Sonnet 90 by Shakespeare:

Then hate me when thou wilt; if ever, now;
Now, while the world is bent my deeds to cross,
Join with the spite of fortune, make me bow,
And do not drop in for an after-loss:
Ah! do not, when my heart hath 'scaped this sorrow,
Come in the rearward of a conquered woe;
Give not a windy night a rainy morrow,
To linger out a purposed overthrow.
If thou wilt leave me, do not leave me last,
When other petty griefs have done their spite,
But in the onset come: so shall I taste
At first the very worst of fortune's might;
And other strains of woe, which now seem woe,
Compared with loss of thee, will not seem so.

The website Shakespeare-sonnets.com has this to say about the phase:

drop in for an after loss - the phrase is not properly understood. It may be a gaming metaphor, or, in view of rearward, conquered, overthrow, onset, loss, which follow, a military one. SB gives an extensive note with details of slightly later examples from gaming and warfare. The general idea seems to be that of an unexpected loss resulting from a sudden hazard or cast in a game, or an unforeseen development after a battle, when the result was already supposedly determined. The modern meaning of drop in, 'to call on unexpectedly, or casually' is not relevant here, and is not attested until much later.

I still don't understand the meaning. I'd be grateful for any answers with "plain-English" interpretation.

For instance, what is "drop in" here? Who (or what) is doing the dropping? To which word does the preposition in relate?

My brain fails to come up with any meaning of the phrase, and thus slides back to something akin to "and do not suddenly appear ..".

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    The modern meaning of drop in is attested in The Diary of Samuel Pepys: "At noon dined at home, and Mr. Hater with me, and Mr. Pierce, the surgeon, dropped in, who I feared did come to bespeak me to be godfather to his son, which I am unwilling now to be, having ended my liking to his wife, since I find she paints." (1667). I wouldn't say that's "much later". I don't see any possible alternative to the modern meaning. – Peter Shor Aug 3 at 12:18
  • @PeterShor That modern meaning is, as far as I know, not attested in Shakespeare's time and I am 99.99% certain that that is not the meaning Shakespeare intended. – Christophe Strobbe Aug 4 at 16:38
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    @Christopher: then what meaning did Shakespeare intend? Can you even give a plausible meaning for drop in here that isn't the modern meaning? Not to mention one that is attested within 70 years of Shakespeare's time. – Peter Shor Aug 4 at 17:42
up vote 9 down vote accepted

I've changed my answer. To summarize, drop in means to arrive singly, in this case after the main mass of visitors.

If I'm right, and this is the meaning, then to drop in for an after-loss would mean to make an appearance after all of the poet's other misfortunes and cause a final misfortune (an after-loss).

Paraphrasing: "if you're leaving me, give me the bad news now, when I am beset by all my other misfortunes, and don't wait and tell me later."

Why do I think this? To find what Shakespeare meant by the intransitive phrasal verb drop in, we need to look for other uses of it in Shakespeare's time. Shakespeare appears to be the first to use drop in with anything near this sense. But here is an instance of drop in from the book Of the Head-Corner-Stone, by Edmund Bunny in 1611, only two years after Shakespeare's Sonnets were published, and one or two decades after they were written:

… but that divers of the Israelites (such as shog’d aside for the time, to avoide the danger of the enemies Sword, and afterward came dropping in againe)

The relevant meaning of the obsolete word shog here seems to be to move to the side or to go away. So these people went away to avoid the danger, but came dropping in when it was safe.

The meaning of drop in here seems to be the OED's definition

  1. intr. To come in one by one or at intervals,

which the OED has first attested in 1697.

There is also another use of drop in with this meaning in the 17th century, that the OED seems to have missed. From 1668:

Other vessels are dropping in; 25 colliers passed by Bridlington, and as many lie in the bay for Newcastle, expecting a fair wind.

This is not so far from the modern meaning to make an informal or unexpected appearance at somebody's house, which is first attested in The Diary of Samuel Pepys in 1667:

At noon dined at home, and Mr. Hater with me, and Mr. Pierce, the surgeon, dropped in, who I feared did come to bespeak me to be godfather to his son, which I am unwilling now to be, having ended my liking to his wife, since I find she paints.

In fact, looking at this quote, it's not clear to me whether drop in here has the modern meaning of to make an informal appearance or the meaning of to arrive singly, after the meal has started. So it's easy to see how the arrive singly meaning turned into the make an informal or unexpected visit meaning. If it does indeed mean arrive singly here in Pepys, it's very similar to Shakespeare's use of the phrase.

To answer some of the rest of your questions:

Who is dropping in?
The thou of the poem.

What does in relate to?
Drop in is a phrasal verb here; in is a particle, not a preposition.

And for completeness, here is the substance of my original answer:

It seems to have meant something like "to make an appearance on the scene" in Shakespeare's time. Did it need to be an unexpected or informal one? I can't tell, but I think it's quite likely. Both Shakespeare's use and another contemporary use1 I found of drop in could easily have the connotation of informal or unexpected.

1 Bunny's given above.

Christopher Strobbe has a different answer, in which he explains everything that was wrong with a previous version of my answer. Let me try to explain why his interpretation (which follows a suggestion of John Kerrigan) is probably incorrect.

  • He claims that drop in means fall upon, based on a single use of drop in from Antony and Cleopatra. The use of drop in from Antony and Cleopatra is transitive, while the use in Sonnet 90 is intransitive. To see why this makes a difference, let's look what happens when we substitute fall upon in Sonnet 90:

    And do not fall upon for an after-loss:

       That's horrible—fall upon needs an object after it.

  • The meaning to arrive singly fits the sonnet's theme extremely well. The meaning to fall upon does not fit as well.

  • His objection to my answer that the language is changing too fast for there to be no attestations of drop in between when Shakespeare wrote his sonnets and Bunny's book can be disregarded, since there are only a handful of attestations of drop in that might mean anything near arrive one at a time between Bunny's use in 1611 and the first instance the OED is aware of, in 1697, and both Bunny and the OED's uses clearly have this meaning.

Sonnet 90 continues from sonnet 89, hence the "Then" at the beginning of the poem. These sonnets are part of a sequence (sonnets 88 - 93) about fear of losing the friend's love.

In sonnet 89, the poet says to the friend: "If you deserted me because of a fault (or worse) on my part, I would support your arguments against me, since I cannot love someone that you hate." Sonnet 89's last word, "hate", returns as sonnet 90's second word. Line 2 says that the entire world is determined to thwart his actions. It is not clear whether this is hyperbole (the friend's rejection is inflated to a general conspiracy) or whether the poet/narrator is also experience problems that are unrelated to the relationship. (The verb "join" in line 3 supports the latter interpretation.) Either way, if the break in their relationship is to come, it should come now rather than later ("if ever, now" from line 1). Loosing the friend is the loss that is the sonnet's subject.

"After-loss" (line 4) is not used anywhere else in Shakespeare, but is is formed in a similar way to a number of other words in Shakespeare:

So after-loss most likely means "something that comes after a loss", in this sonnet, after the loss of the friend's love.

Drop in means "fall upon", here in a figurative sense. Another instance of "drop in" in the sense of "fall upon" (in a literal sense) can be found in Antony and Cleopatra, Act III, Scene 13:

Ah, dear, if I be so,
From my cold heart let heaven engender hail,
And poison it in the source; and the first stone
Drop in my neck: as it determines, so
Dissolve my life!

For does here not have the common modern meaning indicating purpose, as "You came for gold, ye slaves." (Timon of Athens, Act V, scene 1). "For" here mean "as; by way of". Here are a few examples of this usage elsewhere in Shakespeare:

So line 4 means "do not fall upon me (figuratively), thereby adding to the loss". As mentioned before, line 1 says that the poet prefers the shorter pain ("if ever, now"). In addition, lines 5-8 continue this thought, using other words: do not persecute me after ("in the rearward") of my current distress, do not come like a rainy morning after a windy night, to protract the destruction.

According to John Kerrigan's thoroughly annotated edition of The Sonnets and A Lover's Complaint (The New Penguin Shakespeare, 1986), drop in for an after-loss means "fall upon me, as a belated loss" (page 286).

Kerrigan adds:

The received interpretation of drop in, 'call in casually', relies on usage not current until a century later, and is bathetic.

Note: Reading "drop in" as "call in casually" is bathetic because its banality stands in stark contrast to the high poetic style of Shakespeare's sonnets. (That alone should have alerted any astute reader of poetry.) Colin Burrow, editor of The Complete Sonnets and Poems in The Oxford Shakespeare (Oxford University Press, 2002) agrees with this reading.


A response to Peter Shor's interpretation

Peter Shor found an occurrence of "dropping in" that, according to him, may have the meaning "to make an appearance on the scene", namely in Of the Head-Corner-Stone by Edm[und] Bunny (1611).

Below is part of the context for "dropping in" in Bunny's Of the Head-Corner-Stone (my emphasis):

As touching those that did succeede, although they are no part of this people, but meere strangers vnto them, and at this time might rather be held to bee of the number of their enemies also: yet because they goe oft-times vnder the names of Israelites, and not vnlikely, but that diuers of the Israelites (such as shog'd aside for the time, to auoide the danger of the enemies Sword, and afterward came dropping in againe) did afterward come in and dwell among them, at least because these doe now hence-forward inhabit that Land where the Israelists dwelt before, therefore it shall bee good to see the Story of them.

  • The interpretation "to make an appearance on the scene" is vague. The context of this instance of "[came] dropping in" in Of the Head-Corner-Stone is a commentary on 2 Chronicles 30, 1-13, where "Hezekiah sent word to all Israel and Judah and also wrote letters to Ephraim and Manasseh, inviting them to come to the temple of the Lord in Jerusalem and celebrate the Passover to the Lord, the God of Israel." The people who "came dropping in" were people who had moved outside Israel and came back.
  • Of the Head-Corner-Stone was printed in 1611 by William Jaggard, who also printed many of Shakespeare's works, including the False Folio (1619) and the First Folio (1621). Shakespeare's sonnets were printed just two years earlier (1609, by a different printer) but probably mostly written in the 1590s. Peter Shor claims in a comment, "If a usage was around in 1611, I don't see why it's unlikely to have been around in the 1590s." This ignores that fact Early Modern English developed in an era of great linguistic change, so words and meanings could come into fashion and disappear again fairly quickly. From the 1590s to 1611 is long enough for new words and meanings to be added to the language.
  • Finally, as I mentioned before, the interpretation "visit informally" (which clearly does not apply to the above passage from Bunny's book) is simply to mundane for the context of Shakespeare's sonnet. Readers who do not understand this should (1) read much more English Renaissance literature and (2) learn to recognise bathos. For examples of bathos, see Encyclopaedia Britannica, ThoughtCo, LiteraryDevices.com, LiteraryDevices.net and LiteraryTerms.net.
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    If a usage was around in 1611, I don't see why it's unlikely to have been around in the 1590s. Usages don't always suddenly make their appearance on the scene, after which they spread like wildfire and everybody starts using them. Sometimes they get adapted gradually. – Peter Shor Aug 4 at 23:07
  • @PeterShor (1) The example from Bunny does not mean "visit casually or informally". (2) Early Middle English evolved in a era of rapid linguistic change. I have updated my answer with a fuller response to your interpretation. – Christophe Strobbe Aug 5 at 17:25
  • The meaning of drop in in Bunny's book in no way means fall upon, and I think that meaning is likely to be the one Shakespeare intended. The meaning of fall upon from Anthony and Cleopatra (drop down from above) is quite different from the meaning of fall upon that Kerrigan attributes to it (attack maliciously), and I wouldn't say these mean the same thing at all. – Peter Shor Aug 5 at 17:37
  • @PeterShor I don't claim that the intended meaning in Bunny's book is "fall upon"; in fact I wrote that "came dropping in" refers to people coming back to Israel. – Christophe Strobbe Aug 5 at 17:39
  • @PeterShor And it is not a matter of "how people perceived the phrase at the time" (your most recent edit to your answer); the bathos argument here works at the level of the phrase's meaning. Can we take this discussion to the chat room, please? – Christophe Strobbe Aug 5 at 17:41

I am not 100% sure on this, but here are my thoughts.

The first two lines talk about the narrator being in some kind of trouble - "while the world is bent my deeds to cross" (or make look bad) and the line right after your bolded line talks about when the other person has "'scaped this sorrow" (the troubles of the first two lines) "Give not a windy night a rainy morrow" - i.e., don't make this bad situation worse/continue the pain, as I read it. See the later lines - "If thou wilt leave me, do not leave me last" - what could hurt more than losing your last supporter? If they hated you from the beginning, fine, but if they helped you and then, at the last, left you...that's a lot to deal with, especially as the narrator seems to care for this person - "And other strains of woe, which now seem woe / Compared with loss of thee, will not seem so."

With this context we can look a little more clearly at your line. The first two lines reflect the end - "hate me [...] if ever, now", don't "leave me last". The next line, "Join with the spite of fortune, make me bow", echoes the first line - the "spite of fortune" seems to reflect the hate of the first line, and the "join [...], make me bow" seems to be with the friend/lover being the one doing the hating. Where's the "now, not later" represented? In the next line. The "and" at the beginning shows the connection with the previous line, and the ":" at the end explains the meaning - "do not leave me last", which here is rephrased as "do not drop in for an after-loss". I read the "drop in" as a sort of "piling on" done at the last moment, and the "after-loss" seems to reflect the thought that they had already been through the thick of it only to confront the greatest loss of all.

Tl;dr: "do not drop in for an after-loss" is asking the friend/lover of the narrator not to leave him and his side at the very end of the battle he's fighting with the "spite of fortune".

  • Thank you, Heather, but I still don't understand this "drop in". Who is dropping or being dropped? Or is it an idiom? If the modern meaning of "call on unexpectedly" is not relevant, according to the website, when what does it mean? – CopperKettle Aug 3 at 9:47
  • @CopperKettle Are you satisfied that Dr Ledger is infallible on that point? – Spagirl Aug 3 at 15:10
  • @Spagirl - who is Dr. Ledger? – CopperKettle Aug 3 at 15:13
  • You are the one who cited his/her website.... – Spagirl Aug 3 at 15:13
  • @Spagirl - ah! Probably there's a little mistake on this point, but otherwise I love that website. But yes, probably "drop in" has the "modern" meaning in this sonnet. – CopperKettle Aug 3 at 15:42

The sonneteer's voice here is pleading with the love object to leave now - while there are many other burdens troubling him - rather than leaving after the time of troubles have passed and therefore plunging him into another period of despair. The clue to the meaning of line 4 "And do not drop in for an after-loss," is also found in lines 6 & 7, and can basically be swapped out for them: "Come in the rearward of a conquered woe;" & "Give not a windy night a rainy morrow" contain the same sentiment: "don't crush me after I've shrugged off all the burdens that press on me now." Quite selfish, really.

It appears as though the etymologies and definitions for "drop in" and "after-loss" are murky at best, and on a whimsical first read line 4 could be taken as an Elizabethan plea to forbid post-breakup booty calls. Restricting the dropping in for such an "after-loss" seems fitting to the tone of the poem, but I may digress. I'm not 100% sure the precise meanings are irrelevant when it comes to to understanding the gist of the sonnet, but without them it's still a fairly obvious premise to me.

  • "An Elizabethan plea to forbid post-breakup booty calls" - Wow! I never even though of that. – CopperKettle Aug 8 at 3:24

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