The canker blooms
The following essay is an analysis of Sonnet 54 written by William Shakespeare. It belongs to those Shakespearean sonnets addressed to a young man in contrast to the typical Petrarchan sonnet, in which the beauty of the ideal woman is praised (cf. Greenblatt 1061). The Shakespearean sonnet consists of three quatrains and a closing couplet and contains the rhyme scheme ababcdcdefefgg (cf.ibid.).
Sonnet 54 deals with the distinction between external beauty and beauty described by inner moral qualities like “troth, constancy, loyalty, fidelity” (Landrey 50) and particularly truth. This contrast is illustrated by the comparison of a sweet scented rose (cf. Rowse 110, ll. 3-4) with “canker blooms” (Rowse 110, l.5).
The essay is divided up into two parts. Firstly, the analysis focuses on the meaning of the rose and secondly on the meaning of the canker blooms. What do the plants symbolize? What kind of plant is the canker bloom, also a rose or another plant? The analysis will deliver an answer to those questions by taking into account formal and stylistic aspects of the sonnet, including differing opinions of several authors.
O how much more doth beauty beauteous seem By that sweet ornament which truth doth give! The rose looks fair, but fairer we it deem For that sweet odour which doth in it live. The canker blooms have full as deep a dye As the perfumed tincture of the roses, Hang on such thorns, and play as wantonly, When summer’s breath their masked buds discloses; But for their virtue only is their show, They live unwooed, and unrespected fade, Die to themselves. Sweet roses do not so: Of their sweet deaths are sweetest odours made; And so of you, beauteous and lovely youth When that shall vade, by verse distils your truth (Rowse 110).
Landry suggests categorizing sonnet 54 into a group ranging from sonnet 43 to 58 written when the poet was separated from his friend (cf. 42). Thus, the emotional effect, which is transferred by images, is due to the speaker’s absence (cf. ibid.). The assumption of separation, even though there is no hint for it in the sonnet itself, helps to explain why the speaker attributes the young man to beautiful things from the speaker’s surroundings like the rose (cf. Landry 45). It is a way to get his friend closer to him and to ensure his presence. The speaker employs images in order to describe his friend’s beauty. Apparently, they are a means to remember him.
The first quatrain depicts the sweet-scented rose referring to moral beauty, particularly the feature truth (cf. Rowse 110, ll.1-4). It starts with an exclamation to draw the reader’s attention (cf. ibid. l.2). Furthermore, it is employed, along with the polyptoton “beauty beauteous” (ibid. l.1), to underline “how much more” (ibid.) precious beauty is when it is enriched with truth.
The lines in the first quatrain are connected in terms of content and form. The rather abstract exclamation of lines one and two and the following statement “The rose looks fair, but fairer we it deem for that sweet odour which doth in it live” (Rowse 110, ll.3-4) show a parallel structure. The reference to beauty from line one is reflected by the image of a rose in line three. Therefore, the image of the rose is used to symbolize beauty. The statement of lines three and four contains, like the exclamation, a comparative expressed by the polyptoton “fair” and “fairer”. The rose is beautiful, but even more precious when it contains a “sweet odour” (Rowse 110, l.4). According to Hubler the sweet scent refers to the soul, the essence (cf. 104). Apparently, it refers to the moral good and, as distinctively stated in the sonnet, to truth. The personification “sweet odour which doth in it live” is like the previous statement, “sweet ornament which truth doth give”, used to transfer those qualities like beauty and truth to a human person. The rose might be an emblem for the young man who the sonnet is addressed to.
The fact that the mentioning of the rose refers to beauty is reinforced by a common rhyme scheme (Rowse 110, “seem” l.1, “deem” l.3). The connection between “sweet odour” and the “sweet ornament” of truth is not only presented by the same rhyme scheme (ibid. “give” l.2, “live” l.4) but also by the repetition of “sweet”.
When those sweet roses die they do not disappear but the essential part of them, the scent, can be preserved (cf. ibid. ll.11-12). They have a “perfumed tincture” (ibid. l.6) and consequently can be distilled. However, Hammon considers the roses’ distillation process to be implausible since he points out that distillation of roses into perfumes is not possible if they die naturally. Instead, the rose needs to be killed by the distiller (cf. 69).
According to Landrey the adjective “sweet” which is repeated throughout the sonnet (Rowse 110, l.2, l.4, l.11, l.12.) represents the “moral senses” (cf. 51).
Shakespeare frequently employed the adjective “sweet” to describe his view of the young man. Hubler states that “sweet was his favourite epithet” (79) and it is a quality with a clearly positive moral denotation (cf. 78-79). The adjective “sweet” in the statement “of their sweet deaths are sweetest odours made” (Rowse 110, l.12) may refer to the fact that during the distillation process sugar is being added (cf. Duncon-Jones, Deep-Dyed Canker Blooms 523). The superlative “sweetest” underlines that, when being dead, the roses give the sweetest scent in contrast to when being alive (cf. Hammond 69). In Hammond’s opinion this polyptoton occurring in line 12 (cf. Rowse 110) reveals a threat for the young man, who is represented by the rose, as the poet works best when dealing with a dead subject (cf. 69). Duncon-Jones argues that “sweet death” is considered to describe the roses’ sweet and mild death since they will be preserved by distillation and thus lead a further life as rose-water (cf. Shakespeare’s Sonnets 218).
The image of distilling roses is then taken up more precisely in the final and decisive couplet (cf. Rowse 110, ll.13-14) which sums up the moral of the sonnet.
In addition to symbolizing beauty, the rose is considered to represent “the beauteous and lovely youth” (cf. ibid.). When the beautiful youth fades its truth will be “distilled”. According to the Oxford dictionary the process of distilling is defined as to “change (a liquid) to vapour by heating, cool the vapour and collect the drops of liquid that condense from the vapour”, thus the liquid is purified and impurities are driven out (254). The essential and most important aspects are extracted. Apparently, the most important aspect in the sonnet is the beauty of truth. All the other aspects including the external beauty will perish and not be considered any longer. In contrast to the “canker blooms”, the roses are wooed, respected and leave something behind. According to Landry. this fact causes the poet’s fear of losing his friend when being separated, which Landry justifies by quoting Sonnet 48 “thou wilt be stol’n I fear, / For truth proves thievish for a prize so dear” (52). Hubler even judges it favourably by arguing that the poet writes best when he fears for friendship (cf. 30). The only solution to preserve the truth of the beautiful youth is to immortalize it through poetry as it is shown in the final couplet. As a consequence, the rose’s beauty can be preserved through the distillation process whereas the youth of the young man can be preserved in poetry. The connection between the rose and the more concrete statement concerning the young man is given by a parallel structure. “Of their sweet deaths are sweetest odours made” (Rowse 110, l.12) whereas “of you […] verse distils your truth” (ibid. ll.13-14). The latter statement is the first time when the young man is directly addressed by using the personal pronoun “you”. By comparing the young man to a rose, qualities like glory, honour and sublimity may be mapped onto him since the rose, which also represents the Tudor monarchy (cf. Duncan-Jones, Deep-Dyed Canker Blooms 524), denotes those features.
The canker blooms
In the second quatrain (cf. Rowse 110, ll. 4-8) the rose is compared to the “canker blooms” referring merely to the external part of beauty. According to Landry, the canker bloom is the bloom or blossom of the wild rose or dog-rose (cf. 51). Consequently, it contrasts with the “damask or crimson rose from which rose-water is distilled” (Duncan-Jones, Deep-Dyed Canker Blooms 521). In the sonnet the wild dog rose appears to have the same qualities as the rose (cf. Landrey 51). As far as the outward appearance is concerned they do not differ, for instance the “canker blooms have […] as deep a dye […] as the tincture of the roses” (Rowse 110, ll.5-6) or they “hang [as well] on such thorns” (ibid. l.7). “Dye” and “tincture” denote colour (cf. Landrey 51) and so are clearly connected to the outward appearance the rose and the wild rose share.
However, the difference between the two is explained in the following quatrain (cf. Rowse 110, ll.9-12) introduced by a contrastive sequence word “but” (ibid. l.8). It is merely the external or rather superficial quality, the physical beauty, which characterises the wild roses. The wild rose’s buds are masked, “a metaphor from social custom” (Landrey 51), suggesting that they lack moral qualities (cf. ibid). Their “virtue” (Rowse, 110, l.9) which is considered to be a positive moral quality (cf. Landrey 51) is only a “show” (Rowse 110, l.9) and consequently superficial, lacking authenticity and depth. The wild roses live for the sake of appearance and attempt to convey a good impression. Duncan-Jones interprets “virtue” in the meaning of power and efficacy (cf. Shakespeare’s Sonnets 218). In contrast to the sweet roses the canker blooms are inefficient as they cannot be distilled.