Yorkshire Times
Weekend Edition
Steve Whitaker
Literary Editor
3:01 AM 21st May 2022

Poem Of The Week: 'Sonnet 29' By William Shakespeare

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,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
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 remembered such wealth brings,
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

William Shakespeare. Image by WikiImages from Pixabay
William Shakespeare. Image by WikiImages from Pixabay
Popularly supposed to have been directed at a young man, Shakespeare’s sonnet, written in the 1590s but first published in 1609, extols the power of love to transfigure a sense of isolation and self-laceration into renewed purpose. Constructed in exquisitely paced iambics, and using the formal devices of synecdoche, sibilance and alliteration to seamless effect, the final quatrain and couplet of Sonnet 29 consume the resolute anxiety of the first eight lines in consolatory reflection.

And those eight lines are beautifully worked: steering himself away from the abjection of self-pity into pragmatic introspection, the narrator finds folly in misplaced hope. The simple reiteration of ‘like him’ in line six creates a pregnant hiatus before the futility of ambition is revealed, and ‘Desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope’ is invested with an awareness conferred by hindsight.

In the end, any tendency to bemoan his fate dissolves as he holds an impression of the loved object firmly in view. Why, the narrator asks in a resounding final couplet, would I exchange places with the rich when ‘sweet love’ recalled confers an infinitely greater wealth.