Sonnets for Advent 20: Sonnet 129

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The Rape of Lucrece

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.

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Author:Paul Edmondson

Head of Research and Knowledge and Director of the Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival for The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Follow Paul on Twitter @paul_edmondson
  • Andrea Campana

    Sonnet 129 draws heavily from Robert Southwell’s “Lew’d Love is Losse.” In his metaphorical, ornamental, and conceitist style, Southwell says sparks yield to the fire as beams yield to the sun, and so it is with the actions of men: all must direct their activities upward to God, and God in turn will bestow his grace on men. The first line of Shakespeare’s poem is written from the vantage point of religion and implies that lust is the expenditure of human spirit on ignoble or degrading activity. An expense of spirit is not only shameful but wasteful, because such spirit could have been spent on something of greater worth. The Jesuit writes, “Misdeeming eye that stoopeth to the lure/Of mortal worths not worth so worthy love.” In opposition to the virtuous life, Southwell’s poem depicts the downward movement of false desires; a hawk stoops to false lures, while a fly falls with burned wings. In Sonnet 129, Shakespeare echoes the upward-downward movement, using a chiasmus in line two that imitates the action of lust. The chiasmus–”Is lust in action, and till action, lust”–demonstrates that the contemplation of lust is the same wasteful expense as the act itself, and the buildup to lust, resulting in consummation, mirrors its downward plummet into shame, a type of upside down V movement that mimics Southwell’s thoughts. Southwell writes, “The fairest flowers have not the sweetest smell/A seeminge heaven proves oft a damning hell,” while Shakespeare writes, “All this the world well knows yet none knows well/To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.” Southwell writes, “With beauty’s bait in shining shroud may swallow fatal hook,” while Shakespeare writes, “Past reason hated as a swallowed bait.” Both poems describe the notion of a trap purposefully laid by the tempter. Even the notion of heaven originates with Southwell, who writes of “bliss.”

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