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Shakespeare Saturdays: Sonnet 27

Shakespeare saturdays

Happy Saturday! I’m back with another Shakespeare Saturday and another Shakespearean sonnet.

DividerSonnet 27

Sonnet_27_1609Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed,
The dear repose for limbs with travel tired;
But then begins a journey in my head,
To work my mind, when body’s work’s expired:
For then my thoughts (from far where I abide)
Intend a zealous pilgrimage to thee,
And keep my drooping eyelids open wide,
Looking on darkness which the blind do see:
Save that my soul’s imaginary sight
Presents thy shadow to my sightless view,
Which, like a jewel hung in ghastly night,
Makes black night beauteous and her old face new.
Lo, thus, by day my limbs, by night my mind,
For thee, and for myself, no quiet find.

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Sonnet 27 is part of the Fair Youth group of sonnets but it’s also the first in a group of sonnets (27 to 31) that depict the speaker in solitude as he considers the Fair Youth from a distance. It isn’t part of a pair but some of the themes from this poem, especially the exploration of restlessness, continue into sonnet 28. 

In sonnet 27, the speaker is weary with toil and yet, as he finally goes to bed, his mind begins to work. His body is tired and, even though his eyelids are drooping, he is kept awake by thoughts of the Fair Youth. In the darkness of the night, the shadow or image of the Fair Youth appears to the speaker like a jewel. In this section, Night is feminine – her old face new – but the male subject manages to make her more beautiful. This reminded me of sonnet 20 in which the speaker implies that Nature fell so much in love with the Fair Youth that decided to make him a man instead of a woman, simply due to the casual misogyny and equating masculinity with beauty.

Line 11 is reminiscent of act one, scene five of Romeo and Juliet in which Romeo compares Juliet to a jewel: It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night / Like a rich jewel in an Ethiope’s ear. It’s a beautiful image, both in the sonnet and Romeo and Juliet, as it evokes a sense of brightness and splendour within the stillness of the night.

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There hasn’t been a lot written about sonnet 27 but, in a 1967 edition of Notes and Queries, J.-C Sallé noted the similarities between this sonnet and John Keats’ Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art, stating that ‘Sonnet 27 is one of those which Keats marked most heavily in his copy of the Poems’.1 Sallé notes the verbal echoes in Keats’ poem, drawing attention to similarities between Shakespeare’s ‘Which like a jewel (hung in ghastly night) / Makes black night beauteous, and her old face new’ and Keats’ ‘Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night’, but Sallé also acknowledges that ‘the most pervasive similarity between the two poems is perhaps the fusion of erotic and religious elements’.2

I find Shakespeare’s legacy in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature fascinating and noting the influence that Shakespeare had on later writers allows us to not only read later poetry in a new light but it also helps us to understand how Shakespeare’s work has been read and consumed through the years.

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Sonnet 27 is a beautifully written poem and the weariness of the speaker, from both his toiling daily work and his nightly thoughts, adds a heaviness to the atmosphere of the poem that has been mostly absent from the earlier sonnets. To the speaker, the Fair Youth is a welcome distraction from sleep, a light in the loneliness of the night.


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Footnotes:
1. J.-C Sallé, ‘Shakespeare’s Sonnet 27 and Keats’s ‘Bright Star!”, Notes and Queries, 14.1 (1967), p.24
2. J.-C Sallé, p.24
Images
1. Sonnet 27 by William Shakespeare in Shake-speares sonnets. Neuer before imprinted (1609) – Folger Shakespeare Library

6 thoughts on “Shakespeare Saturdays: Sonnet 27

    1. I’ve never read it like that before! The sonnets were all written before 1609 (usually dated between 1591 and 1605) so I’ve never connected this particular sonnet to his own age. He could have been anywhere between 27 and 41 but he was working very hard as an actor/playwright (plus, the plague was always lurking) so perhaps he was feeling worn out and, compared to the Fair Youth, old. I like your interpretation, it has given me much to think about! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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