They that have power to hurt and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow,
They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces
And husband nature’s riches from expense;
They are the lords and owners of their faces,
Others but stewards of their excellence.
The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet,
Though to itself it only live and die,
But if that flower with base infection meet,
The basest weed outbraves his dignity:
For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.
The first eight lines of this very difficult sonnet are devoted to the description of a certain kind of impressive, restrained person: “They that have pow’r to hurt” and do not use that power. These people seem not to do the thing they are most apparently able to do—they “do not do the thing they most do show”—and while they may move others, they remain themselves “as stone,” cold and slow to feel temptation. People such as this, the speaker says, inherit “heaven’s graces” and protect the riches of nature from expenditure. They are “the lords and owners of their faces,” completely in control of themselves, and others can only hope to steward a part of their “excellence.”
The next four lines undergo a remarkable shift, as the speaker turns from his description of those that “have pow’r to hurt and will do none” to a look at a flower in the summer. He says that the summer may treasure its flower (it is “to the summer sweet”) even if the flower itself does not feel terribly cognizant of its own importance (“to itself it only live and die”). But if the flower becomes sick—if it meets with a “base infection”—then it becomes more repulsive and less dignified than the “basest weed.” In the couplet, the speaker observes that it is behavior that determines the worth of a person or a thing: sweet things which behave badly turn sour, just as a flower that festers smells worse than a weed.Read a translation of Sonnet 94 →
Sonnet 94 is one of the most difficult sonnets in the sequence, at least in terms of the reader’s ability to know what exactly the speaker is talking about. He jumps from an almost opaque description of these mysterious people who “have pow’r to hurt and will do none” to an almost inexplicable description of a flower in the summer. The two parts of the poem seem almost unconnected. In order to understand them, both on their own and in relation to one another, it is necessary to understand something about the tradition out of which the first 126 sonnets were written.
In Elizabethan England, it was very difficult for poets to make money simply by writing and selling their poetry. Many writers sought out aristocratic patrons, who supported them in return for the prestige of having a poet at their beck and call. Very often, poets courted their patrons, and ensured their places in their patrons’ good graces, by writing fawning verses in praise of the patron’s beauty, valor, power, and so on. The first 126 of Shakespeare’s sonnets, while not exactly fawning praise aimed at an infinitely higher-up aristocrat (the speaker often seems quite intimate with the young man), do come from this tradition of patronage and praise. The speaker’s lengthy invocations to the beloved’s beauty, sweetness, and worth, and the occasional intimations of power differences between him and his beloved (as in Sonnet 87, where the speaker says that the young man is “too dear for my possessing”), hint at this tradition. Certain other poems—such as the sequence from 82 to 86, in which the speaker reacts to the presence of a rival poet competing for his patron’s favors—express it outright. Sonnet 94 is a reaction to the conditions of the speaker’s patronage.
An aristocrat was in no way obligated to treat the poet he supported as an equal; in fact, his superiority was in some ways the entire point of the exchange. The speaker, genuinely in love with the young man, is forced to relate to him not as an equal, but as an inferior. To him, the young man can often seem cold, distant, and grave, and the speaker, who loves him, is forced to try to explain this behavior in a way that will enable him to continue loving the young man. The solution is to praise his very distance and reserve: he is not only “unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow,” he is “the lord and owner” of his face, and the inheritor of “heaven’s graces.” But praise of this chilly detachment seems inadequate (after all, the speaker’s tone seems to imply that he has been hurt by the young man’s behavior, so how can he say that the young man “will do none”?), so he makes his argument even more oblique by turning to the metaphor of the flower.
The summer’s flower, like the cold aristocrats of the first two quatrains, is beautiful only in and for itself; it has no interest in the fact that the summer loves it, because “to itself it only live and die.” Like the summer, the speaker hopes he can love the young man simply for his beauty without expecting anything in return. But he is forced to acknowledge that the young man is not so neutral and inactive: he has committed hurtful deeds, which act like a “base infection” in the flower to render it lower than a weed. The couplet brilliantly brings the two parts of the poem into full relation: the first line refers specifically to the first part of the poem (“Sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds”—as opposed to the perfect creatures who “do not do” hurtful deeds), and the second half refers to the metaphor of the flower (“Lilies that fester”—a sour deed—”smell far worse than weeds”).