The Rape of Lucrece
Contorted, inward looking, self-loathing, guilty, exhilarating and utterly brilliant, this is perhaps the most famous attempt to convey the feeling of lust in any English poem. Sonnet 129 (like Sonnet 116 two days ago) is not addressed to anyone. Instead, it’s more like a dramatic monologue or essay in miniature. It’s packed with insight and bursting at the seams with energy. When you read it aloud, it makes you feel breathless and gives you the impression of what it is to hunt and to feel hunted. Past, present, and future are all gathered into line 10 – ‘Had, having, and in quest to have’ – and all are overtaken by the lustful drive of the poetic voice (until line 12, when the full-stop should arrest us). Sonnet 129 provides a good example of how there can be a pause for as long as the reader dares between the end of line 12 (when here the lust finally satisfies itself) and the beginning of the rhyming couplet. And then that inevitable, rhyming ‘hell’ at the end of it all.
Th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjured, murd’rous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,
Enjoyed no sooner but despised straight,
Past reason hunted, and no sooner had,
Past reason hated as a swallowed bait,
On purpose laid to make the taker mad;
Mad in pursuit and in possession so,
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind a dream.
All this the world well knows, yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.
Click on the post below to hear Sonnet 129 read by my colleague Chris Harvey.
You might like to visit a similar Shakespeare for Advent project led by students at the University of Tubingen by clicking here.