This one is a line from one of Shakespeare's sonnets. I don't get which is the subject, and which noun belongs to the prepositional 'from'.

My first interpretation is

"the breath that from [it] my mistress reeks"
i.e., the breath that the mistress reeks from. My other interpretation is
"The breath that (from my mistress) reeks"
i.e., the breath that reeks from the mistress. So which one the truer version?

Also I rarely see the verb "reeks" used with "from", but I often see it used with "of", for example, the abandoned basement reeks of dust. What does reeks from mean?

  • 1
    This is poetry, and it is 400 year old poetry. Perhaps ask this question on Literarure.stackexchange. But it just means the breath comes from his mistress, and it smells bad. – James K Feb 12 at 23:31
  • Yeah the latter interpretation seems more natural... – Angular Orbit Feb 12 at 23:45
  • I don't feel literature stackexchange would be too happy with a grammar question. – Angular Orbit Feb 12 at 23:51
  • By the way, the verb "reek" probably hadn't quite the meaning it has today. According to Etymonline the meaning "to emit a bad smell" is only recorded from 1710. In old Scottish it meant "to smoke" (as in the old toast "Lang may yer lum reek": long may your chimney smoke). The Sonnets were written between 1590 and 1605, at the time of the so-called Little Ice Age, when fairs were held on the frozen Thames. As most houses had little heating, you'd have been able to see each other's breath reeking, even indoors. – Old Brixtonian Feb 13 at 16:36
  • “than in the breath that from my mistress reeks” ...... nobody writes English that way anymore. That sentence is grammatically incorrect by contemporary standards. Literally, that is a poorly worded sentence. – Samuel Muldoon Feb 14 at 4:08

The work you refer to was published in 1609 in England. Language changes.

Sonnet 130

My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;

Coral is far more red than her lips' red;

If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;

If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.

I have seen roses damasked, red and white,

But no such roses see I in her cheeks;

And in some perfumes is there more delight

Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.

I love to hear her speak, yet well I know

That music hath a far more pleasing sound;

I grant I never saw a goddess go;

My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground.

And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare

As any she belied with false compare.

This is an independent clause:

And in some perfumes is there more delight

Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.

But keep in mind that we are talking about poetry. The subject is perfumes, in the breath is a prepositional phrase that acts as an adverbial, and that from my mistress reeks modifies breath. The mistress does not smell bad-- it is her breath.

  • I meant by the subject, the subject of the smaller dependent phrase, the one that did the 'reeking', so you should add that to the answer. Did the mistress reek or did the breath reek? I could say "the plate that from my child eats", and it makes sense semantically, and also "the predator that from the corpse eats" also makes sense, but in the former the latter noun is the subject, and in the latter the former noun is the subject. – Angular Orbit Feb 13 at 0:12
  • If you were to say, "The plate that from my child eats," this would be literary and remind everyone of Shakespeare. – Patriot Feb 13 at 1:04
  • @AngularOrbit I edited my answer. – Patriot Feb 13 at 1:05
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    I don't think "the plate that from my child eats" makes sense, unless the plate is doing the eating. The construction is "the X that Y": "the water that flows," "the light that shines." The "that from" construction you're suggesting (as in "the tap that from the water flows") is ungrammatical. Someone smarter than me could probably explain why that is or what rule it breaks. – d_b Feb 13 at 1:09
  • @d_b Please recognize that we are talking about Shakespeare here. This is literary language that is immediately recognizable as such. – Patriot Feb 13 at 1:18

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