The Tension between Beauty and Virtue in Shakespeare's Sonnet 95
"Sonnet 95" of Shakespeare's "blond young man" sonnets depicts a tension-filled variation on the classic blazon. The poet seems torn between the "shame" (1) that taints his subject and the "sweets" (4) of the subject 's beauty. The initial imagery of a "canker" (2) within a "rose" (2) serves to set up the sexual overtones that dominate the poem, as well as to create the sense of strain between disapproval and attraction that heightens throughout each quatrain. Shakespeare develops this imagery to ensnare the subject in an increasingly agitated opposition between his physical beauty and his behavioral repulsiveness. Though the poet claims that he "cannot dispraise but in a kind of praise" (7), the closing couplet goes counter this, bringing the sense of antagonism between the poet 's admiration and his disapproval full circle. The couplet serves as a warning that the physical beauty and virility that have dominated the young man 's life will end, destroying the "mansion" (9) where he hid his moral failing through the quatrains.
The opening quatrain of Sonnet 95 serves to expose the contrast between the young man 's physical and moral states. This quatrain, despite permitting the young man 's "beauty" (3) to dominate the sense of his "sins" (4), also begins to assert the idea that he will suffer for his vice. The opening image of "How sweet and lovely" (1) dominates the completion of the thought "dost thou make the shame" (1) through both rhythm and diction. While Shakespeare sets the opening in perfect iambic rhythm, the insertion of a pyrrhic foot to begin the statement of the young man 's "shame" (1) weakens the idea, allowing the sense of the young man 's physical loveliness to dominate.
However, the imagery surrounding the young man 's beauty also implies its corrupting influence.Ê The use of the word "canker" (2), while singularly appropriate to the plant image of a "rose" (2), also implies both a corrupting influence and the possibility of sores resulting from venereal disease. Though canker sores are generally associated with the mouth, connecting a canker to a rose plays upon the sexuality generally associated with flower imagery. In keeping with the understatement of the vice in the first quatrain, Shakespeare limits the idea of consequences to this one, nearly imperceptible, image. The closing of the first quatrain again emphasizes the "sweets" of the young man 's physical perfection, adding weight to the thought with an initial trochee. However, Shakespeare here begins to emphasize the consequences of the young man 's behavior, with the idea that he does his "sins enclose" (4), offering the idea he has bound his vices to himself, trapping himself within them.ÊÊ
The second quatrain develops the poet 's tension from facing the dilemma of being "that tongue that tells the story" (5) of the ...