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Quatrain 1 Summary

Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.

Line 1

Poor soul, the center of my sinful earth,

  • Our speaker starts by addressing a "poor soul," which sounds just a tad bit condescending, don't you think? 
  • For a tiny moment, we wonder whom he's talking to. Is this an apostrophe to his mistress (a.k.a. the "Dark Lady" who pops up all over the place in Sonnets 127-152)? After all, this is part of a collection of love poems and the speaker of the sonnets is always being patronizing and arrogant towards his girlfriend. So, maybe he's saying something like "Oh, you poor thing."
  • But then we quickly get to the part about the poor soul being the "center" of his "sinful earth" (a.k.a. his sinful body) and we start to think he could actually be talking to his own soul (a.k.a. his immortal spirit).
  • Here's why. Back in the day, some folks thought the soul was located at the very center of a person's body, where it was supposed to be in charge of everything. In other words, think of this center point in the body as a kind of command center where the soul was the head honcho giving the body orders and directions to keep it from sinning and doing a bunch of other rotten stuff.
  • FYI, this idea was related to another old-school idea that the Earth was at the center of the universe and that humans were the most important creatures on Earth. You can read more about that here.
  • The important thing to know is that the soul is supposed to be in charge of the body and its desires, but we're guessing that's not how things are for this guy because he's talking to his poor soul, not his awesome, large-and-in-charge soul.
  • What's this soul's problem? Does it have something to do with the speaker's sinful body?
  • And, why is his body "sinful"? Has this guy been up to no good lately?
  • Or, is Shakespeare giving a general shout-out to traditional Christian theology, which tells us that all human beings are born sinful or flawed? (You can read more about that idea here.)
  • It seems like it, especially since he calls his body his sinful earth, which is a major allusion to the Book of Genesis, where the following things happened: 
  • (1) Adam (the first man) was made from dust (a.k.a. earth). 
  • (2) Adam and Eve committed the first sin, ticked off God, and got kicked out of the Garden of Eden. (Eden, by the way, was often thought to be located the very center of the Earth.)
  • Whoa. That's one heck of a biblical shout-out, don't you think? Is this why so many folks are always running around calling this Shakespeare's most religious poem?

Line 2

......these rebel pow'rs that thee array

  • See those funny looking dots at the beginning of the line? They're there because there's a word or phrase missing from this sonnet. When it was first published (1609), the printer goofed and repeated the phrase from the end of the first line at the beginning of the second line: "my sinful earth." Here's what it looked like in the 1609 edition.
  • A lot of modern editions (like Stephen Booth's) just leave out the phrase "my sinful earth" in line 2 because it doesn't make sense.
  • Plus, it's not written in iambic pentameter, a type of meter that Shakespeare uses in most of his sonnets. Check out "Form and Meter" for more on this.
  • Some scholars (like Helen Vendler) have tried to guess at what Shakespeare originally wrote so, don't stress out if your copy of the poem says something like "Feeding these rebel pow'rs that thee array." 
  • We'll probably never know what word or phrase Shakespeare originally intended but, it's cool to think about, no?
  • And, even though we're missing some info here, we can still talk about the rest of the line. 
  • Apparently, some "rebel pow'rs" are "array[ing]" this guy's poor soul.
  • What the heck does that mean? Since we know the soul is supposed to be the center of things and should be ordering the rest of the body around, we think "rebel pow'rs" is a reference to the guy's body and/or his bodily desires, which can be pretty overwhelming and powerful.
  • Since the word "array" can mean to organize and prepare troops for battle, our Speaker makes it sound like his body is rebelling against its leader and ordering the soul around, which isn't how things are supposed to work. 
  • In other words, Shakespeare's using a military metaphor to describe the struggles between the soul and the body's desires.
  • That reminds of something important, Shmoopers. Have you ever read one of those freaky medieval verse debates between bodies and souls? It used to be super trendy to write poems where a person's soul and body would bicker back and forth about who should be in charge. The soul is always like "Hey, body, you're so horrible—why are you always sinning?" And the body is always like "Hey, Soul, you're such a nag. Get off my back and let me do my thing!" You can check out an example here.
  • This sonnet isn't exactly one of those debates (because the body never gets to talk back to the soul here) but Shakespeare is definitely giving a shout-out to the genre.
  • Before we move on, we want to point out that the word "array" can also mean to dress or to clothe someone. So it also sounds like the body is decking out the soul with a bunch of fancy duds. 
  • We're not sure where Shakespeare's headed with this idea but we want to keep it in mind as we read.

Line 3

Why dost thou pine within and suffer dearth,

  • Now the speaker starts talking smack and is all "Hey, Soul! You're such a chump! Why are you wasting away (pining) and starving (suffering "dearth") on the inside?"
  • "Dearth" means food shortage or famine but, technically, souls can't starve for food, right? So this is clearly a metaphor for how the speaker's soul or spirit isn't being nourished or nurtured.
  • By the way, did you notice how scary the word "dearth" sounds here? It kind of looks and sounds like the word "death." Cue the ominous music. 
  • Is our speaker's soul in danger of dying? Is that even possible? Souls are supposed to be immortal, right? 
  • Stay tuned…

Line 4

Painting thy outward walls so costly gay?

  • Okay. Now we know why the speaker's soul isn't getting nourished—it's wasting all of its energy and resources on the body. 
  • What's interesting is that the speaker makes it sound like his body is a house with "outward walls" that are getting decorated ("painted") in a showy ("gay") and expensive ("costly") way.
  • In other words, the speaker's soul is way too concerned with outer appearances when it should be worried about the health of the inner spirit.
  • This line also reminds us of the clothing metaphor Shakespeare started to develop at line 2.
  • "Outward walls" is a reference to the body, right? How do we decorate ("paint") our bodies? With fancy clothes, make-up, and jewelry, etc., of course.
  • Hmm. It sounds like our speaker is beating himself up for being too concerned with superficial and material things that are really pricey. Fair enough, speaker. Budgeting is always a safe bet. 
  • By the way, his use of the word "costly" also implies that his soul has to pay a really high price for being so shallow. So true.

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