Foiled By These Rebel Powers

 The missing phrase in line two of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 146 should communicate the relationship between the poem’s "poor soul" and the "rebel powers" it commands, and, in addition, agree with the particular register of the line. Although this relationship is the central theme of the poem, it is most clearly understood by analyzing the sonnet in two major parts. Lines one through eight reveal that the soul is engaged in an excessive, futile struggle with the decaying body. In lines nine through fourteen, the soul is advised to let the body die and gain immortality from the loss. Considering the nature of the relationship between the soul and the body as described throughout the rest of the sonnet, the "rebel powers" of line two most likely represent the forces of death rebelling against the soul’s efforts to hold onto life. Therefore, the words that best complete this line are "foiled by these rebel powers that thee array," because these words suggest the explicit failure of the body to comply with the soul’s efforts to live.

The soul could only be foiled by the body assuming the two are dependent on one another, and the metaphor used by Shakespeare to describe this dependency is that of a house and its tenant. Indeed, the first line immediately identifies the soul as "the centre of my sinful earth": the earth being perhaps the most fundamental, universal home. More explicit synonyms include "thy outward walls" (4) and "thy fading mansion" (6). In addition, these words are used in conjunction with others terms of the same register. For example, lines 5 and 6 ask "Why so large cost, having so short a lease, / Dost though upon thy fading mansion spend?" In comparing the body to a mansion, this metaphor suggests that the same concepts of buying and leasing which apply to real estate apply to the body. However, the point of the metaphor is that the body is a mansion that is fading, and the cost of repairs are too great given the strict time constraint or the short "lease," brought about by inevitable death. This tone of incredulity is repeatedly expressed throughout lines three through eight and reinforces the role of the soul within the body.

Once it is established that the body is like a fading mansion beyond repair, Shakespeare offers an alternative solution to the soul. Rather than "pine within" (3), as it was in clinging to life, the soul should "live upon thy servant’s loss / and let that pine to aggravate thy store"

(9-10). In other words, the soul should benefit from the loss of life by letting the body whither away, literally increasing the soul’s assets. According to Shakespeare, the result of this change will be for the soul to become immortal or "buy terms divine" (11) with its newly acquired reserves. Notice how the register of buying and selling associated with the real estate metaphor is carried over into this alternative solution. Where previously the soul was buying and spending for the purpose of helping the body to stay alive, now it is negotiating its own immortality with death as the means of exchange. The essence of this transition from supporting life to benefiting from death is decisively explicated in line 13, "So shalt thou feed on Death, that feeds on men."

As analysis of the metaphors in lines three through thirteen have shown, the soul is persuaded to surrender the struggle against the effects of death and embrace immortality as the alternative. The phrase "foiled by" reasonably completes line 2 within this general understanding of the sonnet in that it provides the reason for why the soul is originally pining and suffering. In addition, these words are simply the best choice when considering the tone of the first two lines, "Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth, / [Foiled by] these rebel powers that thee array" (1-2). As indicated by such modifiers as "poor" and "sinful," there is an undeniable tone of sympathy towards the soul. Such sympathy could only be warranted if the soul had been defeated in its purpose and reduced to a pitiful condition, as has been illustrated by an analysis of the relationship between the soul and the body throughout the entirety of the sonnet.

  • Sonnet 146
  • Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth,

    [Foiled by] these rebel powers that thee array,

    Why dost thou pine and suffer dearth,

    Painting thy outward walls so costly gay?

    Why so large cost, having so short a lease,

    Dost thou upon thy fading mansion spend?

    Shall worms, inheritors of this excess,

    Eat up thy charge? Is this thy body’s end?

    Then, soul, live thou upon thy servant’s loss,

    And let that pine to aggravate thy store;

    Buy terms divine in selling hours of dross;

    Within be fed, without be rich no more;

    So shalt thou feed on Death, that feeds on men,

    And Death once dead there’s no more dying then.