‘Is thine heart as mine? Then come to me,’ 2 Kings 10:15.

It is the same question of Christ to us: he seeks our heart and then he seeks our conduct, our hand:

So saith Christ, Is thine heart as mine? then give me thy hand. But first God must have our hearts, and then our hands.

A man who acts in a certain way without the matching heart, is a man who is like a ghost: a show without substance:

A man otherwise is but a ghost in religion, which goes up and down, without a spirit of its own; but a picture that hath an outside, and is nothing within. Therefore, especially, let us look to our hearts. ‘Oh, that there were such an heart in this people,’ saith God to Moses, ‘to fear me always, for their good,’ Deut. 5:29. This is it that God’s children desire, that their hearts may be aright set. ‘Wash thy heart, O Jerusalem,’ saith the prophet, ‘from thy wickedness,’ &c., Jer. 4:14.

If Satan can get the heart (for from it flow the springs of life, Prov. 4:23, he has success):

Indeed, all the outward man depends upon this. Therefore, Satan, if he can get this fort, he is safe, and so Satan’s vicar, Prov. 4:23.

The Devil is content with a heart which does not honor God. The Devil has done his work when he has the heart; he will tolerate all sorts of good works as long as the heart does not go with the work (for even a seemingly good work cannot truly be good in giving glory to God, if the heart is not in it).

God seeks the heart, but does not rest with the heart:

God is not content with the heart alone. The devil knows if he have the heart he hath all; but God, as he made all, both soul and body, he will have all. But yet in times of temptation the chief trial is in the heart.

Here he comes to the distinguishing mark of a human being:

And from hence we may have a main difference between one Christian and another. A sound Christian doth what he doth from the heart; he begins the work there. What good he doth he loves in his heart first, judgeth it to be good, and then he doeth it.

He then applies the principle to the hypocrite:

An hypocrite doth what he doth outwardly, and allows not inwardly of that good he doth. He would do ill, and not good, if it were in his choice. The good that he doth is for by-ends, for correspondence, or dependence upon others, or conformity with the times, to cover his designs under formality of religion, that he may not be known outwardly, as he is inwardly, an atheist and an hypocrite. So he hath false aims; his heart is not directed to a right mark.

Mr. By-ends was a character in Pilgrim’s Progress. Bunyan draws out the picture of this man:

CHR. Pray, who are your kindred there, if a man may be so bold?

By-ends. Almost the whole town; and in particular my Lord Turn-about, my Lord Time-server, my Lord Fair-speech, from whose ancestors that town first took its name; also, Mr. Smooth-man, Mr. Facing-both-ways, Mr. Any-thing; and the parson of our parish, Mr. Two-tongues, was my mother’s own brother, by father’s side; and, to tell you the truth, I am become a gentleman of good quality; yet my great-grandfather was but a waterman, looking one way and rowing another, and I got most of my estate by the same occupation.

CHR. Are you a married man?

By-ends. Yes, and my wife is a very virtuous woman, the daughter of a virtuous woman; she was my Lady Feigning’s daughter; therefore she came of a very honorable family, and is arrived to such a pitch of breeding, that she knows how to carry it to all, even to prince and peasant. ’Tis true, we somewhat differ in religion from those of the stricter sort, yet but in two small points: First, we never strive against wind and tide. Secondly, we are always most zealous when religion goes in his silver slippers; we love much to walk with him in the street, if the sun shines and the people applaud him.

John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress: From This World to That Which Is to Come (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1995).

Sibbes then draws the contrast with the believer:

But it is otherwise with God’s child. Whatsoever good he doth, it is in his heart first; whatsoever ill he abstains from, he doth it from his heart, judging it to be naught; therefore he hates it, and will not do it. Here is a main difference of the church from all others. It wakes in the heart, though the outward man sleeps.

The hypocrite may do any-thing, however good, but without the appropriate heart:

But other men’s hearts sleep when they wake, as you know some men will walk and do many things in their sleep. An hypocrite is such a kind of man. He walks and goes up and down, but his heart is asleep. He knows not what he doth, nor doth he the thing out of judgment or love, but as one asleep, as it were. He hath no inward affection unto the things he doth. A Christian is the contrary; his heart is awake when he is asleep.

Sibbes then draws out a second distinction between the hypocrite and the believer; the conflict in the heart. First, the Christian is aware of the conflict which runs in his heart:

Another difference from the words you may have thus. A Christian, by the power of God’s Spirit in him, is sensible of the contrarieties in him, complains, and is ashamed for the same.

The hypocrite has no appreciation for being waking or sleep, because he is asleep:

But an hypocrite is not so; he is not sensible of his sleepiness. ‘I sleep,’ saith the church. So much as the church saith she slept, so much she did not sleep; for a man that is asleep cannot say he is asleep, nor a dead man that he is dead. So far as he saith he is asleep, he is awake.

And so, the believer confesses that he is in a conflict of wake and sleep:

Now, the church confesseth that she was asleep by that part that was awake in her. Other men do not complain, are not sensible of their sleepiness and slumbering, but compose themselves to slumber, and seek darkness, which is a friend of sleep. They would willingly be ignorant, to keep their conscience dull and dumb as much as they can, that it may not upbraid them. This is the disposition of a carnal man; he is not sensible of his estate as here the church is.

Shakespeare Sonnet 7 (Notes)


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The fall of Phaethon, Johann Liss,

[1]       Lo, in the orient when the gracious light

[2]       Lifts up his burning head, each under eye

[3]       Doth homage to his new-appearing sight,

[4]       Serving with looks his sacred majesty;

[5]       And having climbed the steep-up heavenly hill,

[6]       Resembling strong youth in his middle age,

[7]       Yet mortal looks adore his beauty still,

[8]       Attending on his golden pilgrimage.

[9]       But when from highmost pitch with weary car

[10]     Like feeble age he reeleth from the day,

[11]     The eyes, ’fore duteous, now converted are

[12]     From his low tract and look another way.

[13]     So thou, thyself outgoing in thy noon,

[14]     Unlooked on diest unless thou get a son.


This sonnet develops a central metaphor of the sun’s progress across the sky, which each successive stanza taking a different part of the day: morning, noon, afternoon. The progress of the sun is used a proxy for the progress of one’s life. At the end, the sun sets and life ends. From this metaphor, Shakespeare draws a conclusion, you will be like the sun after it has set if you do not have a son.

First Stanza

[1]      Lo, in the orient when the gracious light

[2]       Lifts up his burning head, each under eye

[3]       Doth homage to his new-appearing sight,

[4]       Serving with looks his sacred majesty;


The sun is developed in metaphoric language. In fact, Shakespeare never uses the

“sun” in the poem, apparently as a set up for the use of the word “son” in the final line.


The poem begins with “Lo” – Look! The rising sun draws all attention.


The sun rises in the “orient”, not the east. The orient, in Shakespeare time, was the land of magnificent treasure,


He kissed—the last of many doubled kisses—

(FTLN 0557)      [47]     This orient pearl.



Antony and Cleopatra Act I, Scene

After this, he was taken out of his chaire of Majestie, having upon him an upper robe adorned with precious stones of all sorts, orient pearles of great quantitie, but alwayes augmented in riches: it was in waight two hundred pounds, the traine, and parts thereof borne up by 6. Dukes, his chiefe imperiall Crowne upon his head very precious:

Richard Hakluyt, The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques, and Discoveries of the English Nation Made by Sea or Overland to the Remote & Farthest Distant Quarters of the Earth at Any Time within the Compasse of These 1600 Yeares, vol. 2 (Medford, MA: E. P. Dutton & Co., n.d.), 271.

The sun gives a “gracious light” and “Lifts up his burning head”. The sun is a colossus which rises over the landscape. His light is gracious – he is a king. And the response is the response to a king:


each under eye

[3]       Doth homage to his new-appearing sight,

[4]       Serving with looks his sacred majesty


All pay “homage” and do so by looking upon the “sacred majesty”.


Second Stanza

[5]       And having climbed the steep-up heavenly hill,

[6]       Resembling strong youth in his middle age,

[7]       Yet mortal looks adore his beauty still,

[8]       Attending on his golden pilgrimage.


The second stanza develops the image of the sun. He shows his strength by climginb up the “steep” “heavenly hill” of the sky. He power is such that even in middle age he has the beauty of youth. And he continues to receive homage by “mortal looks” which now “adore his beauty still”.

He progress is a “golden pilgrimage” which the mortals “attend” to.

Third Stanza

[9]       But when from highmost pitch with weary car

[10]     Like feeble age he reeleth from the day,

[11]     The eyes, ’fore duteous, now converted are

[12]     From his low tract and look another way.

At this point, the imagery of the sun shifts in two ways. First, it concerns the sun’s decline. Second, the sun is no longer climbing himself but now is in a car; which reminds us of  Phaethon who attempted to drive the chariot of the sun but veered wildly out of control and brought the sun too near the earth. 

Shakespeare does not make that precise point, but does allude to one who is too weak to control the sun.

But when from highmost pitch with weary car

[10]     Like feeble age he reeleth from the day,

At the height of trip, the sun in weakness: weary car, feeble age, reelth, loses control and the sun falls from the sky. Seemingly in the height of power, the sun is actually grown week.

And the response of the mortals is no longer to look but now to look-away:

[11]     The eyes, ’fore duteous, now converted are

[12]     From his low tract and look another way.

The language of homage and adoration, part kingly, part religious returns. The eyes no longer perform “duty” (like a subject). The mortals are “now converted.” With the swings in Shakespeare’s day between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism would have shown many “conversions”, thus, the language would have resonance.

The moral is obvious: you are beautiful now, but soon you will be weakened, your beauty gone – you will be like the falling sun where all look away.



[13]     So thou, thyself outgoing in thy noon,

[14]     Unlooked on diest unless thou get a son.

The metaphor is drawn tight: you are like the sun. Yes you are at noon, but noon does not last. Everyone will look away from you in your age and weakness, “unless thou get a son”. The use of the “son” in the last syllable is purposeful, because he has studiously avoided the word “sun” throughout the poem.

You will fail like a failing “sun” unless you get a “son” – who himself be a new “sun.”

Richard Sibbes, Sermon on Canticle 5.2(c)


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The next two observations on the text by Sibbes considers the persistence of the Christian life being grounded in the love of God. The first observation, which derives from the imagery of waking and sleeping, is that while the Christian may stumble, the Christian will never completely fall:

 Obs.1. ‘My heart waketh.’ God’s children never totally fall from grace.

First, he looks to an image in Isaiah 6:13:

Though they sleep, yet their heart is awake. The prophet Isaiah, speaking of the church and children of God, Isa. 6:13, saith, ‘It shall be as a tree, as an oak whose substance is in them, when they cast their leaves.’ Though you see neither fruit nor leaves, yet there is life in the root, ‘the seed remains in them.’

The imagery of Isaiah applies most directly to Israel as a whole. Sibbes notes the context, “speaking of the church and children of God” (here, “church” is being used to refer to the people of God prior to the New Covenant). Thus, he is not misusing the text exegetically but rather using the image as illustrative.

Sibbes next  applies the principle to an individual, Peter. (In making a reference the book of First Peter, I am surprised that Sibbes did not also reference 1 Peter. 1:23). Peter denied Jesus on the night of his arrest and trial, and Peter did not utterly fall away (as did Judas, who would not born of a “living hope”):

There is alway a seed remaining. It is an immortal seed that we are begotten by. Peter, when he denied his Master, was like an oak that was weather-beaten; yet there was life still in the root, 1 Pet. 1:3,Mat. 26:32, seq.For, questionless, Peter loved Christ from his heart. Sometimes a Christian may be in such a poor case, as the spiritual life runneth all to the heart, and the outward man is left destitute;

Sibbes then draws an analogy to a city ravaged in war:

as in wars, when the enemy hath conquered the field, the people run into the city, and if they be beaten out of the city, they run into the castle. The grace of God sometimes fails in the outward action, in the field, when yet it retireth to the heart, in which fort it is impregnable. ‘My heart waketh.’

Sibbes then applies the principle more directly to the issue, the outward failure and inward perseverance

When the outward man sleeps, and there are weak, dull performances, and perhaps actions amiss, too, yet notwithstanding ‘the heart waketh.’ As we see in a swoon or great scars, the blood, spirits, and life, though they leave the face and hands, &c., yet they are in the heart.

We have been wounded and appear dead, but our life has not yet left:

It is said in the Scripture of Eutychus, ‘His life is in him still,’ though he seemed to be dead, Acts 20:9. As Christ said of Lazarus, John 11:4, so a man may say of a Christian in his worst state, His life is in him still; he is not dead, but sleeps; ‘his heart waketh.’

This doctrine is contested. There are some who would say that one who falls has “lost his salvation”. There have been questions throughout the church among those who spoke of losing one’s salvation as to whether salvation could ever be regained; or even whether the regained salvation could merit heaven or only a purgatory. Sibbes anticipates that objection and contends this doctrine is consistent with Scripture:

 Obs.2. This is a sound doctrine and comfortable, agreeable to Scripture and the experience of God’s people. We must not lose it, therefore, but make use of it against the time of temptation. There are some pulses that discover life in the sickest man, so are there some breathings and spiritual motions of heart that will comfort in such times.

Those who speak of a lost salvation, put the continuance of salvation in human effort. Sibbes rightly places the provision and maintenance of salvation not in the human recipient but in the God who gives salvation:

These two never fail on God’s part, his love, which is unchangeable, and his grace, a fruit of his love; and two on our part, the impression of that love, and the gracious work of the new creature. ‘Christ never dies,’ saith the apostle, Heb. 7:25. As he never dies in himself, after his resurrection, so he never dies in his children. There is always spiritual life.

Sibbes then goes to the “use” of the doctrine. By the way, this insistent reference to the “use” of a doctrine was a hallmark of Puritan preaching. It demonstrates that the purpose of doctrine is not for some hypothetical future theology exam, but rather for living. This particular doctrine brings “comfort”. The doctrine provides a comfort because the our unfailing relationship with God is not based upon us but upon God: God engenders this love which provokes love in us; and love never fails:

This is a secret of God’s sanctuary, only belonging to God’s people. Others have nothing to do with it. They shall ever love God, and God will ever love them. The apostle, 1 Cor. 13:8, saith, ‘Love never fails.’ Gifts, you know, shall be abolished, because the manner of knowing we now use shall cease. ‘We see through a glass,’ &c., ‘but love abideth,’ 1 Cor. 13:12. Doth our love to God abide for ever, and doth not his love to us, whence it cometh? Ours is but a reflection of God’s love.

Richard Sibbes, Sermon on Canticles 5.2(b)


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Based upon those observations, Sibbes then turns to the application of that idea: If it true that Christians will live with two contrary principles, with desires in conflict; and yet Christians will not ultimately be overcome and lose that gracious principle which flows from the work of the Spirit of God in our lives; how then should we live? Sibbes counsels (1) thankfulness, that God will continually show mercy to us; and (2) let us use the knowledge of our frailty and persistence of temptation, to keep a close eye upon our lives.

First, thankfulness:

 Whence, for use, let us magnify the goodness of God, that will remain by his Spirit, and let it stay to preserve life in such hearts as ours are, so prone to security and sleepiness.

That is an interesting observation about human psychology: use our thankfulness, extoling the goodness of God, because that will cause us to persevere. The knowledge that God will continue to show goodness to us, will cause us to continue to persevere in the goodness of God. It is an interesting that our worship of God will cause us to continue in the experience of the goodness of God.

He then comes to specific instances of God’s goodness. First, to think of how God was willing to do us good when there was no gracious principle in us, at the time of our salvation:

Let it put us in mind of other like merciful and gracious doings of our God for us, that he gave his Spirit to us when we had nothing good in us, when it met with nothing but enmity, rebellion, and indisposedness.

And also to consider the goodness of God in the Incarnation:

Nay, consider how he debased himself and became man, in being united to our frail flesh, after an admirablenearness, and all out of mercy to save us.

Second, when we look to ourselves, let us take care and look to the Devil’s persistence in seeking to exploit our fraility:

Use. 2. If so be that Satan shall tempt us in such occasions, let us enter into our own souls, and search the truth of grace, our judgment, our wills, our constant course of obedience, and the inward principle whence it comes, that we may be able to stand in the time of temptation.

Sibbes then gives examples of this self-servicing (he calls it a “reflect act”):

What upheld the church but this reflect act, by the help of the Spirit, that she was able to judge of the good as well as of the ill? Thus David, ‘The desires of our souls are towards thee,’Ps. 38:9; and though all this have befallen us, yet have we not forgotten thy name, Ps. 44:20. This will enable us to appeal to God, as Peter, ‘Lord, thou knowest I love thee,’ John 21:15. It is an evidence of a good estate.


Richard Sibbes, Sermon on Canticles 5.2 (a)


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The fourth considers the paradoxical state of Canticles 5:2, “I sleep, but my heart wakes.”

First, Sibbes notes the concept of the heart as used in the Scripture:

The word heart, you know, includes the whole soul, for the understanding is the heart, ‘an understanding heart,’ Job 38:36. To ‘lay things up in our hearts,’ Luke 2:51, there it is memory; and to cleave in heart is to cleave in will, Acts 11:23. To ‘rejoice in heart,’ Isa. 30:29, that is in the affection. So that all the powers of the soul, the inward man, as Paul calleth it, 2 Cor. 4:16, is the heart.

By the terms “waking” and “sleeping”, Sibbes takes it for the state of the heart in a Christian, which is both redeemed and yet corruption remains. This makes for Sibbes’ first observation on the text:

Obs.1. You see here, then, first of all, in this correction, that a Christian hath two principles in him, that which is good, and that which is evil, whence issueth the weakness of his actions and affections. They are all mixed, as are the principles from which they come forth.

The second observation is by means of the Spirit the has knowledge of himself:

We may observe, further, that a Christian man may know how it is with himself. Though he be mixed of flesh and spirit, he hath a distinguishing knowledge and judgment whereby he knows both the good and evil in himself.

He compares the human heart in its nature as being like a lightless dungeon, but the Spirit is a light that searches the dark corners of the heart.He also notes that the in times of temptation, the work of the Spirit may be hindered in the human heart such a man not righty know himself:

In a dungeon where is nothing but darkness, both on the eye that should see and on that which should be seen, he can see nothing; but where there is a supernatural principle, where there is this mixture, there the light of the Spirit searcheth the dark corners of the heart. A man that hath the Spirit knoweth both; he knoweth himself and his own heart. The Spirit hath a light of its own, even as reason hath. How doth reason know what it doth? By a reflect act inbred in the soul. Shall a man that is natural reflect upon his state, and know what he knows, what he thinks, what he doth, and may not the soul that is raised to an higher estate know as much? Undoubtedly it may. Besides, we have the Spirit of God, which is light, and self-evidencing. It shews unto us where it is, and what it is. The work of the Spirit may sometimes be hindered, as in times of temptation. Then I confess a man may look wholly upon corruption, and so mistake himself in judging by that which he sees present in himself, and not by the other principle which is concealed for a time from him. But a Christian, when he is not in such a temptation, he knows his own estate, and can distinguish between the principles in him of the flesh and spirit, grace and nature.

Third, Sibbes notes that we should acknowledge both good work of the Spirit in our heart as well as our indwelling corruption. But,

Many help Satan, the accuser, and plead his cause against the Spirit, their comforter, in refusing to see what God seeth in them. We must make conscience of this, to know the good as well as the evil, though it be never so little.

Note that it is the job of Satan to accuse the believer. His goal is not to bring the conscience to a state of repentance, but to crush the heart in despair. There is a worldly sorrow and a sorrow of repentance.

This is a theme which Sibbes develops in other places. He works out the fact that a believer may be discouraged and overcome with sin and yet still not be destroyed as a believer. First, the Christian still has a principle of judgment. Even in the worst state, the Christian retains the capacity to know the moral truth of his actions.

Moreover, the will when focused can still choose the better part.

Take David in his sleepy time between his repentance and his foul sin. If one should have asked him what he thought of the ways of God and of the contrary, he would have given you an answer out of sound judgment thus and thus. If you should have asked him what course he would have followed in his choice, resolution, and purpose, he would have answered savourly.

Third, the affections of the believer will ultimately return to Christ:

Again, there remaineth affection answerable to their judgment, which, though they find, and feel it not for a time, it being perhaps scattered, yet there is a secret love to Christ, and to his cause and side, joined with joy in the welfare of the church and people of God; rejoicing in the prosperity of the righteous, with a secret grief for the contrary. The pulses will beat this way, and good affections will discover themselves. Take him in his sleepy estate, the judgment is sound in the main, the will, the affections, the joy, the delight, the sorrow. This is an evidence his heart is awake.

Fourth, the conscience, even when the believer has fallen into sin will respond. Sibbes gives of David when confronted by Nathan:

The conscience likewise is awake. The heart is taken ofttimes for the conscience in Scripture. A good conscience, called a merry heart, is ‘a continual feast,’ Prov. 15:15. Now, the conscience of God’s children is never so sleepy but it awaketh in some comfortable measure. Though perhaps it may be deaded*in a particular act, yet notwithstanding there is so much life in it, as upon speech or conference, &c., there will be an opening of it, and a yielding at the length to the strength of spiritual reason. His conscience is not seared. David was but a little roused by Nathan, yet you see how he presently confessed ingeniouslythat he had sinned, 2 Sam. 12:13. So, when he had numbered the people, his conscience presently smote him, 2 Sam. 24:10; and when he resolved to kill Nabal and all his family, which was a wicked and carnal passion, in which there was nothing but flesh; yet when he was stopped by the advice and discreet counsel of Abigail, we see how presently he yielded, 1 Sam. 25:32, seq.There is a kind of perpetual tenderness of conscience in God’s people. All the difference is of more or less.

And finally, obedience to God will ultimately return; even when there has been a fall. Sibbes aptly distinguishes between “a state and a fit”. A state would be the general basic estate and a “fit” would be an illness:

And answerable to these inward powers is the outward obedience of God’s children. In their sleepy estate they go on in a course of obedience. Though deadly and coldly, and not with that glory that may give others good example or yield themselves comfort, yet there is a course of good duties. His ordinary way is good, howsoever he may step aside. His fits may be sleepy when his estate is waking. We must distinguish between a state and a fit. A man may have an aguish fit in a sound body. The state of a Christian is a waking state in the inward man. The bye-courses he falleth into are but fits, out of which he recovers himself.



Some observations on Shakespeare Sonnet 6 (“Make worms thine heir”)


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[1] Then let not winter’s ragged hand deface
[2] In thee thy summer ere thou be distilled.
[3] Make sweet some vial; treasure thou some place
[4] With beauty’s treasure ere it be self-killed.
[5] That use is not forbidden usury
[6] Which happies those that pay the willing loan;
[7] That’s for thyself to breed another thee,
[8] Or ten times happier, be it ten for one.
[9] Ten times thyself were happier than thou art
[10] If ten of thine ten times refigured thee;
[11] Then what could death do if thou shouldst depart,
[12] Leaving thee living in posterity?
[13] Be not self-willed, for thou art much too fair
[14] To be death’s conquest and make worms thine heir.
This sonnet picks up immediately upon the imagery of the preceding sonnet: summer must be “distilled” to last into the winter. It also picks up on the general theme of this series of sonnets, in calling upon the object of the poem to have a child. The distinction in this sonnet is in its monetary/investment imagery. The child is seen as an investment and an inheritance.

First Stanza
[1] Then let not winter’s ragged hand deface
[2] In thee thy summer ere thou be distilled.
[3] Make sweet some vial; treasure thou some place
[4] With beauty’s treasure ere it be self-killed.

You will die. Winter will kill, or you will kill yourself (in killing your own beauty)

Winter is an actor who will deface your summer (your beauty, your youth). The language of “deface” puts an emphasis upon appearance rather than existence. Winter is vengeance that will come and will deface you. The fact of winter’s work is not question. Winter’s existence gives intensity and necessity to the task at hand:

When winter has come, it will be too late. Therefore, you must now distill you beauty, make a vial of this perfume of beauty (have a child)

Ere: before, archaic.

The poet uses treasure as a noun and a verb: first, “treasure thou some place”: make a place where treasure is kept. In your treasure, place your treasure.

In speaking of coming age taking away your treasure, you do not treasure your Shakespeare uses an idea which he will develop elsewhere; such as in Sonnet 75, “Doubting the filching age will steal his treasure”

Second Stanza
[5] That use is not forbidden usury
[6] Which happies those that pay the willing loan;
[7] That’s for thyself to breed another thee,
[8] Or ten times happier, be it ten for one.

Usury is charging interest on a loan. The legal conception is with us in the principle limiting the amount of interest one charge for a loan. The line contains a fine pun on “use” and “usury” must like treasure and treasure in the preceding stanza.

It is not an illegal act when you make a loan which causes happiness (“Happies”) in the one who pay the loan.

It is not wrong to lend yourself to the future when you willing to do so. In fact, the return you make on making this loan will exceed any cost. In fact, you will receive a ten-to-one return on bearing a child.

Third Stanza
[9] Ten times thyself were happier than thou art
[10] If ten of thine ten times refigured thee;
[11] Then what could death do if thou shouldst depart,
[12] Leaving thee living in posterity?

A desire for happiness routinely controls our decisions: it keeps us from acting and causes us to act. We value our own happiness.

So in this stanza the controlling concept is no longer interest on a loan, it is return on our action: this will pay us back in happiness.

Now we are back to the image of “winter” here called “death”.

Death obviously cannot cause you injury if you have left and are beyond death’s action “if thou shouldst depart”. The idea here is that once you have departed you are in fact dead.

The conception comes from Romans 7 where Paul explains that that the law (and death is the sergeant who enforces the law of God):

Romans 7:1–3 (ESV)
7 Or do you not know, brothers—for I am speaking to those who know the law—that the law is binding on a person only as long as he lives? 2 For a married woman is bound by law to her husband while he lives, but if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage. 3 Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she marries another man she is not an adulteress.

Death can only enforce its demands on you so far. But there is a way to surpass death.

Shakespeare takes this idea and applies it to children: if you have a child, you have (in a manner) bypassed death.
[13] Be not self-willed, for thou art much too fair
[14] To be death’s conquest and make worms thine heir.

The trouble which will destroy the object is his own pride: Be not self-willed.

Why should you not be so? You are too fair.

You must face this truth: you will die. Do not be conquered by death.

The poem end with a certain irony: if you do not have heir by birth, you will have an heir death. But this heir will not save you from death but will rather make you a prey to death. And thus, you will have an heir and you have face death.

This image of worms is used to good effect in Hamlet, where Hamlet speaks with the King about the King’s counselor – whom Hamlet has just killed:

Now, Hamlet, where’s Polonius?
At supper king
At supper where?
Not where he eats, but where he is eaten. A
certain convocation of politic worms are e’en at
him. Your worm is your only emperor for diet. We
fat all creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves
for maggots. Your fat king and your lean beggar is
but variable service—two dishes but to one table.
That’s the end.
A man may fish with the worm that hath eat
of a king and eat of the fish that hath fed of that

The imagery of worms puts a certain bite upon the concept of death. The idea of “death”. One’s own death is an abstraction: but to make it concrete, the idea of one’s body being eaten makes death a more “real” thing.

Kuyper on Common Grace 1.6


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The previous post in this series may be found here. 

Genesis 9:3–5 (ESV)

Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. And as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man.


Goya, Three Salmon Steaks

In chapter six, Kuyper considers the provisions of the Noahic covenant which pertain to the relationship between animals and human beings. He will conclude that the primary basis for this command is to erect a clear demarcation between human beings and animals.

First, human beings may animals as well as plants.

Second, human beings must be distinguished from animals, in that we will not eat living animals. In distinction from animals and in reverence to God, the animal must first be dead before it may be eaten.

Third, animals are not given the equivalent right to eat human beings.

Some further observations.

Three points of elaboration.

Kuyper notes the Noahic covenant has no foreshadowing of the New Covenant in the way the Mosaic Covenant points forward to the coming Messiah. He refers to the Mosaic Covenant as being a covenant of shadows – and that the foreshadowing did not start until the giving of circumcision and the coming of Israel.

As to killing animals, he contends rightly that this is a provision of the Noahic covenant – it is not based upon the creation order.  Kuyper notes how we naturally revolt against killing animals – it takes some to overcome that hesitancy.

Kuyper also infers a high degree of barbarism in the pre-flood world, such that limitations on tearing animals in the manner of beasts and restrictions on cannibalism were necessary as a common grace restraint.

He notes that by requiring the life to depart to God who gave it, we are giving deference to God in the taking of the animal. Calvin, who informs a great deal of Kuyper’s thought on this subject writes in his commentary:

This ought justly to be deemed by us of greater importance, that to eat the flesh of animals is granted to us by the kindness of God; that we do not seize upon what our appetite desires, as robbers do, nor yet tyrannically shed the innocent blood of cattle; but that we only take what is offered to us by the hand of the Lord. We have heard what Paul says, that we are at liberty to eat what we please, only we do it with the assurance of conscience, but that he who imagines anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean, (Romans 14:14.) And whence has this happened to man, that he should eat whatever food he pleased before God, with a tranquil mind, and not with unbridled license, except from his knowing, that it has been divinely delivered into his hand by the right of donation? Wherefore, (the same Paul being witness,) the word of God sanctifies the creatures, that we may purely and lawfully feed on them, (1 Timothy 4:5.) Let the adage be utterly rejected which says,‘that no one can feed and refresh his body with a morsel of bread, without, at the same time, defiling his soul.’Therefore it is not to be doubted, that the Lord designed to confirm our faith, when he expressly declares by Moses, that he gave to man the free use of flesh, so that we might not eat it with a doubtful and trembling conscience. At the same time, however, he invites us to thanksgiving. On this account also, Paul adds “prayer” to the “word”, in defining the method of sanctification in the passage recently cited.

John Calvin, Genesis, electronic ed., Calvin’s Commentaries, 1998, Ge 9:3.


Shakespeare Sonnet 5, Walls of Glass


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(Photo Courtesy of Jenni Sweat, Flickr)

 [1]      Those hours that with gentle work did frame

[2]       The lovely gaze where every eye doth dwell

[3]       Will play the tyrants to the very same

[4]       And that unfair which fairly doth excel;

[5]       For never-resting time leads summer on

[6]       To hideous winter and confounds him there,

[7]       Sap checked with frost and lusty leaves quite gone,

[8]       Beauty o’er-snowed and bareness everywhere.

[9]       Then, were not summer’s distillation left

[10]     A liquid prisoner pent in walls of glass,

[11]     Beauty’s effect with beauty were bereft,

[12]     Nor it nor no remembrance what it was.

[13]     But flowers distilled, though they with winter meet,

[14]     Leese but their show; their substance still lives sweet.


First Stanza: The Promised Reversal

This sonnet raises a variant on the theme of the need for beauty to make itself again in a child. In the first sonnet, the world as a whole will be the less. In the second sonnet, a child is promised as a comfort (“And see thy blood warm when thou feel’st it cold.”). In the third sonnet, after death, there will be no remembrance of you. In the fourth sonnet, the loss is to nature. All of these losses are abstracted from the object of the sonnet: the world will be the less. Here in the fifth, the certain reversal of beauty is promised (unless preserved).

[1]       Those hours that with gentle work did frame

[2]       The lovely gaze where every eye doth dwell

[3]       Will play the tyrants to the very same

[4]       And that unfair which fairly doth excel;

The lines are bit cryptic: The first question is what sort of “work” was done to “frame/The lovely gaze”? It could potentially be the work of gestation, or the act of growing up: “the lovely gaze where eye doth dwell” could refer to the visage of the object of the poem.  But the “lovely gaze” could also refer to the act of gazing by third parties: the work is the fact of others looking upon the object.

The answer to the question depends upon the identity of the “tyrants.” If “lovely gaze” is the visage (the thing gazed upon), then the “tyrants” are the hours of work: All the life which at first worked to create your beauty will in the end turn upon you and become the hours of pain.

If the “lovely gaze” is the gaze of third persons, then the tyrants are those observers, those who look upon the beauty. An argument could be made for both positions: and such a purposeful ambiguity is the sort of complexity which makes Shakespeare fascinating. The ambiguity is more than just a clever wordplay; the ambiguity draws the subjective beauty and the objective admiration into a union of parts which each hangs upon the other.

I think the weight leans to the visage, because it makes more sense to spend “gentle hours” upon the creation of a visage rather than the creation of a gaze. But living in a fame and appearance obsessed world, the idea of hours being spent in the creation of a gaze makes sense: the beauty is not just there in the object, the beauty is in the relationship to those who gaze upon it.

The last line then promises the reversal: The beauty – “fair” – will become ugly; the exceeding of the “fair” will have a balanced and equivalent fall. But again, the admiration of the world can quickly turn to distain. You see, both readings make good sense of the lines.

Second Stanza: The Mechanics of the Fall

[5]       For never-resting time leads summer on

[6]       To hideous winter and confounds him there,

[7]       Sap checked with frost and lusty leaves quite gone,

[8]       Beauty o’er-snowed and bareness everywhere.

In this stanza, time is made out to be a robber who leads a naïve summer into the dangerous alley of “hideous winter”, summer is dry-gulched by time. Time will “confound”, that is ruin, the beauty of summer. This image of  time “confounding” beauty is used elsewhere by Shakespeare: Sonnet 60, line 8, “And Time that gave doth now his gift confound.” Sonnet 63, line 10, “Against confounding age’s cruel knife.”

The use of confound in this manner was contemporaneous to Shakespeare. The Geneva Bible, has the line, “Let them be confounded & put to shame, that seke my soule: let them be turned backewarde and put to rebuke, that desire mine hurt.” Ps. 70:2.

The beauty of summer’s growth (“lusty leaves”) will be “quite gone” and covered in snow.

There is an interesting use of the word “lusty” in contradistinction to an eventual reversal:


THis sorrowfull time drawing neere so troubled Doctor Faustus, that he began to write his minde, to the ende he might peruse it often and not forget it and is in maner as followeth.

Ah Faustus, thou sorrowful and wofull man, now must thou goe to the damned company in vnquenchable fire, whereas thou mightest haue had the ioyfull immortalitie of the soule, the which thou now hast lost. Ah grosse vnderstanding and wilfull will, what seazeth on my limmes other than a robbing of my life’: Bewayle with me my sound & healthfull body,

wit and soule, bewayle with me my sences, for you haue had your part and pleasure as well as I. Oh enuie and disdaine, how haue you crept both at once into me, and now for your sakes I must suffer all these torments? Ah whither is pitie and mercy fled’: Vpon what occasion hath heauen repayed me with this reward by sufferance to suffer me to perish Wherefore was I created a man’: The punishment that I see prepared for me of my selfe now must I suffer. Ah miserable wretch, there is nothing in this world to shew me comfort: then woe is me, what helpeth my wayling.

Faust Book (Medford, MA: Perseus Digital Library, 5/12/97). The Faust Book was published in Germany in 1587 and was soon translated into English, were it apparently became the basis of Marlowe’s play by that name.

Third Stanza: Beauty’s Potential Preservation

[9]       Then, were not summer’s distillation left

[10]     A liquid prisoner pent in walls of glass,

[11]     Beauty’s effect with beauty were bereft,

[12]     Nor it nor no remembrance what it was.

The “distillation” of summer would be some sort of perfume: some liquid distillation of the summer kept in a bottle (walls of glass). Thus, in Cymbeline, the Queen says:

                                    I wonder, doctor,

Thou ask’st me such a question. Have I not been

Thy pupil long? Hast thou not learned me how

To make perfumes, distil, preserve—yea, so

That our great king himself doth woo me oft For

For my confections?

Act I, scene 5. The perfume has an effect upon desire.

Here, without such a perfume summer’s beauty will have no further effect. Thus, the effect of beauty is short-lived. It is a summer thing soon to be ruined by the great bandit time.

The poem is a sort of response to youth’s belief that it will never fail; that time will never come for me.

The Couplet: The Preservation of Beauty

[13]     But flowers distilled, though they with winter meet,

[14]     Leese but their show; their substance still lives sweet.

Here Shakespeare does something interesting: In the beginning “beauty” is all in the “gaze”, it is something developed and shown; beauty is scene. Then by the image of “distillation”, he transforms the concept of beauty into something separate from bare appearance. There is a “show” of beauty and the “substance” of beauty.


If summer beauty is distilled, its substance will preserved despite time, being kept in “walls of glass”. Yes, flowers who come to winter “leese [lose] their show [appearance].” Yet, even though appearance is lost; the substance is maintained. In fact it not merely persists it “still lives sweet”.


The image pushed back into reality means that while you cannot stop time from ruing your physical beauty; the true substance of your, which is a substance in life, can be preserved by a child who carries the beauty into the future.