"The forward violet thus did I chide: / Sweet thief, whence didst thou steal thy sweet that smells,"
I scold you, Bold Violet, how did you come to smell so sweet?
"If not from my love's breath? The purple pride / Which on thy soft cheek for complexion dwells"
You must have stolen your scent from the sweet breath of my fair lord. And your purple color
"In my love's veins thou hast too grossly dy'd. / The lily I condemned for thy hand,"
you stole (your color) from the blood that runs through my love's veins. My love, the lily took its whiteness from the color of your hand,
"And buds of marjoram had stol'n thy hair; / The roses fearfully on thorns did stand,"
And the curling leaves of marjoram took your hair; A red rose and a white one are anxious with guilt,
"One blushing shame, another white despair; A third, nor red nor white, had stol'n of both,"
Because they, too, have stolen from you; Another pink rose has stolen its color from the red and white roses,
"And to his robbery had annexed thy breath; / But, for his theft, in pride of all his growth / A vengeful canker eat him up to death."
And also has stolen your breath for its perfume; But in revenge for its theft, when the pink rose was at his most beautiful, a canker worm destroyed it.
"More flowers I noted, yet I none could see, / But sweet, or colour it had stol'n from thee."
Every flower has stolen either its color or its perfume from you.
Why is he saying it?
Sonnet 99 is the only one of all Shakespeare's sonnets that has 15 lines instead of the usual 14. Scholars debate over the significance of the extra line: it might be a draft, or incomplete, or an experimental sonnet. Another suggestion is that it is a "dating" sonnet, alluding to a specific year: 1599. This is a combination of the 15 lines and the fact that it is the 99th sonnet. Another example of a "dating" sonnet is Sonnet 104, which is tied to the year 1604 by the number of the sonnet and the repetition of the word "three" within it ("three" x 2 = 6, providing the 6 of 1604). Many of the sonnets are specifically placed, so this theory is not far-fetched.
The idea that this sonnet is linked to the year 1599 is strengthened by its theme of theft. In 1599, William Jaggard published stolen copies of two of Shakespeare's sonnets, Sonnets 138 and 144, in The Passionate Pilgrim. This theft is corroborated in an apology by Thomas Heywood in 1612, after Jaggard published an edition containing some of his own works. The theme of theft could be tied to this event of 1599, and the "sweet thief" could be Jaggard.
The interaction the speaker has with the flowers in this sonnet is a continuation of the previous sonnet, whose final couplet states, "Yet seemed it winter still, and you away, / As with your shadow I with these did play." "These" refers to the flowers of Sonnet 99. Scholars believe that this sonnet was influenced by a certain sonnet by Henry Constable, written prior to 1592, which begins, "My Ladies presence makes the roses red, / Because to see her lips they blush for shame." Throughout the sonnets, the overlap includes the use of the words, "roses," "blush," "shame," "lilies," "hands," "violet," "purple," "dyed," "flowers," "sweet," and "breath."
Sonnet 99 focuses on the theme of theft; the flowers are guilty because they have stolen their color and sweet smell from the fair lord. The violet is called "sweet thief," a term the poet uses to refer to the fair lord himself, concerning the theft of the poet's mistress. Sonnet 35 concludes with the lines: "That I an accessary needs must be / To that sweet thief which sourly robs from me," and likewise, Sonnet 40 declares, "I do forgive thy robbery, gentle thief, / Although thou steal thee all my poverty."
In the first five lines of the sonnet, the poet directly addresses the violet, which he accuses of stealing its color and scent from the fair lord. The personification of the flowers is strengthened by the use of humanizing words like "soft cheek," used to describe the violet's petals. The roses that "fearfully on thorns did stand" are given the human quality of being afraid; the idea of standing on thorns implies anxiety, since they are guilty of stealing from the fair lord and are awaiting a sentence, and it is also literal since, of course, the roses' stems have thorns.