William Shakespeare – Sonnet 29 (Summary)

Sonnet 29 : When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,

Sonnet 29 by Shakespeare

When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heav’n with my bootless cries,
And look upon my self, 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 my self 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.


Summary of Sonnet 29 :

The sonnet begins with a great opening opposition of two models of “reality” which are summoned by the speaker in order to define his own position: the hierarchical social world and the imitatively hierarchical world of nature. (In the couplet a third model will unite nature and society.) A scheme deduced from items in the octave could begin as follows:

The drama of the poem occurs in the speaker’s moving himself out of the first (social) world and into the second (natural) one. The puzzle of the poem is solved in the couplet by how he manages to pull himself up. But he not only moves into and up through the second world (nature) he also relates the two models to each other by casting retrospective glances back at the social world. The poem consequently ends with an integrated model of the “whole” world, one which reveals itself as a third model by using the word state to place the speaker’s relation to the rest of the world:

The enjambment of the lark arising / From sullen earth has of course been noticed, as has the opposition of the receptive heaven’s gate to unresponsive deaf heaven, and that of sings to bootless cries. But how are we to account for the Haply I think on thee, on which the whole transformation turns? By means of that thought, the man who once wished to exchange his state with almost anyone (like to one . . . / like him, like him) now scorns to exchange even with kings. How did the fulcrum thought arise?

As so often in Shakespeare, the analytic moment in the sonnet becomes the fulcrum of change (here, line 8). The active narrative in the habitual present tense (I . . . beweep, [I] trouble, [I] look . . . and curse, wishing, desiring) yields to a stunning moment of self-analysis : With what I most enjoy contented least. The ostentatious chiastic paradox—most enjoy contented least—by foregrounding the two thematic verbals enjoy and contented, and the two adverbial brackets most and least—forces us to recognize that this speaker has implicitly done an inner inventory, a triple list: [what I enjoy; what I more enjoy; what I most enjoy] .

He has remained bad-tempered through all his lists of good things. It is inconceivable that the speaker’s good things should not end up in the possession of the beloved— and so the haply is not so unexpected as it might first seem. Discontent with [what I enjoy] has mounted to even less content with [what I more enjoy], and has arrived at being least content with [what I most enjoy]. But this paradoxical sullenness is broken into by the implied next item on the list: the super-superlative [what I most most enjoy]— the beloved.

It is probably not accidental that one of the envious wishes had been to be possessed of friends, like someone else. The self-pity of the opening is based on genuine misfortune; the speaker is outcast, in disgrace not only vertically with Fortuna but also horizontally with men’s eyes, the social world. The speaker may be more ill-featured than some men, may lack the art or scope or hope of others, but it is hard to believe that he is utterly destitute. In fact, as he realizes in his self analytic moment, he is not destitute—he does have things he enjoys; it is just that at this moment he is vexed enough to refuse any enjoyment at all. As he integrates the world of kings with the world of nature, locates his superlative friend, and, as a lark, finds a listening heaven, the poet rediscovers an integrated mental state.

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