William Shakespeare 1609
In Palladis Tamia: Wit’s Treasury (1598), Francis Mere writes that a man named William Shakespeare was known for “his sugared sonnets among his private friends.” Though the melancholy tone of most of “Sonnet 30” (first published in 1609) can hardly be characterized as sweet, the final couplet does have a saccharine quality that many of Shakespeare’s critics have found distasteful. After the speaker has been overwhelmed with sadness for twelve lines, can he really solve all of his problems and find happiness in a couplet’s time? Perhaps his friend is indeed his savior, possessed with the wealth, power, or influence to replace the speaker’s mysterious “losses” (line 14). But the speaker’s quick and easy change of heart in the last two lines may be a sign that his grief is not as deep as it seems. Indeed, the sonnet’s difficult phrasings, heavy alliteration, and deliberate drag of repeated words lend a theatrical tone to his moans and sighs; the reader is left wondering if the speaker’s eye is, in fact, “unused to flow” (line 5).
Shakespeare was born in Statford-upon-Avon on or about April 23, 1564. His father was a merchant who devoted himself to public service, attaining the highest of Stratford’s municipal positions—that of bailiff and justice of the peace—by 1568. Biographers have surmised that the elder Shakespeare’s social standing and relative prosperity at
this time would have enabled his son to attend the finest local grammar school, the King’s New School, where he would have received an outstanding classical education under the direction of highly regarded masters. There is no evidence that Shakespeare attended university. In 1582, at the age of eighteen, he married Ann Hathaway of Stratford, a woman eight years his senior. Their first child, Susanna, was born six months later, followed by twins, Hamnet and Judith, in 1585. These early years of Shakespeare’s adult life are not well documented; some time after the birth of his twins, he joined a professional acting company and made his way to London, where his first plays, the three parts of the Henry VI history cycle, were presented from 1589 to 1591. The first reference to Shakespeare in the London literary world dates from 1592, when dramatist Robert Greene alluded to him as “an upstart crow.” Shakespeare further established himself as a professional actor and playwright when he joined the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, an acting company formed in 1594 under the patronage of Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon. The members of this company included the renowned tragedian Richard Burbage and the famous “clown” Will Kempe, who was one of the most popular actors of his time. This group began performing at the playhouse known simply as the Theatre and at the Cross Keys Inn, moving to the Swan Theatre on Bankside in 1596 when municipal authorities banned the public presentation of plays within the limits of the city of London. Three years later Shakespeare and other members of the company financed the building of the Globe Theatre, the most famous of all Elizabethan playhouses. By then the foremost London Company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men also performed at Court on numerous occasions, their success largely due to the fact that Shakespeare wrote for no other company.
In 1603 King James I granted the group a royal patent, and the company’s name was altered to reflect the King’s direct patronage. Records indicate that the King’s Men remained the most favored acting company in the Jacobean era, averaging a dozen performances at Court each year during the period. In addition to public performances at the Globe Theatre, the King’s Men played at the private Blackfriars Theatre; many of Shakespeare’s late plays were first staged at Blackfriars, where the intimate setting facilitated Shakespeare’s use of increasingly sophisticated stage techniques. The playwright profited handsomely from his long career in the theater and invested in real estate, purchasing properties in both Stratford and London. As early as 1596 he had attained sufficient status to be granted a coat of arms and the accompanying right to call himself a gentleman. By 1610, with his fortune made and his reputation as the leading English dramatist unchallenged, Shakespeare appears to have retired to Stratford, though business interests brought him to London on occasion. He died on April 23, 1616 and was buried in the chancel of Trinity Church in Stratford.
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow, 5
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long-since-cancelled woe,
And moan th’ expense of many a vanished sight:
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er 10
The sad account of fore-bemoanèd moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restored and sorrows end.
As in Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 29,” the speaker sets up an “if-then” statement by using the word “when.” This allows him to describe his feelings and actions in the present tense, even though he is not experiencing them at the time of composition. The description thus possesses a sort of false immediacy.
The speaker begins to implement a financial or legal metaphor from the word “sessions”; though it generally designates a period of activity, the word also describes the periodic sittings of judges in a court of law. In the next line, “summon up” possesses a similar double entendre: its broader definition is “to call forth,” but it also means “to order an appearance before a court.” The metaphor is continued throughout the sonnet, with words such as “cancelled” (line 7), “expense” (line 8), “account” line 11), and “paid” (line 12). Thus, though “Sonnet 30” tells a rather unspecific tale of a friend in need and a friend indeed, the related metaphors tell their own story: the speaker has incurred debts or the wrath of the law, and only his “dear friend” can get him out of trouble.
In these lines, the speaker is in essence “crying over spilled milk,” as the old saying goes. Past losses and problems plague the speaker once again, and the reader can almost hear him stutter and sob, thanks to the tripping rhythm of line 3, and the dragging alliteration and the series of gasp-like stresses in line 4.
“Dear time’s waste,” an emphasized phrase because of its three consecutive accented syllables, may mean a single missed opportunity, a misspent lifetime, or a squandering of valuable time; the reader is left to decide whether time was wasted inside or out of the courtroom.
Though he claims that he rarely sheds a tear, the speaker continues to cry throughout the second and third quatrains. The memory of dead friends, lost loves, and faded visions keeps his eyes moist. He seems to hiccup his way over consecutive accented syllables in lines 6 and 7; the profusion of “and”s and “then”s beginning the lines make him sound as if he were blubbering with grief.
Despite the sonnet’s gushing emotion, a Renaissance reader may have found cause to chuckle in line 7. “Woe” and “woo” were homonyms during
- There are several audio recordings of readings of Shakespeare’s sonnets, including Sonnets of Shakespeare, by Spoken Arts, Inc.; Living Literature: The Sonnets of Shakespeare, by Crown Publishers, Inc.; and Shakespeare: The Sonnets, by Argo Records.
- Shakespeare’s Sonnets is a “Films for the Humanities & Sciences” video featuring an indepth look at the poems and recitals of selected sonnets by such actors as Ben Kingsley and Claire Bloom.
Shakespeare’s time; their interchangeability makes the speaker sound as if he has given up on the possibility of love—preferring, perhaps, to wallow in self-pity.
The phrase that runs through the third quatrain means little more than, “I continue to dwell on the bad aspects of the past.” The speaker not only stretches this idea, but the language and rhythm of the quatrain as well. Each of the first three lines contains a twice-repeated word that is nearly synonymous with the repeated word in the next line: “grieve” and “grievances” of line 9 are echoed by “woe” and “woe” of line 10, and “moaned” and “moan” of line 11. These words, as well as those of line 12, “pay” and “paid,” are all comprised of long vowelled sounds associated with wailing and weeping. Going back to the figure of speech in line 5, the speaker is indeed “drowning”—in his own language as well as in tears.
The speaker’s actual causes of sorrow remain unknown throughout the sonnet, though the legal or financial metaphor which persists through this quatrain affords one interpretation. For example, a “sad account” may be a sorrowful tale, but it also may be a very sorry-looking record of finances; perhaps the records are so sloppy that the speaker is repaying bills already paid, or perhaps he is being charged an unfortunately high interest rate.
The language in line 14 once again suggests that the speaker’s grief may have been related to his financial situation. Perhaps the friend is a wealthy patron; “dear,” used also in line 4, has the meaning “of a high value” as well as “much loved.” The reader of “Sonnet 30” may indeed be this friend: one who has patiently listened to the speaker’s problems, and perhaps rescued him from debt by buying his book of sonnets!
Memory and Reminiscence
The opening lines of “Sonnet 30” establish the central theme of the poem as the speaker, writing to a friend, shares “remembrances of things past” with much heartache. Ironically, it is the vague way Shakespeare handles this theme which many critics cite as the poem’s fatal flaw. The speaker never focuses his details enough for the reader to connect on an emotional level and share these feelings of “woe” and “grief.” Instead Shakespeare provides abstractions, never telling us exactly what were the “many a things” he sought during his life. Who are the friends now “hid in death’s dateless night?” Whose “love long since canceled woe” is making him well up with tears? What are the “many a vanished sight” and the “grievances forgone” which are making him moan from line to line?
This type of writing makes communication on an emotional level difficult between poet and reader. Some literary critics seem to enjoy having the chance to “solve” a vague poem’s “mystery,” as if poets intended that only professors are intellectually abstract enough to decipher even their worst writing. In turn Shakespeare’s critics claim this poem’s “hidden” theme is more about money than memory, citing the repetition of “financial” metaphors throughout.
The theme of memory and reminiscence also deflates the sonnet form’s traditional “if:then” construction. The poet develops the first two stanzas like a legal premise and nails down a conclusion with the final couplet’s two-beat anvil strike. If we examine the clauses in the poem, the argument proves itself circular: “When to the sessions of sweet silent thought / I summon up remembrance of things past / … Then can I drown and eye … / … Then can I grieve at grievances forgone.” This has confused many a reader expecting the sonnet’s traditional specific and forward development toward
Topics for Further Study
- Say you are Shakespeare’s friend, and the last couplet of the sonnet is addressed to you. Write a letter in response to Shakespeare asking him to clarify any lines which seemed vague to you. If a good friend says to you “I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,” would you let him or her end there, or would you demand details?
- Thinking of the sonnet form in terms of an engine, take some time to disassemble its parts and explore what makes it work. How do the end-rhymes help each line fit together like teeth on a gear? How does the rhythmic structure from word to word in each line help move the reader’s eye across the page? Do think there are any parts of the poem you could exclude and still get the sonnet to “work” properly? Why or why not?
a one-two punch ending. But this poem’s theme seems to make the speaker’s wheels spin in self-pity, the argument instead seeming to say “when I think back on things past I can cry and can grieve at things gone.” And the final couplet which we might hope to leave us with surprise turn instead gives the speaker a chance to “duck out” of this poem, seeming to say “but when I think of you, old friend, everything’s OK. Bye.”
Shakespeare wrote “Sonnet 30” less than a decade before his death, and the theme of memory for memory’s sake may have come from a man realizing his life is more behind him than ahead. In this case, the act of reminiscence itself becomes more heart-wrenching for the speaker than any one specific memory, a lifetime of woes behind him, though younger readers (even readers in their forties) may find it difficult to connect with the power of emotion he was trying to express so abstractly.
The extended sequence of which “Sonnet 30” was a part conveys a strong theme of friendship. Many of the sonnets were written to a young male friend whom Shakespeare loved dearly (and platonically), often commenting on his beauty, urging him to marry a nice woman and have children. “Sonnet 30,” though too abstract to find any specific mention of this common character in the sequence, is most likely written as a direct address to a friend.
It is difficult to tell exactly, but Shakespeare could have been speaking to a friend about all the things past which make him sad and how he finds comfort when his thoughts turn toward their friendship, as the closing lines suggest: “But if the while I think on thee, dear friend, / All losses are restored and sorrows end.” Or the speaker, who mentions “precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,” is really just sitting in a room writing to himself and to his friends who have passed away, the memories of the good times shared the real source of the old man’s comfort.
The sonnet (from the Italian “sonnetto,” meaning “little song”) owes much of its long-standing popularity to the Italian poet, Petrarch. By the mid-sixteenth century, this fixed poetic form was adopted by the English, who borrowed the fourteen-line pattern and many of Petrarch’s literary conventions. English writers did, however, work out an alternate rhyme scheme that allows for more variety in rhyming words: while an Italian sonnet might rhyme abbaabba, cdccdc, an English or Shakespearean sonnet rhymes abab, cdcd, efef, gg.
In all but three of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets (“Sonnet 99,” “Sonnet 126,” and “Sonnet 145”), the first three groups of four lines each are known as quatrains, and the last two lines are recognized as a couplet. The three breaks between the quatrains and the couplet serve as convenient places where the writer’s train of thought can take a different direction. In “Sonnet 30,” a dramatic—and controversial—change in the writer’s emotional state takes place in the final couplet, and is signalled by the word “but.”
“Sonnet 30” is written in iambic pentameter. Iambic meter, the most familiar rhythm in the English language, is simply the succession of alternately stressed syllables; an iamb, a type of poetic foot, is a group of two syllables in which the first is unstressed and the second is stressed. The use of “penta” (meaning “five”) before “meter” means that there are five iambs per line.
Stresses embody meanings; both variety and emphasis are added to lines in which the regular rhythm is broken. “Sonnet 30” is for the most part regular in meter, but this only draws more attention to the few breaks in the lines. The phrases “sweet silent thought” (line 1) and “death’s dateless night” (line 6) are noticeable stumbling blocks to a reciter of this poem, thanks to their use of two consecutive accented syllables (known as spondees) and alliteration. Additionally, Shakespeare could have written “many things” and “many vanished sights” in lines 3 and 8, but chose instead to include the tripping rhythms of “many a thing” and “many a vanished sight”; in each case, the extra syllable embellishes upon the notion of plentifulness.
Although it is one of the more abstract poems in the sequence, our understanding of “Sonnet 30” grows as we discover the context in which Shakespeare wrote the poem and the rest of the lengthy sequence. He wrote the poem less than a decade before his death, an older poet reminiscing back on his long life, reflecting on his regrets and woes. Some critics point to the repeated use of “legal” and “financial” terms peppered throughout the poem to conclude Shakespeare is specifically griping about his many debts. On the other hand, since the speaker of the poem is remembering himself as a younger man, the repeated use of those terms may reflect the position Shakespeare’s father held as the poet began his career in the theater.
Having grown up with a father in one of Stratford’s highest municipal positions, bailiff and justice of the peace, he surely developed a strong legal vocabulary. Also contradicting the popular interpretation of the poem is the evidence that Shakespeare enjoyed prosperity from childhood to retirement, sending his children to the finest grammar schools, profiting handsomely from his long career in the theater and his real estate investments.
In order to gain a wider context surrounding the publication of these poems, it is important to note the drastic changes that occurred across Europe. Shakespeare lived and wrote his famous sonnet sequence during the Renaissance, a period of sweeping cultural, social, and political change. The influence of the Catholic Church, an institution that had dominated all aspects of life throughout Europe during the medieval times, was giving way to more secular, less spiritual forces. The religious Reformation challenged the absolute authority of the pope in spiritual matters and emphasized
Compare & Contrast
- 1558: Elizabeth I becomes Queen of England and will rule until her death in 1603. She survives several assassination attempts made by English Catholics, reflecting a sharp ideological divide between the Protestant-ruled government and Catholics both native to England and abroad. Suspicions of spying, treachery, and outright attack were well-justified throughout Elizabeth’s reign.
Today: Elizabeth II has ruled Britain since 1952. She began her reign at the height of the Cold War, in which Western democratic countries such as Britain and the United States were in a continual state of hostility with the communist countries, such as the Soviet Union and China. An era of spying, treason, and general mistrust pervaded the national psyche. Since the collapse of communism in the late 1980s, however, Britain has entered a period of relative peace, a condition never enjoyed by the first Queen.
- 1600: A French commercial partnership secures a monopoly on fur trade in the New World, while the English East India Company is established with hopes of challenging Dutch control of the spice trade.
Today: England, France and other continental countries are moving to form the European Economic Community, a union designed to help European countries compete more effectively in the truly global marketplace, which is dominated by such economic giants as the United States and Japan.
- 1604: King James I publishes his Counterblaste to Tobacco, describing smoking as “a custome loathsome to the eye, hatefull to the nose, harm-full to the braine, dangerous to the lungs, and in the blacke stinking fume thereof, nearest resembling the horrible Stigian smoke of the pit that is bottomlesse.”
Today: Over fifty million Americans still smoke, despite its being identified as a cause of heart disease, emphysema, and lung cancer. More than 390,000 Americans die each year from the effects of smoking.
- 1609: Part of convoy sailing to the aid of starving English settlers in the Virginia colony, the ship Sea Venture blows off course and becomes shipwrecked on an unexplored island. The Isle of Devils, as it was called, was rumored to be inhabited by demons.
Today: The Isle of Devils is now called Bermuda. It remains a colony of Great Britain and is one of the oldest members of the British Commonwealth. Because of its pleasant subtropical climate, it is a popular vacation destination.
the faith and devotional practices of the individual.
Along with this dispersion of spiritual authority came a redistribution of political power to individual states, which were throwing off the control of the pope in Rome. Art and culture, too, experienced a reawakening (“renaissance” means “rebirth”), as sacred themes in painting, drama, and poetry were replaced by human concerns, such as love, honor, and physical beauty. Writers and painters sought to create new standards, new definitions of what was true, good, or beautiful, based on direct experience rather than on received knowledge or traditions.
The sonnet itself has a strong historical foundation; it is a form Shakespeare both followed and innovated for future generations of writers. He followed a tradition of sonnet (from the Italian Sonnetto, or little song) writing that dates back to the fourteenth-century Rime of the Italian poet Petrarch.
The first English sonneteer of note was Sir Thomas Wyatt, who, by the mid-sixteenth century, translated a number of Petrarch’s sonnets into English and wrote original compositions closely modeled on Italian patterns. Along with his friend Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, Wyatt is credited with introducing a vogue for sonnet writing in England that lasted until the end of the sixteenth century. Although the English writers borrowed many poetic conventions already established by Petrarch, including adopting the fourteen-line format of the sonnet, they altered the rhyme scheme in order to increase the scope of the rhyming words. After each quatrain (abab cdcd, efef) the writer can either continue developing a single idea, or pursue another.
Surrey’s contribution to sonnet writing is significant in one important respect, and that is he always ended his sonnets with a rhymed couplet (gg). This practice, which was followed by most Elizabethan sonneteers, also became Shakespeare’s own. Although Shakespeare’s sonnets were first published in 1609, at least some were written a decade or more earlier, and circulated in manuscript among the author’s friends.
The praise of “Sonnet 30” has been tempered by the strong negative opinions of its final couplet. In Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Kenneth Muir declares the poem “one of the most highly wrought of all the sonnets,” noting the poem’s richly varied meter and extensive word play; however, he also acknowledges that the last two lines destroy the languid, dramatic movement of the first twelve. Quoting from Mark Van Doren’s Shakespeare, Muir agrees that the final couplet of “Sonnet 30” runs with “perfunctory and absurd rapidity to fabricate a concluding statement.”
Other discussions of “Sonnet 30” have centered upon its legal or financial metaphor. In their books on Shakespeare’s sonnets, both Stephen Booth and Gerald Hammond trace the metaphor’s path through the entirety of the poem; Hammond claims in The Reader and Shakespeare’s Young Man that “Sonnet 30” possesses “one of the most exhaustive metaphors in [Shakespeare’s sequence of] sonnets.”
In the following essay, Hochman surveys stylistic aspects of “Sonnet 30,” and determines why the poem is perceived as a failure.
“Sonnet 30” is part of Shakespeare’s sequence of 154 sonnets, all of which were published in 1609. The first 126 sonnets are thought to be addressed to a handsome, young aristocrat who was likely Shakespeare’s sponsor. It is not surprising then that the tone of these sonnets is exceedingly praiseworthy or obsequious toward the sponsor, and sometimes even self-effacing of the poet.
The first 126 sonnets contain what is now assumed to be occasional homosexual content (especially “Sonnet 20”), formerly a source of contentious argument in Shakespearean criticism. Homosexuality would have been perceived as more of a slight to the great Shakespeare’s reputation than it is now.
The sonnets were written in the heyday of sonnet writing, from 1591-1597, a period beginning with Sir Philip Sydney’s Astrophel and Stella. Shakespeare’s contribution to the development of the English sonnet is his emphasis on friendship more than on love. Like the first 126 sonnets, “Sonnet 30” is a panegyric, that is, a form of verbal praise. The panegyrical aspect of the poem, however, is not introduced until the last couplet which serves as a punch line, that while surprising in relation to the rest of the poem, tends less to knock readers out than let them down. This probably has more to do with satisfying the sponsor than Shakespeare’s failure in this poem.
Shakespeare follows the form of the English sonnet introduced by Wyatt and developed by Sidney. The English form bundles the fourteen sonnet lines into four groups: three groups of four lines (quatrains) and one group of two lines (couplet). The predecessor of the English or Shakespearean sonnet is the Italian or Petrarchan sonnet, also fourteen lines but internally divided into two groups, one of eight lines (octave) and the other six lines (sestet). Lines are generally of ten syllables, five accents per line, and have an end-rhyme scheme of abab cdcd efef gg. Not only is there end-rhyme, but a kind of internal rhyme or “consonance,” the repeating of consonant sounds in every line. In fact, every line is dominated by at least one consonant sound, sometimes two.
For example, in line four there are five “w” or semivowel sounds: with, woes, new, wail, waste. In line nine, there are three “g” or affricate sounds: grieve, grievances, foregone. There is also an overall pattern of voiced and voiceless consonants. The poem begins and ends in voiceless consonants, especially “s” sounds or sibilants in the first three lines and the final line.
What Do I Read Next?
- The sonnet is perhaps the most popular form in English verse. Two of Shakespeare’s contemporaries also writing thematically related sonnet sequences were Sir Philip Sidney and Edmund Spenser. Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella was published in 1591, and Spenser’s Amoretti was published in 1595.
- The fourteenth century Italian poet Petrarch was a significant innovator of the sonnet form, and his works influenced Shakespeare and other poets. His sonnets are available in a number of English translations, including Rime Disperse (1991), translated by Joseph A Barber.
- Many contemporary American poets still use the sonnet form to craft their poems, and many still collect their work into thematic sequences. Most recently, Ron Wallace, a poet living and teaching in Madison, Wisconsin, published his latest sonnets in a collection titled The Uses of Adversity and Blessings on University of Pittsburgh Press, 1998.
On the other hand, the vast majority of sounds in the body of the poem are voiced sounds of various kinds—semivowels (woe, wail), stops (death’s, dateless) nasals (moan, many), and fricatives (thee, the). With voiceless sibilants at the beginning and end of the sonnet, it can be said that the poem begins and ends in a kind of whispering silence, those “sessions of sweet silent thought.” The body of the poem, meanwhile, is louder, appropriate to the “testimony,” and the accompanying moaning, wailing, and crying the writer exhibits.
The focus of “Sonnet 30” is the memory of past events. It is subdivided into three quatrains as follows: the first quatrain has memory trained on old goals; in the second, on old, dead friends; in the third, on old grievances. Let us then proceed quatrain by quatrain. In the first two lines remembrances of things past are established within a metaphor of a court (“sessions”).
As a judge or lawyer would, the “I” of the poem “summons” up his memories as if they were witnesses in a court of law coming to testify on the stand. As the court room demands silence in order to hear and give proper respect to the proceedings, so are memories summoned up to remembrance during times of quiet, of “sweet silent thought.” The first group of memories to take the stand (the plaintiff) tells its tale of time wasted on goals sought but never reached. The testimony is accompanied by sighs and wails. The fourth line is specifically interesting in that it can be read in at least three ways, especially in regard to the way the line is punctuated:
1) And with old woes, new(ly) wail, my dear time’s waste.
2) And with old woes new, wail my dear time’s waste.
3) And with old woes, new(ly) wail, my dear, time’s waste.
In versions (1) and (3) “new” is read as an adverb and in version (2) as a postmodifying adjective. In (1) and (2) “dear” means valued or scarce, but in (3) “dear” means beloved.
In the second quatrain, the memories that testify in the “court” are those of dearly loved friends who have died. The account of these is accompanied by moaning and a rare bout of crying (“drown an eye, unus’d to flow”), a crying that takes up the wailing of the fourth line. These memories speak of friends lost in eternity and timelessness (“death’s dateless night”). In this quatrain, the focus is on the eye drowned with tears and darkness that cannot see “many a vanish’d sight.” The blind eye of the plaintiff might bear some relation to the symbol of justice blindfolded in order not to be swayed by age, race, gender, or wealth in her decisions, all of these categories also cancelled by death, or what some call the ultimate justice.
The last quatrain is taken up with memory’s testimony about old grievances. To “grieve at grievances foregone” has several possible interpretations. First, grievances can mean former bouts of grieving, memories of which can make one grieve again. Second, the line might mean regret for not having voiced grievances, that is, complaints, when the “I” of the poem had the opportunity. This relates to the first quatrain’s regret over having not got all the things the speaker sought. Third, grievance can mean a wrong done to a person; thus the speaker grieves over past wrongs done to him.
The last two interpretations relate to not only the telling of memory but the testimony in a law court—a plaintiff has a grievance toward a defendant because the plaintiff feels she has been wronged, or had a grievance committed against her. In closing statements, then, the metaphor of the court and memory can be fleshed out as follows: the mind is the court wherein the memory testifies. As a witness or plaintiff testifies about the past, so too does the faculty of memory retell its story in the court, or mind, of the present.
But there is another correlation with “sessions” of court made in “Sonnet 30,” this one having to do with what are now called “damages,” or rewards to plaintiffs for wrongs done them, most often in the form of money. Memory takes the stand in this court of the mind and testifies as to how it has had to “pay” and make “account” of past grieving. These words have double meaning relating not only to money but to having suffered the real event (“paid”), and additionally suffered for being made to tell about it (made “account”). Memory, the plaintiff in this case, would like some damages for the wrongs and pain it has suffered.
The verdict, as in a court of law, is delivered in the last moments of the session, or, in this case, the sonnet. Justice is done; the memory is compensated for not getting the things it sought, for losing the friends it loved, and for suffering grievances. Justice is delivered in the couplet. The memory or image of the living friend in the mind’s eye restores the losses the memory grievingly tells about. The poet’s eye is thereby unblinded; the tears and darkness evaporate and the mental image of the poet’s friend appears clearly in the mind’s eye. A kind of blind justice has been done and the plaintiff/poet can see.
Still, one element appears missing from the poem and this discussion. I have already mentioned the court, or the mind, the place where memory is summoned to the stand like a plaintiff or witness; and there is the judge, implicit as that part of the mind which summons up memory; and finally, there is the compensation for damages, the friend. But nowhere is there mentioned a defendant, the personification of the source of the wrongs suffered by the plaintiff. Who might qualify?
It seems there is but one best choice: Time, or more specifically, the Past. It is the Past that has caused the loss of goals sought, the death of friends had, and the grieving over grievances foregone. Why did Shakespeare not figure the Past or Time as the defendant in this sonnet? Perhaps because the metaphor becomes quite weak here. In this court, because there is the reward of the friend for the damages suffered, the defendant (the Past) can be said to have lost. But of course, the Past suffers no loss at the court’s reward, for the Past, even if it can be called guilty, cannot be punished nor avenged.
The presence of the Past, unavoidably arising from the deep of memory, can only be, Shakespeare writes, tolerated by the substitution of a living friend. But is this not the weakness of the poem I spoke of at the beginning, that the whole of Past regret is saved by one friend? Perhaps if Shakespeare felt that he did not have to heap cloying praise on his sponsor, the poem might have been better and might have said something more general regarding friendship and the present—something to the effect that if the Past can become an enemy, the Present must be made a friend.
Source: Jhan Hochman, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1998.
Bruce Meyer is the director of the creative writing program at the University of Toronto. He has taught at several Canadian universitites and is the author of three collections of poetry. In the following essay, Meyer provides an in-depth analysis of “Sonnet 30,” including a discussion of its place in Shakespeare’s sonnet sequence, its distinct language, and its message about the meaning of friendship.
Of all of the 154 sonnets written by or attributed to William Shakespeare in the collection known simply as The Sonnets (1609), “Sonnet 30” is possibly the one poem that speaks more than the others about the nature of the sonnet form. “Sonnet 30” takes as its chief theme the concept of memory in much the same way that the sonnet form itself is a poetic vehicle for stasis, memory and eternal life. When reading “Sonnet 30,” one is reminded of the closing lines of another famous Shakespeare poem, “Sonnet 18” (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”), which closes with a profound statement on the role that poetry and literature play in making time stand still: “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see / So long lives this and this gives life to thee.” “Sonnet 18,” which declares that poetry and its “eternal still” (as Keats called it) can capture a single moment’s apprehensions, tensions, and desires, is a parallel statement to the message of “Sonnet 30”—that the power of memory contained in a single poem can restore life to the lifeless and beauty and youth to that which has long since turned to grief and dust.
The exact date of composition for “Sonnet 30” is unknown. According to most scholars, it was composed sometime before 1598, which sets it in the same period during which Shakespeare wrote some of his best early plays—Romeo and Juliet, Richard II and The Merchant of Venice. Because they are the works of a younger poet who had not yet achieved the full stride of greatness that would produce such later works as Othello, Hamlet, and King Lear, the sonnets are an impressive, if uneven collection of poems that feature such pinnacles of the sonnet form as “Sonnet 30.” For Shakespeare, the sonnet was an intimate form of writing, if not a non-public piece of work. What is likely is that Shakespeare’s sonnets were well circulated among a select group of writers and friends prior to their publication in 1609. When the sonnets were collected and printed by Thomas Thorpe in 1609, probably without Shakespeare’s consent, they may have been arranged with only a casual eye to matters such as chronology, thematic development, and completeness. The Sonnets as we have them today read as if they are fragments of a much larger poetic work. The gaps of connection between individual poems, the shifts in focus that form several narrative threads within the larger collection, and the strange, almost hurried sense of resolution presented by the final two sonnets (“Sonnet 153” and “Sonnet 154”), have left critics and readers with many unanswered questions. Did Shakespeare write the sonnets with a particular order in mind and is this order reflected in the current system of arrangement? Are the sonnets a complete collection or are we missing important pieces of a much larger puzzle? Are Shakespeare’s sonnets only half of a dialogue, a debate with another poet about the fate and the life of a young man who figures as a key character in the narrative of the overall sequence?
Shakespeare’s sonnets are part of a collection known as a sonnet sequence, much like the works devoted to Astrophel and Stella by Sir Philip Sidney. A sonnet sequence is a gathering of a number of sonnets that, when grouped together, present an examination of a large theme or narrative. In the case of Shakespeare’s sonnets, the sequence of 154 sonnets tells the story of a complex triangular relationship between an older, established poet; a young man who cannot decide whether or not he should marry; and a mysterious dark woman who has tempted and emotionally wronged the older poet. Elusive and inconclusive, the Sonnets still puzzle scholars with the question of the identities of the young man and the dark woman. The dedication at the opening of the sequence, to a “Mr. W. H.” only serves to confound the matter.
What we do know is that the Sonnets, as we have them, appear to tell us a story. Sonnets “1” to “17” are the older poet’s advice to the young man, in which the poet appeals to his junior to marry. Sonnets “18” to “126”—of which “Sonnet 30” is a significant statement—celebrate the life of the young man and the importance of his relationship to the older poet. A major shift in the narrative implications of the Sonnets occurs at “127,” where the emphasis suddenly is placed on the thorny relationship that the older poet has had with a mysterious dark woman. While the earlier sonnets in the sequence deal with persuasion, friendship, memory, time and the fragile fleeting beauty of youth, the latter sonnets mingle passion with loathing, as the older poet, who was the dark woman’s lover, warns his young charge about the “forsworn wife” who wishes to get her claws into the unwary youth. The relationship between the older poet and the young man is further complicated from “79” to “86” when the older poet is temporarily displaced in the younger poet’s favour by a rival. The entire sequence concludes with the final two sonnets, “153” and “154,” the “Cupid” sonnets, which some critics suggest are of doubtful authorship, but which act as a fitting envoi or “sign-off” to the entire sequence. Although it can be argued that these final two sonnets do not fit the narrative that the Sonnets imply, they are the natural conclusion to a typical sonnet sequence. Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella, for example, ends with the exhaustion of love, and its narrator simply washes his hands of the whole matter of love. Shakespeare’s conclusion is that everyone is, in one way or another, a slave to love, whether that love be lust, friendship, or the still-warm embers of a lost love. What matters most, Shakespeare reminds us throughout the sequence, is the value of love that defines friendships, memories, and poems.
“Sonnet 30” encapsulates the very nature of the Sonnets, in which the great battle of the universe is that perpetual struggle not only between life and death but also between mutability and perpetuity. In the mortal combat against time, man’s great weapons are memory and poetry, where poetry is perceived as a vehicle for memory. “Sonnet 30” opens with the memorable lines, “When to the sessions of sweet silent thought / I summon up remembrance of things past,” suggesting that the power of memory is akin to a court, where experiences are tried and weighed and verdicts are pronounced on their value. Shakespeare maintains this legal language throughout the poem and gradually transforms the language of jurisprudence into the language of accounting. In the end, “All loses are restored,” and a balance, not only of experience but of absence against presence, is tipped in favour of friendship and solace. Shakespeare uses words such as “lack,” “precious,” “cancelled,” “expense,” and “grievances,” and phrases such as “sad account,” “new pay,” and “if not paid before” to suggest that beneath the surface of a world that is legalistic—an account in arrears—there is something that cannot be taken away; the solace of black ink in nature’s ledger of debits and credits. But the experience of retaining something of value in the face of time’s ravages is not without its price. With an almost elegiac note of lament, (“Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow, / For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night, / And weep afresh love’s long since cancelled woe,”) the weight of grief caused by the loss of friends and the passage of time causes the persona almost to lose heart. Yet in the end, the recompense of friendship with the object of the persona’s admiration not only balances out the account, but puts it in profit so that “sorrows end.” The account of the world is settled by friendship—the achievement of the Platonic ideal in which friendship, loyalty and asexual love are the only true and lasting foundations for human values. And ideally, the sonnet is the form that best conveys these ideals. As a poetic form the sonnet is associated most often with love and with considerations and reasoning in pursuit of high-minded and often abstract concepts.
The “English” or “Shakespearean” sonnet was an English language hybrid of a form that had developed in Italy and southern France during the late Middle Ages. Rooted in the hymns of praise that were associated with the cult of the Virgin Mary during the eleventh century, the sonnet evolved via the secular songs of the Provencal troubadours into a vehicle for praising the attributes of a woman. The Italian sonnet, more lyrical than its English successor, possessed a rhyme scheme of abbaabba cdccdc which, in Italian, is highly musical with the repeated resonances and vowel end rhymes. In English, however, the repetition of end rhymes is a test of the language even in couplet rhymes. Due to the limitations of language and the diminished possibilities of rhyme in the English language, the Shakespearean sonnet took on a less lyrical pattern of rhyme repetition and resonance. Instead, English sonneteers based their sonic systems on alternating rhymes (which Shakespeare employs in “Sonnet 30”): abab cdcd efef gg. The final
“In the mortal combat against time, man’s great weapons are memory and poetry ….”
“rhyming couplet” is usually applied in the Shakespearean sonnet to the reinforcement of a conclusion as in the solacial lines, “But if the while I think on thee, dear friend, / All loses are restored and sorrows end.” Both the iambic pentameter line and the rhyme scheme combined to make the English sonnet a form in which the emphasis is on a brief but considered topic that is expressed in verse meant to be spoken rather than sung. In this vein, the English sonnet, such as it is in “Sonnet 30,” carries with it a personal quality of intimate communication—an expression of sincere and reasoned thought that is fleeting, short, and bound by a very measured period of time. In short, it is a reflection of a mind at work as it thinks out loud. And what is more, the sonnet as a literate or spoken form rather than a lyrical or sung form implies the concept of confession where the listener is either being addressed directly or is eavesdropping on a soliloquy.
“Sonnet 30” articulate the beauty and justice of friendship as it argues its way to a rational conclusion. What should be remembered about the sonnet form is that it is more rhetorical than lyrical in its structure. The word “sonnet” is derived from a number of sources, chiefly the Italian word sonetto meaning “a little sound or song” or suono meaning “sound.” As a poetic form, the sonnet lives up to its name in that it is a bridge between the lyric and the spoken utterance. Fourteen lines in length and adapted in English into an iambic pentameter line (the line of the spoken rather than the sung phrase), the sonnet does not sing as much as it persuades. In short, it is a “thinking” form of poetry that argues, tests and weighs ideas first and sings about them (either to celebrate or lament) second.
The antecedant to the Shakespearean sonnet, the Italian sonnet, is much less complex rhetorically than its English counterpart. The typical Italian sonnet, such as that written by Petrarch or Dante (see Dante’s wonderful study of the sonnet form, “La Vita Nuovo”) is comprised of two rhetorical sections, the opening eight lines known as the octave and the final six lines called the sestet. The usual format, as Dante explains in “La Vita Nuovo” was for the octave to present a dilemma, a condition, or a problematic experience to which the answer or resolution is to be found in the concluding sestet. The English sonnet, however, is broken down into smaller, more subtle developments of three groups of four lines followed by a concluding and very clear-cut statement in the couplet.
“Sonnet 30,” as an argument opens (lines 1-4) with a discussion of how memory leads the persona to the lamentable discovery that his life has been wasted. Lines 5 to 8 are pure lamentation bordering on elegy in which the persona sheds tears (“drown an eye”) and feels woe for all those people and things that he has lost. In the grief that he feels calls him into account and during the third portion of the poem, lines 9 to 12, he uses a series of “accounting” words to show that his experience is truly in a state of debit. The situation, which is terribly sad up to this point, is suddenly and miraculously reversed by the realization that he has the friendship of the young man to whom the sonnet is addressed. The recollection and friendship of this young man makes the losses disappear and the persona is restored to happiness by the mere power of thought, memory, and presence.
“Sonnet 30” addresses not only to the matter of friendship but the issue of time and what time does to the world. In its statement, it is a reflection of the ironic nature of the sonnet form, for the sonnet (in its short format) is both an acknowledgment of brevity and a vehicle for the stasis of considered reflection and memorialized ideals. The persona of “Sonnet 30” laments the passage of time and the discovery of mutability triggered by the power of memory and the realization of loss. It is the power of memory and the perspective of reasoned thought, however, that allows him to appreciate the beauty of friendship and its value as a peg on which he can hang his hopes that all is not lost in the course of living. The true hero in the world of this poem is the power of the human mind, and “Sonnet 30” celebrates not just mere cerebral acts but the wonder of recall, the power of the imagination, and the consolation of meditation. What is miraculous about “Sonnet 30” is that it thematically treads a fine ironic line between loss and recompense. Time and entropy destroy that which is of this world; yet what is left through the power of consolation, in an almost Boethian sense, is of true and lasting value. The poem shows us the dark side of life, but it also permits us to travel and articulate that fine and often difficult pathway to solace. As a poetic vehicle it acknowledges the ravages of time, yet, by its very nature as a poem, it protects and shields from the grips of loss and endless grief that is most important to us as human beings. It is this fine balance between extremes that makes “Sonnet 30” a remarkable testament to the power of the mind—so much so that the English translator of Marcel Proust’s voluminous and heroic attempt to recapture the “lost time” of an entire lifetime and its epoch in A la recherche du la temps perdu found its English title, Remembrance of Things Past, in the second line of “Sonnet 30.” In this simple, all-too-brief poem, Shakespeare gives us both an examination of time and a consolation for loss.
Source: Bruce Meyer, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1998.
In the following excerpt, Krieger discusses the interplay of both financial and sentimental metaphors in “Sonnet 30” and explains how its incongruous conclusion is “rationalized.”
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“[Shakespeare] treats his various mournings as items to be entered in the account book …, but the things persist in refusing to act accordingly: the woes, grievances, and moans will not permit themselves to be balanced.”
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Source: Murray Krieger, A Window to Criticism: Shakespeare’s Sonnets and Modern Poetics, Princeton University Press, 1964, pp. 178–87.
Booth, Stephen, “Sonnet 30,” in Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Yale University Press, 1977, pp. 181-83.
Fineman, Joel, Shakespeare’s Perjured Eye, University of California Press, 1986.
Hammond, Gerald, The Reader and Shakespeare’s Young Man Sonnets, Barnes and Noble Publishing, 1981, pp. 40-2 and 166-68.
Landry, Hilton, ed., New Essays on Shakespeare’s Sonnets, AMS Press, 1976.
Muir, Kenneth, Shakespeare’s Sonnets, George Allen and Unwin, 1979, pp. 57-8.
Pequigney, Joseph, Such Is My Love, University of Chicago Press, 1985.
Shakespeare, William, The Complete Works of Shakespeare: Revised Edition, edited by Hardin Craig and David Bevington, Scott, Foresman and Company, 1973.
Auden, W. H., introduction to The Sonnets by William Shakespeare, edited by William Burto, New American Library, 1964, pp. xvii-xxxvii.
A wide-ranging discussion touching on several issues related to the sonnets, including style, themes and form.
Muir, Kenneth, Shakespeare’s Sonnets, George Allen & Unwin, 1979.
A concise overview of major issues in criticism of Shakespeare’s sonnets, including style, dates of composition, and publication, sequence and relation to other of Shakespeare’s works.
Smith, Barbara Hernstein, ed., Sonnets, by William Shakespeare, New York University Press, 1969.
This edition offers students a glossed collection of the sonnets, supported by an introduction, commentary and thematic index.
Wilson, John Dover, ed., The Sonnets by William Shakespeare, Cambridge University Press, 1966.
Wilson’s writing is academic but accessible to younger readers, offering extensive introductory material and notes to the collected sonnets.