Why "Yoked to" is the Best Phrase to Complete Sonnet 146

In the first lines of "Sonnet 146," Shakespeare passionately addresses the image that is most central to the sonnet, the tormented soul. He begins the sonnet by speaking to the "Poor soul, the center of my sinful earth, / [ ] these rebel powers that thee array" (1-2). Because the soul is thought to be at the center of one’s being, the "sinful earth" can be compared to the body, which is plagued by sin. Likewise, in the second line, the body is referred to as the "rebel powers," which suggests that there exists a conflict between the body and the soul. Although the first two words in the second line are unknown, the sonnet describes a struggle between body and soul that, because of the influence of Christianity, would have been well known to anyone that lived in Europe when the sonnet was written. Thus, the relationship between the body and the soul is initially portrayed in terms of war-like conflict, with the body in rebellion against the soul. Throughout the sonnet, the register of war is repeatedly used to capture the nature of this relationship, as are the registers of the earth, and of materialism. In fact, it is through these registers that the relationship between the body and soul can be understood, and a phrase can be selected to explain how the "soul" of the first line is connected to the "rebel powers" of the second line. By analyzing the registers of war, earth, and materialism, it becomes evident that the soul, by its struggle for power, by physical bonds and by temptation, is ultimately "yoked to" the body.

In terms of war, the relationship between the body and the soul can be seen as a power struggle, in which the body is oppressing the soul. Moreover, the phrase that best describes the soul’s oppression by the body is "yoked to." In fact, a definition of the verb "yoke" is, "To bring or hold subjection or servitude; to subjugate, oppress" (OED 6). This definition sheds light on the nature of the conflict between the body and the soul. The conflict, however, does not simply include two warring forces; it involves a shift in the balance of power toward the body, which is suppressing the soul. Likewise, the fact that the body is a "rebel" power suggests that such was not always the case, and that the soul ought to rightly control the body. The speaker asks the soul, "Why dost thou pine within and suffer dearth[?]" (3). In this line, the soul "pines" within, which can mean, "to starve" (OED 4), and suffers "dearth" (OED 3), "a famine." This line refers to the soul’s oppression in terms of spiritual hungering. But the speaker insists on asking "Why?" It would be a pointless question to ask, unless the speaker believed that the tides could turn once again. In the third stanza, the speaker reveals this hope and switches from questions to prescription. The speaker says, "Then, soul, live thou upon thy servant’s loss" (9). This line challenges the soul to see the body not as an oppressor, but as its "servant" for the souls limited stay on earth. Moreover, the line refers to the "servant’s loss," which, for any servant, would ultimately have to be the loss of control over one’s own destiny. For the body, destiny consists of an eventual withering away marked by an inevitable death, and it is this fact that the speaker tells the soul to live upon. Thus, the relationship between the body and the soul can be seen as a struggle for power, in which the soul, "yoked to" the rebel powers, is oppressed but not broken.

In addition to the struggle for power, the relationship between the soul and body can be considered in terms of the register of the earth, in which the soul is physically "yoked to" the body. Ultimately, this connection joins the soul and the earth in life. The register of earth begins in the first line of the sonnet, which refers to the soul as "the center of my sinful earth" (l). Therefore the body, like the earth, is dirty, impure, and sinful. This register appears again when the speaker asks, "Shall worms, inheritors of this excess, / Eat up thy charge?" (7-8). Implying that the body is filthy, the narrator inquires with irony whether the charge, or "burden or weight" on the soul, will be devoured by worms. This suggests that the life of the body is not eternal, but earth-bound. The physical relationship of the soul to the body is found in the definition of "yoke" that means, "to attach (a draught-animal) to a plough or vehicle" (OED 2a). Like an animal to a plough, the soul is inevitably "yoked to" the body. As the plough, then, the life of the body is forever bound to the earth in the fact that it is sinful, dirty, and mortal. Thus, the larger relationship that seems to be addressed is between the soul and the earth, a connection that is only maintained through the body. This gives ample reason to believe that the end of the body will ultimately be the end of the earth’s grip on the soul. The last two lines read, "So shalt thou feed on Death, that feeds on men, / And Death once dead there’s no more dying then" (13-14). The "death that feeds on men" in these lines corresponds to the worms that "Eat up thy charge" (8). More specifically, these worms represent how the earth destroys the body. As the earth takes its toll on the body, so shall the soul take advantage of the body’s misfortune by severing the connections that bind them together. Thus, by leaving behind the body, the soul escapes the "death that feeds on men," or the earth’s power over the body, freeing itself from death. Therefore, in light of how the soul is connected to the body in its life on the earth, it only seems appropriate for the soul to be "yoked to" the "rebel powers" that are the body.

While the soul’s physical connection to the body in life is inevitable, the register of materialism suggests that, like a material obsession, the soul brings affliction upon itself by succumbing to the temptations of the body. Thus, by its own free will, or lack thereof, the soul is "yoked to" the body. A third definition of "yoked" is, "furnished with a yoke as a garment" (OED 3). Likewise, "yoke," as referred to in this definition is, "A similar appliance anciently placed on the neck of a captive or conquered enemy" (OED 3b). Thus, in keeping with the register of materialism, or the preoccupation with things physical that eclipse spiritual needs, the soul is yoked by a "garment" worn around the neck that renders it defenseless to its captor, the body. More importantly, however, is that the soul is yoked by the rebel powers that it "arrays." The definition of "array," is, "to dress oneself up" (OED 8b). That fact that the soul renders itself defenseless by "dressing itself up" leaves only one possible explanation; the soul is unable to resist the material temptations of the body. The speaker then proceeds to ask the soul the most logical question, why the soul is "Painting thy outward walls so costly gay?" (4). The "outward walls" are easily recognized as the body, the appearance of which the soul insist on maintaining at all costs, even to itself. In essence, the speaker is asking, "Why spend so much on these material things that are detrimental to the soul?" The speaker proposes an answer to the question by advising the soul about how to escape from the materialistic temptations of the body. The speaker says, "Within be fed, without be rich no more" (12). It is not with riches of the body that the soul must be fed, but with virtues within the spirit. Thus, it is clear that because of its inability to overcome the material temptations of body, the soul is "yoked to" the rebel powers.

It is clear that "yoked to" best completes the second line of the sonnet when analyzing the registers of war, the earth, and materialism, because of how these registers articulate the intricate relationship between the body and the soul. Not only does the soul struggle with the oppressive body for power, but the soul is physically bound to it in life, and subject to its material temptations. While the original words of this poem will probably never be discovered, and a replacement will probably never be completely agreed upon, it is safe to conclude that the words present in the sonnet have endured as much scrutiny as the ones that are missing. Thus, it is also safe to assume that a close reading of registers will continue to be the fundamental tool in deciphering the relationship between the body and the soul, which not only won the sympathy of late sixteenth century Europeans, but intrigues us still today.
















"Array." The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989

Assignment, Sonnets by William Shakespeare.

"Dearth." The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989

"Pines." The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989

"Yoke." The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989

"Yoked." The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989