I often joke that it’s far better to read three sonnets slowly – and perhaps even over the course of an entire morning, afternoon or evening – than to gallop through scores of them at a time. After a while sonnets merge into sonnets and it becomes almost impossible for a reader’s memory to distinguish between them. So, the other week I selected Sonnet 29 to look at with a group of international teachers. It felt like I was taking a bit of a plunge in deciding that a single sonnet would easily feed a full hour of discussion (often I have worked on two sonnets and divided among the group). In the end, I needn’t have worried. In fact, an hour wasn’t long enough.
We began by reading the sonnet silently:
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’.
We then read it in a whisper, audible only to ourselves, and then aloud, together. A good way of reflecting on the primary meaning of a Shakespeare sonnet is to let one’s eyes hover gently over each line of text and see which words and short phrases emerge as important: ‘disgrace’, ‘fortune’, and ‘men’s eyes’ from line one, for example. So intense is this verse form that every single line is packed with thought and feeling. Then one can let the music of the sonnet begin to emerge: ‘I all alone’ opens the mouth like a poetic scream at the beginning of one of Shakespeare’s most lonely lines. ‘Haply’ sounds like ‘happily’ and suggests both ‘by chance’ and ‘with pleasure’. ‘Eyes’ rhymes with ‘cries’, suggesting that multiple senses are exposed as vulnerable nerves coincide with line-endings. Next, seek the ‘volta’, or turning point of the argument, which in Sonnet 29 occurs at line nine, ‘Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising.’ And then the thought and feeling ascend with the lark ‘at break of day’, soaring straight upwards to the sky, an erotic and natural arising of the spirit to ‘heaven’s gate’, where the ‘lark’ ‘sings hymns’. The singing is made musical by the internal rhyme of those two words, which also slow us down momentarily at the entrance of heaven. ‘Hymns’, someone suggested, also evokes the sound of ‘him’ and ‘hims’, suggesting that it might be more than one male addressee being celebrated here (the imagined addressee could otherwise be male or female).
The group wondered if the sonnet articulates a repeated experience, or whether it’s best read as a one-off moment which the reader is being invited to share. Both possibilities are valid. We were fascinated, too, by the repetition of ‘state’ and how its meaning develops and changes as something material, emotional, and political alongside the change of state of the imagined speaker.
And all this in a single sentence!
As a friend of mine once observed, ‘if you think you have exhausted a sonnet by Shakespeare, it’s you yourself who are exhausted.’
To purchase one of the many editions of the Sonnets or OUP’s Shakespeare’s Sonnets, by Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells, click here. The books are also available in the Bookshop!