What is Love?
The classical Greeks, in their time, qualified love into four and more distinct categories: agape, eros, philia, and storge. Translated, and in order, the first means love of God; romantic love of a lover; love of friend; parental love. During the initial 126 Sonnets, Shakespeare sings in verse for a young fellow man. While Sonnet 29 partakes of the male-youth series, I would like to challenge you to consider which Greek love Shakespeare is calling on among the four. And notwithstanding, let us begin where we previously departed upon the eighth line of Sonnet 29 of William Shakespeare.
(For the purposes of our analysis, you may be interested in a full text of Sonnet 29. The script at Sparknotes is handy dandy, providing the archaic Elizabethan version alongside a modern English rendition.
If you are instead interested in the structure and formulaic elements of the Shakespearean sonnet or poems generically. With that said, please enjoy the words of Shakespeare as he also considers love.
With what I most enjoy contented least;
You may well know that in a Shakespearean sonnet, the poet has a mere ten syllables to form a line with. Each sound and word must be of significant import and contribute to the theme or narrative of the sonnet. In line eight, there is no exception as the speaker culminates what prior expressed self-abasement into a single succinct phrase. That, despite any, all, and what material acquisition, the speaker is lost in woe, great woe, and tragedy. Former lines mention envy and more, a deep admiration of others—friends, talent, security—challenges the status quo and the already-acceptable accommodations the speaker maintains (“With what I most enjoy”). A poignant keener insight reads that the speaker, loving and greatest enjoying poetry, is no longer even “contented” with its prospects. One comes to grasp the experience of utter doom when poetry itself, Shakespeare posits, is removed of its joy and refuge into death: only accentuated through the speaker’s willingness to create Sonnet 29 regardless.
Yet in these thoughts, myself almost despising,
Line nine issues a sudden—quite abrupt—change of tone and pace indicated under “Yet”. The most fascinating word in this line is “thoughts” since, to our perspective, they are not “thoughts”. They are words and sentences, verses or lines, and then two revelations are discovered: we, the audience, are inside the speaker’s head the entirety of time, scrutinizing thoughts, and something of Shakespeare is as well revealed. Poetry, to him, would appear to be a method of communication and congregation—within our minds—of each other’s different and strange worlds. In other words, a meeting of thoughts merging cohesively together for a true rebirth or affirmation of opinion. In the latter part of the line, the final word “despising” is powerful, a seeming term for suicide. To “almost” despise is to stay the speaker’s hand but to completely despise—then it is not far-fetched to value suicide in the face of consummate self-hate. Although the speaker nearly despises self, something “[y]et” motivates onward and truly gives purpose.
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
The speaker’s lover is finally introduced in Line 10. It is here the repetition of “thought[s]” from the earlier ninth line is superseded with the present form: “think” (haply means fortuitously or luckily). As Shakespeare in line nine upholds, thoughts constitute poetry’s formation; thence, the tenth line possesses an alternative read, that is, “Haply I write [on thee]” or “Haply I sing sonnets about thee.” The speaker follows up with “and then my state”, recalling far back to the second line where “my outcast state” was distinctive. However, this latter portion of line ten indicates an upcoming alteration: “then” conceives perhaps a shift in time whereas “[h]aply” thinking “on thee” promotes the sense of revival and renewal during this time. Concisely, line ten may be summarized in the speaker's writing for the lover, and when the speaker does, a profound wave washes over and begins to amend the “outcast state”. Whenever I write poems for you, I encounter joy and all worldly covet removed
Like to the lark at break of day arising
Line eleven operates entirely with similes, comparing the speaker’s new revival or resurrection state to a lark (Old World songbird) singing on the dawning day. A lark typically symbolizes the morning, the sunrise, a device pioneered by Shakespeare also in Romeo and Juliet: “It was the lark, the herald of the morn…” (III.v.6). In the play, the lark assisted Romeo’s leave from Juliet and his escape from Verona; in clear contrast to the revivalist spirit of Sonnet 29. The definite article preceding lark showers an image of some magnificence, declaring it was the lark, not a lark, that breaks the day into light. The final word “arising” proves an insistence on the speaker’s awakening and restoration; the concept stems from line ten’s joy of writing poems on love and “on thee”. And “arising” must have the lark, enormously likened to the speaker, arising from someplace where the break of day never shines, or the night. The speaker arises “[l]ike to the lark” at daybreak from the dark oppressive night and evening—a metaphor for despair.
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate.
In poetry, a particular principle takes root in the twelfth line of Sonnet 29: enjambment. The eleventh line was incomplete, although seemingly concluded, by the starting word “From” in this line twelve, which intends an extension of the eleventh. From the previous line to the posterior twelfth line, enjambment essentially comprises the continuation of "thought"—as Shakespeare discloses—between two lines, with the first line bearing a cliffhanger-esque last word (“arising” in line eleven). Instead of the direct analogy of night implied before, the phrase “sullen earth” is drawn, a kind symbol for death and the grave through the bleak adjective “sullen”. Emphasis is again on the resurrection strength of the speaker from the world, to now even farther, to high heaven itself. The speaker has traversed death into a sublime region few may envision; nevertheless, a romantic artifice is devised, resounding alive at the statement “heaven’s gate”. The gate is not opened nor entered, suggesting the speaker wishes to remain in the world than divine heaven despite “my outcast state”, “curs[ing] my fate”, and “in disgrace”. For whom? For one dear and beloved later seen.
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
The penultimate line of Sonnet 29 signifies at length the blatant admission of love for the speaker’s lover, and it is no more evident in the first several rousing words. Immediately “For” denotes a structural composition following the pattern of a situation-cause clause or the circumstances-because pattern—albeit Shakespeare inverses the order and displaces the cause or because to the beginning, as the speaker remembers love which engenders something revealed in the fourteenth line. On the other hand, the thirteenth line solidifies the more reflective, abstract premise of the twelfth, centering on the word “remembered”. The origin of the speaker to delay entry into heaven is herein defined: since your “sweet love” was “remembered” I judge not the pleasures of heaven above the pleasures of you. When I die of grief or despair or total torment, I do not die and do not intrude in heaven. Rather, “[l]ike to the lark...arising”, I remember and I am rejuvenated to behold again your “sweet love”. Not death do us ever part.
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
Shakespeare’s ultimate line in his Sonnet 29 proceeds forth from the patterned thirteenth line. Shakespearean sonnets always resolve in the final two rhyming lines, known together as rhyming couplets. The end rhyme of the formerly “brings” shall align with “kings” in this line, a grand close to the enormous efforts of any poet to rhyme and meter-ize a Shakespearean sonnet. Although “That” as the first word does not account for much, it does achieve the meter requirement of an unaccented syllable. The second word, “then”, satisfies the situation-cause clause in the thirteenth line and celebrates the expectation of the mind in fulfillment of it. One critical element in the fourteenth is the speaker's discovery: the finding of a greater and stronger resurrected person than the world, friends, art, and kings. An etymology dictionary places the verb “scorn” as derived from the French escarn of mockery and contempt1. What the speaker once pleaded for, was “in disgrace” for, “[w]ishing” and “[d]esiring” for—even “to change” earthly stations “with kings”—is not any more relevant and mocked. The speaker remembers the lover’s love and emerges instead glorious.
How did the speaker originally arrive under such a restoration? The tenth line bears the answer: “I think on thee” and I write a sonnet for thee and I immemorial. Yours is the sweeter love than heaven, and I arise “like to the lark” to witness true human splendor. What song!
© 2016 Michael Ni