What's he saying?
"They that have power to hurt and will do none / That do not do the thing they most do show,"
Those who have the ability to hurt but choose not to, who do not use that power even though they look most certain of having it,
"Who, moving others, are themselves as stone / Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow,"
Who, when moving others, are themselves still, unmoved, emotionally cold, and slow to temptation,
"They rightly do inherit heaven's graces / And husband nature's riches from expense;"
It is they who rightly inherit heaven's graces and spare nature's riches from ruin;
"They are the lords and owners of their faces / Others but stewards of their excellence."
They can control their facial expressions (thoughts and emotions), while others merely serve their emotions.
"The summer's flower is to the summer sweet / Though to itself it only live and die,"
The summer flower is sweet to the summer, though the flower lives and dies only for itself;
"But if that flower with base infection meet / The basest weed outbraves his dignity:"
But if that flower should develop an awful infection, the worst weed would outshine the flower in dignity:
"For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds; / Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds."
For it is those things that are sweetest that can become sourest by their deeds; lilies that rot smell far worse than weeds.
Why is he saying it?
Sonnet 94 is often considered the most puzzling of the sonnets for its numerous metaphors and constructions that continue to elude scholarly consensus. To understand the sonnet properly, it is first necessary to understand its structure. Lines 1-8 comprise one long sentence, with "They that have power to hurt and will do none" the main subject. Line 9 presents the reader with an abrupt shift of scenery into a new metaphor - "The summer's flower" - that is the subject of the entire third quatrain. Finally, the couplet unites the two segments with a proverbial dictum reminiscent of a classical epigram that is highly relevant to the fair lord's precarious virtue.
The first line of the sonnet introduces the subject of the first and second quatrains as those who have power but do not use it. In the first quatrain, the poet describes this class of people as "Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow," like stone. However, he then argues in quatrain two that it is namely this privileged class of people, the self-controlled, who "rightly do inherit heaven's graces" and who are the guardians of "nature's riches," while all others are "but stewards of their excellence." The third quatrain drops the subject of the previous two and adopts that of "The summer's flower," an enigmatic metaphor that is later tied in with the preceding lines. The poet remarks that the summer finds the flower sweet even though the flower could not care less either way, for "to itself it only live and die." The poet also warns that should the flower become corrupted, the most lowly weed would have more dignity.
This sentiment is twice ingeminated in the lines of the closing couplet, Elizabethan remakes of the Latin optima corrupta pessima, or "the best become the worst when corrupted." The couplet weaves together the two segments of the sonnet, associating the privileged class of the first and second quatrains with the sweet, indifferent flower of quatrain three. Finally, note the sonnet's thoroughly impersonal language: the poet does not use "I" or "thou" anywhere in the sonnet, as though in some deliberate attempt to distance himself from these feelings to which he is emotionally vulnerable. Perhaps he is unable to bear the thought of his fair lord as baser than "the basest weed."
The metaphors in sonnet 94 are complex, intertwined, and deeply ambiguous, and perhaps this was the poet's intent. Lines 1-4 paint a mixed impression of the privileged class they describe: it is difficult to ascertain whether being "unmoved" and "cold" are good things or bad. Meanwhile lines 5-8 exalt the members of this class to a level of unparalleled superiority, although some have argued that there are hints of disdain or irony in the poet's words. In line 7, for instance, being "lords and owners of their faces" could be construed as a subtle accusation of duplicity or falsehood, a mismatch between the faces they put on and that which lies within. Likewise, how strong is the poet's criticism of the flower (perhaps a figure of his beloved) that "only live and die" with concern only for itself? Is it possible for the flower to be compassionate, or is it instead helplessly doomed to selfishness, or is it like those with self-controlled coldness of expression?
Finally, the structure of the couplet is another point of intrigue. The quatrains are clearly divided into two major thematic segments (lines 1-8 and lines 9-12). Is it thus unreasonable to imagine that this same division is fused into the couplet as well? Line 14 speaks of flowers ("Lilies"), taking up the same subject as the second segment of the quatrains. It might be argued, then, that line 13 refers back to the first segment - that the "sweetest things" are in fact the activities of the beloved who, "by their deeds," have turned the "sourest." Is the poet making a general statement here, or is he instead hinting at something specific, a cold breakup? Why is the subject of quatrains one and two plural while the subject of quatrain three is singular? This entire sonnet may be a riddle of sorts, the answer being a charge against the fair lord for having committed such deeds as have made him the sourest of all.