Sonnet 146: The mistake of a printer and the question of a lifetime.

In "Sonnet 146" Shakespeare deals with the plight of the soul within the body, and its struggle to achieve salvation. The speaker of the poem is speaking directly to the soul throughout the work. During the first lines the speaker addresses the soul and describes it as "[ ] these rebel powers that thee array" (2), where the brackets signify missing syllables due to a printer's error in the original production of the work. But what did Shakespeare intend to inhabit the space between those brackets? Multiple word combinations seem to fit reasonably well but one combination stands out from among the crowd. The words "starved by" are the most fitting to the sonnet because of the their direct connection to the register of siege warfare, and their connection to another dominant register of the poem, that of hunger.

This poem contains references to a constant conflict between the soul and the body that confines or imprisons it. This conflict can, at times, escalate to the point of gridlock warfare. Line two speaks directly to this internal warfare through reference to "rebel powers that thee array." In this sentence "array" can be defined as "to draw up prepared for battle" (OED, 1), which would suggest an ensuing conflict between the soul and the "rebel powers" also mentioned in line two. In this case "Rebel powers" signify the body, which is in conflict with the soul. The wording of this phrase is particularly significant. By referring to the body as being a "rebel" the speaker suggests that at one time the body was under some sort of control but has since become an enemy battling the soul from the outside in. This is representative of the ongoing struggle between the want for corporeal pleasures, and distractions and the desire for the soul's place in eternal paradise. The speaker later addresses this conflict in asking "Why dost thou pine within and suffer dearth, / Painting thy outward walls so costly gay?" (3-4). Here the speaker asks the soul why it gives up its chances at eternal happiness to spend the body's energy to give itself a pleasing outward appearance. This pleasing appearance is what the speaker refers as "so costly." The soul struggles to gain means to guarantee its place in heaven but the body is using its energy on other, more corrupt, means. Such is the internal conflict that rages between the body and the soul. The body struggles to contain and control the desires of the soul much like a warring army would try to control the citizens of a city by laying siege to the area. This concept of siege warfare is what connects the words "starved by" so effectively to the poem's register of warfare. One of the primary tactics in siege warfare is to starve your opponent, thus diminishing his ability to fight. In this way the body confines the soul and denies it the divine nourishment it needs to thrive in order to further its own desires. In this way "starved by" connects the idea of the hunger of the soul directly to the apparent battle raging between two factions. This Idea of conflict induced starvation quickly develops into another dominant register within the poem, that of hunger.

Most of the phrases that fit the missing section of the sonnet fit well into one of the dominant registers of the poem but "starved by" connects well to two separate registers within the sonnet, thus making it a superior choice for the completion of the poem. The second register which is closely linked to "starved by" is that of hunger. In the second quatrain of the poem the speaker instructs the soul on the actions it must take in order to ensure its place in heaven, thus satisfying its hunger. The speaker tells the soul, "buy terms divine in selling hours of dross; / within be fed, without be rich no more" (11-12). The wording in this section is interesting. Line eleven suggests that the soul can purchase its place in paradise by ridding itself of the hours of dross, meaning waste or excess, accumulated during the person's life. So by this rationale, the way to secure a place in heaven is to eliminate wasteful hours in ones life. The speaker then explains that by doing something meaningful with life the soul will receive nourishment whether or not the body appears outwardly wealthy. Thus the starvation the soul is feeling in line two (given that "starved by" is included in the poem) can be satisfied by acting with higher meaning while still attached to a body. By doing this the speaker suggests that the soul " . . . shall feed on death that feeds on men" (13). This implies that if the soul follows all the instructions of the speaker it will be able to avoid the same Death that caused its body to rot away. Again in this situation, the mention of feeding and the satisfaction of hunger, is infused within the message of the line. Like other sections of the poem, this part supports the register of hunger. For obvious reasons the phrase "starved by" connects directly to this register as well. This connection serves to link the first lines of the poem to the last, thus providing some semblance to unity within Shakespeare's work.

While we cannot ever be entirely sure which words Shakespeare intended, through close investigation and discussion it is possible to make a justified attempt at answering this intriguingly unanswerable question. Due to the words' connection to the registers of both hunger and siege warfare, the phrase "starved by" is the most logical choice for the completion of the sonnet. Shakespeare alluded to these registers so frequently throughout the poem that any other word choice would be inconsistent with the themes evident within the sonnet, and therefore fallacious.

 

Works Cited

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