What's he saying?
"Were't aught to me I bore the canopy, / With my extern the outward honouring,"
Does it make any difference to me if I carry the canopy, appearing to everyone else to honor a respected figure,
"Or laid great bases for eternity, / Which proves more short than waste or ruining?"
Or laid the foundations of monuments that are meant to last forever, but in reality last not very long at all?
"Have I not seen dwellers on form and favour / Lose all and more by paying too much rent"
Doesn't everyone know that those people who focus on courtly life get into debt by committing themselves too much
"For compound sweet, forgoing simple savour, / Pitiful thrivers, in their gazing spent?"
And they give up true love's simple pleasures in favor of political preference, wasting their time in observing what others do?
"No; let me be obsequious in thy heart, / And take thou my oblation, poor but free,"
Let me serve you silently and bear you the only offerings I have,
"Which is not mixed with seconds, knows no art, / But mutual render, only me for thee."
An offering that is pure and untarnished; it is only the exchange of our love.
"Hence, thou suborned informer! a true soul / When most impeached stands least in thy control."
Get away, you who would accept bribes and betray love, since he who you accuse is most free of you.
Why is he saying it?
Though the following sonnet is actually the last of the "fair lord" sonnets, it is more of a farewell, whereas Sonnet 125 finishes the thoughts of the previous two sonnets. Here, he begs the fair lord, "let me be obsequious in thy heart," a sentiment put forth in Sonnet 123, whose final couplet states, "I will be true despite thy scythe and thee;" the "scythe" refers to the destruction of time, and "thee" could refer to either Time itself or the fair lord's unfaithfulness. In Sonnet 124, the poet states of his love, "It suffers not in smiling pomp, nor falls / Under the blow of thralled discontent," using political comparisons that are continued here, in Sonnet 125.
Scholars point to similarities between Sonnet 125 and Act I, Scene 1 of the play Othello, in which the villain Iago explains his dishonest relationship with Othello, whose destruction he later brings about. Here, after dismissing "dwellers on form and favour" as "pitiful," the poet begs in line 9, "No; let me be obsequious in thy heart;" in comparison, Iago points out to Rodrigo, "You shall mark / Many a duteous and knee-crooking knave, / That, doting on his own obsequious bondage, / Wears out his time..." The words "extern" and "outward" are also echoed, as Iago says, "For when my outward action doth demonstrate / The native act and figure of my heart / In compliment extern, 'tis not long after / But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve / For daws to peck at: I am not what I am."
While the intent of the sonnet differs from that of Iago in Othello, another text to which this sonnet is linked shares its themes as well as its language: the Communion Service from the Book of Common Prayer, published in 1599. The "pitiful thrivers" of line 8, who are "in their gazing spent," resemble the "gazers and lookers on them that do communicate" in the Communion Service, who are admonished for adding "unkindness" by refusing to participate in the communion. The Communion Service describes Christ as having "by his one oblation of himself once offered," while here, the poet asks the fair lord to "take thou my oblation, poor but free."
Line 7 presents a metaphor that can read either as medicinal or as having to do with cooking. The "dwellers on form and favour" of the previous line are forgoing the simple pleasures of true love, instead focusing on complex and often ambiguous rewards of political connections. The term "compound" refers to mixtures of several substances used as medicine, while "simple" is an unmixed remedy. However, the words "sweet" and "savor" suggest flavors used in cooking certain dishes. The word "savor" is also a pun on "Savior," a further link to the Communion Service mentioned above; the "simple savor" could refer to the host itself.
It is debated to whom the "suborned informer" of line 13 refers; this character appears suddenly and without a connection to the rest of the sonnet. Some scholars, including Martin Seymour-Smith, believe it addresses the fair lord himself; the poet is finally asserting that he is not, and never has been, under the young man's control. Others believe it refers to Time, as a reference back to Sonnet 123. It could also be a specific onlooker, who seeks to misinform the fair lord about the poet's love for him. It is also possible that the "suborned informer" could be a general address to those who do not believe in the power of love.