Shakespeare’s Sonnet 146

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 146 begins, "Poor soul, the center of my sinful earth." The sonnet is a call to one’s own soul to invest in heavenly things, things that will last, rather than the temporal, physical body which will only fade away. The second line contains a printer’s error that lost the first two words. Shakespeare’s chosen words will never be known, but through a close reading of the poem one reaches the conclusion that the two missing words would best be replaced by the phrase: "Foiled by." This phrase emphasizes how the body has, thus far, destructively mislead the soul.

One of the main registers in the poem that reveals how the soul has been foiled by the physical body is that of buildings. In lines three through six the soul is questioned thus: "Why dost thou pine within 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?" The metaphor here is that the soul is like one who owns a mansion, and that mansion is the body. The soul is asked why spend so much on something that will fade. The cost of arraying the physical body is that the soul pines, a word that suggests a deep longing that leads to one’s own wasting away. This is far too large a cost. The soul has been persuaded by the body to build this mansion that causes the soul itself to suffer. The soul has been lead astray, foiled by the body’s want of outward riches, causing itself to suffering.

The point of conflict between the soul and body, and the grounds by which the soul has been foiled can be found in the idea of time. A dominant register in the poem is that of transitory versus permanent things. This register is linked to the building metaphor through the comparison of leasing and buying. A lease on a house and the lease the soul has on the body (as described in line 5), is temporary, whereas buying implies that the item can be kept forever. In line eleven the soul is told to "buy terms divine." The soul has been swayed by the body into aiming at temporary things, things that, as line seven suggests, will be inherited by worms and leave nothing to the soul. The soul has been foiled by the body, and so the sonnet begins, "poor soul." Poor soul who’s success has been thwarted by the desires of the body.

A phrase that further reveals how the soul has been foiled by the body is that of "rebel powers" (ln 2). A rebel is one who opposes the rightful ruler, one who acts against the known authority. The soul is this higher authority, but it has been foiled by these "rebel powers," the desires of the body. The body is clearly the antagonist and so it is logical that it would be blamed for foiling the prospects of the soul.

The word "rebel" links to the word sinful in the first line of the sonnet: "Poor soul, the center of my sinful earth." A rebel is generally considered in the wrong and so may be described as sinful. The description of the body as a "sinful earth" exposes us to yet another metaphor, that of the body as earth. This metaphor can be linked to the "worms" of line seven. The soul is asked, "Shall worms, inheritors of this excess, / Eat up thy charge?" (ln 7-8). "Thy charge" is this "sinful earth," the body. The soul has been tricked, foiled by the body, into building that which will not last.

The worms are going to "eat up" the excess that the soul has allowed the body to accumulate. The idea of eating is repeated in the sonnet. The soul is told to buy "terms divine" and so "within be fed, without be rich no more: / So shalt thou feed on Death, that feeds on men" (ln12-13). The soul has been persuaded into creating that which will be eaten by the worms. But here is a solution for the suffering that the body has caused. It was death that lost all the body had acquired, but by buying terms divine the soul can conquer, even "feed on" this death. The soul has the ability to tame death, but the body is able to foil this possibility so that after death, nothing is left for the soul.

The soul has the ability to invest beyond the temporal earth that will only fade away, but the body has a great influence tending towards the here and now. The soul is surrounded by a "sinful earth" that wants only to array itself. The soul has been foiled by the body, by these "rebel powers." It is a mournful sonnet, but it leaves one with hope. The earth as one knows it will fade away, but one can invest in that which will last forever.