A Case for Soil

Typographical accident deprives readers of two words in the second line of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 146. The phrase "Soiled by" best completes the phrase, line, stanza, and sonnet by harmonizing with the sonnet’s principal registers—the physical world’s contrast to the spiritual, the register of food and consumption, the register of death—and by forming a pun with the key term "soul" furthering the critical emphasis on the duality of an individual’s corporeal and spiritual self.

Completing the gap in Sonnet 146 with "Soiled by" ties the second line directly to the first by linking the last word of the first line, "earth", with the first word of the next line, "soiled" on the grounds that both words deal with the physical world. "Earth" and "soil" both carry positive and negative connotations, conveying both the life-giving fertility and the dirty baseness of the ground. "Earth" in its noun form is usually used in the first sense; "soiled", by contrast, carries the second meaning in the verb form, signifying "to make dirty". The two words, therefore, unite the first two lines by shifting from positive to negative.

On the level of line, this shift from positive to negative between the first two lines ties to the following word "rebel" in that rebellion occurs when a homogeneous unit is broken into opposing forces as when the similarities between the roots "earth" and "soil" are broken into their diverse uses.

"Soiled" fits well into the system of contrasts between the registers in the first two quatrains (I group these together because they have the same function in the rhetorical structure of the sonnet: in these eight lines, the poet questions the actions and values of the "poor soul" (1) to whom the poem is addressed while in the third quatrain the poet proposes a change for the "soul" and in the couplet explains his proposal for change). This pattern begins with the first line in which the initial spiritual register of the words "soul" and "sin" is contrasted with the "earth" of the physical world. As explained above, this contrast is taken further by the use of "Soiled" in the second line to take the register of the physical world to imply baseness and defilement so that "Soiled" not only is a contrast to "earth" but in stark contrast to the religious register of the first line. Further lines contrast the "outward" (4) with that which lies "within" (3), the "body" (8) with the "soul", and "gay[ness]" (4) with "suffer[ing]" (3). The register of death—"worms" (7), the "body’s end" (8), "suffer"—contrasts with the religious register, the register of cost—"costly" (4), "spend" (6), "excess" (7)—contrasts with the register of loss—"fading" (6), "end", "dearth" (3).

Throughout the sonnet, the use of pun emphasizes these contrasts and "soil" can be punned with "soul". "Pine" is used twice and can be taken to mean either to waste away from desire or pine wood, referring to both pine used in coffins (fitting the register of death) or plain pine wood used in houses (contrasting to the "gay" "outward walls" of the register of cost and also fitting the register of houses along with "walls", "mansion" (6), and "lease" (5)). "Soil" is dirt, fitting the register of earth, that in which we are buried, fitting the register of death, and the dual state of the individual: the "soul" to whom the poem is addressed is both adam, human being (the spirit), and adamah, dust from the ground (the body)(Genesis 2:7).

The phrase "Soiled by" fits Sonnet 146 and completes phrase, line, quatrain, and furthers the sonnet’s imagery and use of pun and contrast for dramatic effect conveying the duality between body and spirit.


Works Cited


The Harper Collins Study Bible. Harper Collins, San Francisco: 1989.

Shakespeare, William, "Sonnet 146"