What is your substance, whereof are you made,
That millions of strange shadows on you tend?
Since every one hath, every one, one shade,
And you, but one, can every shadow lend.
Describe Adonis, and the counterfeit
Is poorly imitated after you;
On Helen’s cheek all art of beauty set,
And you in Grecian tires are painted new:
Speak of the spring and foison of the year;
The one doth shadow of your beauty show,
The other as your bounty doth appear;
And you in every blessed shape we know.
In all external grace you have some part,
But you like none, none you, for constant heart.
The poet appears to be delving into the realms of Neo-Platonic metaphysiscs. The theory is that most of our experience is merely a shadow of reality. True or real existence is that of ideals, or ideal substances and forms. Every ideal or form has its shadow in the material world, and it is with the shadows that our senses have contact. All material things derive their shape and existence from these forms and therefore have something of the ideal in them, but it is only a severely restricted and cramped version of the ideal. Only the spiritual mind can grasp the true essence of things.
Yet here the beloved seems to be almost the universal ideal which gives form to all substance, since whatever lovely thing one might think of that appears in the world, he outdistances them all and gives them light and informs them with himself.
The poet therefore marvels at this fact, and sees within the beloved all the beauties of the old world inspired and given life, as it were, by him alone.The conclusion is somewhat at variance with some of the other critical sonnets, such as 33-5, 40-2 etc. It may be that the reference is to the enduring quality of the ideal Platonic form, which is essentially eternal and unchanging. Or it may be that all in the past is now forgiven and seen in a roseate light, the poet forcing this conclusion upon himself in deference to overpowering love, and as a means of overcoming pain. For it is the tradition of sonneteering that all cruelties by the beloved must be forgiven by the lover.
Further difficulties of interpretation are discussed in the notes below.
See also the additional notes to Thorpe’s Dedication at the start of the Sonnets, and the Introductory Notes, which give an alternative interpretation of this sonnet.