William Shakespeare is perhaps the most respected author that has ever lived. So, to propose that a college freshman should insert a phrase of his or her choice into the infamous "gap" in Sonnet 146 is a bold move. However, I have found that old Shakespeare left enough hints in the context of this poem to give us an accurate idea of what words would or would not fit. Sonnet 146 examines a conflict from two points of view. Initially, it tells of the passivity of the soul, and how it withers away and years for the nourishment it lacks, while submitting to the desires of the body. This passivity is contrasted by the activity of the body, represented by different metaphors, such as "sinful earth" (1), and "rebel powers" (2). It surrounds the soul, and denies it the strength it needs to regain control of the body. The correspondence between these two images is essential to the flow and form of this sonnet. The phrase "starved by," when inserted into the second line, creates a seamless connection between these two themes. Not only does "starved" accurately describe the condition of the soul, but also it perfectly represents what it seems the body has done to the soul, preventing it from receiving spiritual strength.

The passive soul in Sonnet 146 yearns and hungers for something it needs, yet does not receive, and the register of feeding in the poem proves this. This theme shows up three times, beginning when the speaker asks the soul, "Shall worms, inheritors of this excess, Eat up thy charge?" (7-8). Later, the speaker gives the soul two commands, saying "Within be fed, without be rich no more. / So shalt thou feed on death that feeds on men." (12-13). These last two examples are the most significant. In these lines, the speaker is telling his soul how to exact revenge on its body. He tells the soul to "feed" on its master’s losses and his death.1 The only reason a soul would need to feed on anything is if it had been deprived, or "starved" by its body. Also, the speaker mentions twice how the soul is forced to "pine," or "To be consumed with longing; to languish with intense desire, to hunger after something; to long eagerly," (OED 6) within the body. The only creatures that would ever truly "pine" are those that are not receiving what they need, and therefore yearn and hunger for it. In Sonnet 146, the soul, which is the pure part of man, yearns for the spiritual and honest feelings of which it is being deprived by the body. In this poem, the "body" represents the sin that controls men as they grow older. The evidence of this metaphor is presented when the reader says "Poor soul, centre of my sinful earth" (1), representing the body as a "sinful earth." This sin covers the soul, and blocks out the pure things it needs. Both examples of the soul feeding on its master’s losses and pining within the body show that the soul has been "starved by" this layer of sin that keeps out all nourishment.

While the register of feeding and the image of the soul "pining" prove that the soul has been "starved", the metaphor of siege warfare in Sonnet 146 tells us why and how the soul is truly "starved by" the body. The phrase "[ ] these rebel powers that thee array," (2) cannot be appropriately completed without specific close readings. To fully understand what should fill this gap, we would need to know what the other words in this line mean. The "rebel" powers are "Disobedient to a superior or to some higher power," (OED 2a). They oppose the soul, and therefore represent the same sin I mentioned earlier. In the Christian context of the sonnet, "sin" is that which separates us from or opposes the word of our Lord. Therefore, in this specific case, the "higher power" they disobey is God and his spiritual commandments.2 Not only do they oppose the soul, but also they "array" it (2). Array is defined as "to draw up prepared for battle," (OED 1a), so the rebel powers are obviously forcing the soul to participate in this moral struggle for fulfillment. Since the body completely surrounds the soul, this clash would best be described as siege warfare. In that type of war, the soldiers on the outside (the body, the sin) simply cut off all supplies (all spiritual fulfillment) to the surrounded soldiers (the soul). This tactic of "starvation" is very common in siege warfare, and that is no coincidence. The same thing happens during the struggle between the body and soul. The body wants to make sure the soul is deprived of all strength, so that it will never overtake the body. So the metaphor of the "rebel powers" surrounding the soul in war perfectly relates to the tactic of starvation, providing another reason why the soul has been "starved by" the body.

Not only does the phrase "starved by" blend perfectly with the feeding register that appears throughout the poem, but also it specifically agrees with and completes the metaphor of warfare represented by the words "rebel powers" and "array," which are written in the same line as the gap. Besides that, the Bible describes fasting (mentioned before as the solution to the soul’s affliction, and another form of being "starved") using terms that directly relate to the battle presented in Sonnet 146. Isaiah 58:6 says, "Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice… to set the oppressed free." In this poem, the soul is "oppressed" by the body’s "chains of injustice," and the way to overcome that oppression is to fast, or to "starve" the body.3 Even the word "pine," which is used twice (very rare) to describe the state of the soul, contains the word "hunger" in its definition. So registers, ideas, metaphors, the rare event of a repeated word, and verses out of the Holy Bible itself support this specific phrase. Therefore, all of these hints old William left us created a ripped up treasure map, and after putting all of the pieces back together, I found the trail led right to "Starved by."

 

Notes

1. A master’s loss could be referring to loss of food, keeping with the feeding register, which leads directly to the religious tradition of fasting, which seems to be exactly what the reader is telling the soul to do. When the body fasts, the soul is enriched. This is true both in real life and in Sonnet 146.

2. Sin is often referred to as "rebellion" in the Bible, as in Isaiah 56:1. It says "Shout it aloud, do not hold back. Raise your voice like a trumpet. Declare to my people their rebellion and to the house of Jacob their sins."

3. This "eye for an eye" style revenge is also referred to in the Bible as man’s natural reaction to being attacked, so it would make sense for something that has been "starved" to react by starving its oppressor.