Sinne of Self-Love

Notes & Queries 234, August 1976, p. 155-6


SHAKESPEARE'S 62nd sonnet has caused some puzzlement but no very great interest in editors and commentators. It is usually taken as a somewhat elaborate but artificial compliment to the Friend. The purpose of this note is to suggest that it can be interpreted in an unforced and straightforward way, if one is willing to credit Shakespeare, as we can, with such depth of introspective insight that he dis­covered for himself, some hundreds of years before the rest of the world, what has now become a psychological commonplace. Probably what has prevented even modern readers from grasping the simple but profound meaning of the poem, has been the fact that it has been seen as one of the series of expressions of a dedicated love for the Friend, when in fact one does better to relate it to other poems of philosophical reflection, such as particularly Sonnet 146, "Poore soule the center of my sinfull earth ". In Sonnet 62, as in Sonnet 146, Shakespeare is considering himself not as a unique individual but as a type of all humanity; and he is reflecting on a universal failing.

    The commonplace of modern psycho­logical insight, sometimes subsumed under the general heading of "narcissism", is what has been called the egocentric delusion ", and in special circumstances by other names such as "the delusion of personal immunity ". It results from the fact that, living each of us inside his own circumscribed personality, we are not able to see ourselves objectively as we see others. Going onto the road in a motor‑car, we do not imagine that we could possibly be­though we know that daily hundreds of others are‑the victim of a serious or fatal accident. What gives Shakespeare's sonnet its profundity is that he has described the whole nexus of ideas comprehensively and with extreme economy; he puts his finger on the ineluctable root cause; and he points out the only road of escape from the tyranny in which we all live. Sinne of self‑love possesseth al mine eie,
And al my soule, and al my every part;
I have loyalty to and identify myself with my senses, my body, my mental character­istics, my tastes, my aptitudes.

And for this sinne there is no remedie,
It is so grounded inward in my heart.

It is part of my nature; I cannot change it.

Me thinkes no face so gratious is as mine,
No shape so true, no truth of such account,

I instinctively feel (absurd though it is) that my face, my physical identity, has some uniqueness, a "grace", which makes it especially interesting. I have, moreover, been blessed with a unique insight into human affairs that gives my "truth" (in standards of conduct, political vision, etc.) an authority that the opinions of others can never have.

And for my seife mine owne worth do define,
As I all other in all worths surmount.

My personal value to myself is such that the merits of others are not to be measured against it (though I keep this to myself). If my neighbour excels me in something, say the knowledge of a foreign language, this is not to be accounted to him as a "worth", since deep within me I can have no possible competitor in my own esteem

But when my glasse shewes me my seife indeed
Beated and chopt with tand antiquitie,

It does sometimes happen that, catching a glimpse of myself unexpectedly in a mirror, I see myself momentarily as a stranger, before recognition dawns and I identify myself with the image; or it may be that studying my face attentively in the glass for some time, feature by feature, the feel­ing of identification is lost for a little, and the stranger's ageing face is far from pre­possessing. M

ine owne seife love quite contrary I read
Seife, so seife loving were iniquity,

That blinding glimpse of the obvious may be devastating even to my self‑respect; I may convict myself of a self‑complacence both fatuous and evil.

T'is thee (my seife) that for my seife I praise,
Painting my age with beauty of thy daies.

    This is Shakespeare's way out. If I can identify myself with another, make him the centre of my loyalty, if I can pride myself on his achievements, and see the future in its promise for him, then I free myself at last from the egocentric prison, and even from the fate of decay and death that awaits my now unimportant self.

    This interpretation seems to be in line with Shakespeare's thought in other places. Self‑love is referred to in 2 Henry VI, V.ii.38, and Henry V, II.iv.74, carrying its customary meaning of selfishness, putting one's own interests first. However, there are glimmerings of the deeper meaning that emerges in Sonnet 62. In Lucrece, 265 we read " ... had Narcissus seen her as she stood/Self‑love had never drowned him in the flood." The myth tells only of a hand­some young man who falls in love with his own face; but it may be taken to imply that we all to some extent do as much. In Twelfth Night, I.v.90, Olivia accuses Malvolio, "0, you are sick of self‑love, Malvolio, and taste with a distempered appetite ", implying that Malvolio's "self­love" is distorting his judgement. In All's Well, I.i.144, Parolles tells Helena that virginity is "peevish, proud, idle, made of self‑love ", suggesting that the spirit of personal integrity that keeps a girl a virgin springs from an egocentric orientation that, in his opinion, distorts ethical values. The mirrored face of Sonnet 62 has appeared previously in Sonnet 3, as a cause for an excessive valuation of one's self that perverts conduct.

    Identification with another, that is with the fair Friend, is a major theme in many of the sonnets, too many to enumerate here. As the recourse which frees us from the prison of the self, it is perhaps most energetically stated in Sonnet 37:

I make my love ingrafted to this store
So then I am not lame, poore, nor dsspis'd,
Whilst that this shadow doth such substance give,
That I in thy abundance am suffic'd,
And by a part of all thy glory live: