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Shakespeare Saturdays: Sonnet 29

Shakespeare saturdays

Happy Saturday! I’m looking at sonnet 29 in today’s post and, for now, I’m sticking with the basic line-by-line analysis that I introduced in my last sonnet post.


Sonnet 29

When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featur’d like him, like him with friends possess’d,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

 

Analysis

Quatrain One (lines 1-4)

  1. When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,

The poem begins on a sombre note as the speaker claims to be in disgrace with both fortune and men. Fortune is, presumably, the goddess since it was common in this era to depict and reference Fortuna in poetry, drama, and prose. Shakespeare references Fortune (the personification and goddess of luck) in Anthony and Cleopatra, As You Like It, Hamlet, Henry V, and several other plays.

The speaker is also claiming to be in disgrace with men but he never elaborates as to why he’s out of favour. It’s possible that, perhaps due to his bad luck or lack of fortune, he feels isolated. 

It’s an abrupt opening line, to say the least, but it sets up a sonnet that focuses on the speaker himself rather than another subject.

  1. I all alone beweep my outcast state,

The speaker, who is so miserable that he feels outcast from the rest of society, is weeping alone. It’s a very sad image but also a touch melodramatic since the speaker is not actually a social outcast, he just feels alone because he has been abandoned by Fortune.

  1. And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,

‘Heaven’ is ignoring, or turning a “dear ear”, to the speaker’s laments. ‘Bootless’ means useless or to no avail so the poet is further emphasising that his complaints to heaven achieve nothing.

This is the first of several biblical or religious references in the sonnet but note that there is no reference to God. The speaker only mentions heaven.

  1. And look upon myself and curse my fate,

The speaker is contemplating his own fate in a moment of self-reflection. It emphasises that this sonnet is about the speaker rather than the normal subject, presumably the Fair Youth, as the speaker is looking upon himself rather than looking upon the one he loves.

Lines two and four make up the first set of b-rhymes in the sonnet.

Quatrain Two (lines 5-8)

  1. Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,

The speaker wishes that he had more hope.

  1. Featur’d like him, like him with friends possess’d,

He also wishes that he had more friends, like ‘him’.

  1. Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,

Finally, he wishes that he had ‘his’ art and ‘his’ scope (aka, the capability, range, or ability of this other unnamed man). Lines 5-7 work together as a list of the qualities that the speaker believes he lacks. He compares himself to others and wishes to be more like the men around him. 

The poem is very self-deprecating and the speaker is working to draw attention to his depressed state of mind.

  1. With what I most enjoy contented least;

The speaker implies that he no longer loves the things (and perhaps people) that he used to love. He is so despondent that he can only dwell upon the negative and he can take no joy in the love of his beloved.

Quatrain Three (lines 9-12)

  1. Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,

The first line of quatrain three should mark the turn towards a ‘solution’ for the ‘problem’ presented in the first eight lines of the poem and that doesn’t quite happen in this poem. It does, kind of, but not in the traditional way and you can tell from this line that the speaker is trying to be more positive, he’s trying to find a solution to his depression, but he does so by first turning to anger, ‘despising’ himself for feeling so low.

  1. Haply I think on thee, and then my state,

Then, haply (or by chance), he thinks upon his love and he finds his mood and his ‘state’ improved when he refocuses on the Fair Youth.

This still is not a solution to the problem of the first eight lines but, instead, it feels like a distraction. That does work in the short term but the speaker finds it difficult to offer himself a lasting solution to his state of mind.

Lines 8 and 10 make up the second set of b rhymes in this poem. Usually, the rhyme scheme of an English sonnet is abab cdcd efef gg but the b- and f- rhymes match in this poem. It could be a coincidence but Murdo William McRae has argued that the duplication of the b-rhymes draws ‘attention to lines that read, in a sense, as a poem within a poem’ and he states that ‘these four lines subtextually pull the poem together’.1

  1. Like to the lark at break of day arising

We’re treated to a beautiful, bright image in a gloomy poem as the speaker slowly begins to break through his melancholic state. It’s a moment of triumph but it’s tinged with the sadness of the earlier lines.

This line also echoes Cymbeline: Hark! hark the lark at heaven’s gate sings, / And Phoebus ‘gins arise… (2.3.20-21)

  1. From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;

In this line, along with line 11, we return to the religious imagery of line three as the speaker is almost reborn, rising like the lark to sing at the gates of ‘deaf’ heaven. Again, there is no mention of God but the speaker does set up a contrast between himself and heaven. Heaven, in line 3, ignores his laments but he forces heaven to hear his new hymn.

Although the poem does indulge in religious imagery, it feels spiritual rather than religious as heaven has abandoned the speaker to his ‘fate’ and he must lift himself up with no help from heaven.

Final Couplet (lines 13-14)

  1. For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings

For the final couplet, the speaker returns his attention to the subject and he states that he is brought joy and ‘wealth’ whenever he thinks about the Fair Youth.

  1. That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

Finally, the speaker claims that he is happier than a king and has no need for a kingdom when he has the love of the subject. This is a very sweet sentiment. It’s also the third time ‘state’ is used in the poem.

Overall, I think that this is a melancholic, self-reflective poem in which the speaker contemplates his own feelings and state of mind. It’s rather gloomy but there are moments, especially towards the end of the poem, of light and joy.


I’ll be back with another Shakespeare Saturday post in a couple of weeks! That post is going to focus on one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, either John Ford or John Webster, so watch out for that in the near future.

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Footnotes:
1. Murdo William McRae, ‘Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29’, The Explicator, 46.1 (1987), pp. 6-8 (p. 8)

3 thoughts on “Shakespeare Saturdays: Sonnet 29

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