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Analysis of 'Sonnet 27' by William Shakespeare

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

'Sonnet 27' summary

'Sonnet 27' summary

'Sonnet 27' Analysis

'Sonnet 27' is one of William Shakespeare's more self-reflective poems. It is one of a small group, 27-30, that focus on restless thought, separation and love fatigue. They follow the first 26 sonnets which are all about the growth of love between the speaker and the fair young man.

  • It follows the traditional Shakespearean form - 14 lines made up of three quatrains and a couplet - and its main theme is that of obsession manifesting as restlessness and inability to sleep.
  • Unusually, there is no direct mention of love. There is only the idea that the speaker is totally devoted, day and night, to the fair youth. Inner passion keeps him awake. He can't stop the journey in my head which is something we can all relate to - a universal scenario - yet each of us has our own unique experience of it.
  • This is what makes sonnet 27 so strangely appealing. There is no ambiguity, no metaphorical side-tracks. The language is reasonably straightforward - there is just the one simile, like a jewel alongside symbolic night.

Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets in total (126 to the fair young man, the rest to the dark lady), believed to have been created during the years 1592-93 when theatres throughout London were closed due to the plague disease, giving Shakespeare time to write and distribute them among friends. Possible influences include Sir Philip Sidney's sonnet 89 from Astrophel and Stella.

Shakespeare's sonnets were first published as a collective whole in 1609 by Thomas Thorpe in London, now known as the Quarto publication. The version of sonnet 27 used in this analysis follows faithfully the syntax and line endings as seen in Thomas Thorpe's publication.

'Sonnet 27'

Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed,
The dear repose for limbs with travel tired,
But then begins a journey in my head
To work my mind, when body's work's expired.
For then my thoughts, (from far where I abide)
Intend a zealous pilgrimage to thee,
And keep my drooping eyelids open wide,
Looking on darkness which the blind do see.
Save that my soul's imaginary sight
Presents thy shadow to my sightless view,
Which, like a jewel (hung in ghastly night)
Makes black night beauteous, and her old face new.
Lo thus, by day my limbs, by night my mind,
For thee, and for myself, no quiet find.

Line by Line Analysis

Line 1

The start of this sonnet is crystal clear. Here is the speaker shattered after a hard day's work, wanting to 'hit the sack' as soon as possible to get a good night's sleep.

Note the caesura, the pause, roughly halfway through the line.

Line 2

How he needs to rest. He's been travelling and now his limbs - legs and arms - are desperately seeking dear repose, that's rest seen with affection.

The speaker has been on a journey, perhaps returning from a visit to his beloved (the fair youth). In Shakespeare's time, this could have been quite an ordeal. Roads were poorly kept, there was a danger of being robbed; wheels could break, and horses might lose a shoe, so reaching a tavern or inn probably brought great relief.

Line 3

The physical journey may be over but the speaker has a new one to undertake, an internal journey of the mind. He may be exhausted from his trip but mentally he's restless.

Note the enjambment - the line running on into the next with no punctuation - to reflect the continuous stream of thought.

Line 4

End of the first quatrain. There is an emphasis on the mind which is kept active despite physical fatigue. This line, broken halfway again as in the first (but now separating physical from mental) introduces the idea of duality - that there are psychological repercussions which cannot be dispelled by mere sleep.

The body may be spent, but the mind is still able to work.

Lines 5 and 6

The second quatrain. The speaker is a long way away from his lover but his thoughts intend to journey back. The fact that Shakespeare uses the term zealous pilgrimage is important because it sets into context the depth of feeling the speaker has for the lover.

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This is no ordinary journey. To go on a pilgrimage you need devotion and tenacity and faith. You have to have religious zeal.

Line 7

The speaker cannot sleep because of these thoughts, he cannot close his eyes, they remain open wide, despite their drooping.

Line 8

The end of the second quatrain. Here we have a tired traveller kept awake by thoughts of his lover. He's looking into the dark, he's like a blind person who can only 'see' darkness.

Lines 9 and 10

Further to this, his imagination is working overtime. The phrase Save that means except that, so the speaker is saying that his soul can see and what he sees is a shadow, the shadow of the lover.

Ironically the speaker is in reality sightless (because of the dark) yet his imagination is able to deliver this shadow to him.

Line 11

That shadow is like a jewel shining through the dark, which is suspended and helps rid the ghastly night of its dark presence, the night often being a symbol of evil and sinister happenings.

Line 12

The most involved line of the sonnet, metrically and thematically, suggests that despite all the weariness and restlessness, the image of the lover (the fair youth) brings beauty to the night and transforms the old into the new.

So the speaker's imagination brings some relief - perhaps the speaker is reconciled to the fact that his obsession might prevent him from sleeping but at least he gets to 'see' his lover and that is transforming.

Lines 13 and 14

So it is that during the day the speaker physically finds no rest, and at night mentally likewise...Lo thus means 'so it turns out' ...because he's totally wrapped up in his lover. He may want peace and tranquillity in his life but there's not a chance for him due to the intense love between the two. It's a 24/7 relationship.

What Is the Metre?

Let's take an in-depth look at the metre (meter in American English) of each line. Many 'authorities' online will tell you that oh yes of course it's a Shakespearean sonnet so it has to be iambic pentameter all the way through....alas, not true.

Some lines differ from the pure iambic foot (with its daDUM daDUM beat) that is, the first syllable unstressed, the second one stressed, bringing a familiar rising rhythm. Stressed syllables are in bold type:

Weary / with toil, / I haste / me to / my bed,
The dear / repose / for limbs / with trav / el tired;
But then / begins / a jour / ney in / my head,
To work / my mind, / when bo / dy's work's / expired:
For then / my thoughts / (from far / where I / abide)
Intend / a zeal / ous pil / grimage / to thee,
And keep / my droo / ping eye / lids o / pen wide,
Looking / on dark / ness which / the blind / do see:
Save that / my soul's / imag / inar / y sight
Presents / thy sha / dow to / my sight / less view,
Which, like / a jew / el (hung / in ghast / ly night,)
Makes black / night beau / teous / and her old / face new.
Lo, thus, / by day / my limbs, / by night / my mind,
For thee, / and for / myself, / no qui / et find.

So out of 14 lines a total of 8 are pure iambic pentameter - 2,3,4,5,7,10,13,14. For example, line 10:

  • Presents / thy sha / dow to / my sight / less view,

Here we have 10 syllables split into five iambic feet, classic iambic pentameter. No punctuation to upset the rhythm.

But when we look at lines 1, 8 and 11 we note that the first foot is a trochee, an inverted iamb. This places emphasis on the first syllable, slightly altering the iambic rhythm.

And line 9 has an opening trochee plus a pyrrhic in imaginary - where the last two syllables are unstressed - with the voice slightly dropping off.

A similar situation occurs in line 6 with the word pilgrimage, again a 3-syllable word.

The stand-out line metrically is line twelve:

  • Makes black / night beau / teous / and her old / face new.

The first foot is iambic (daDUM), the second foot spondaic, it's a spondee, with double stress. The third foot is a quiet pyrrhic, whilst the fourth foot is an anapaest (dadaDUM) running into the fifth foot, another spondee.

This metric change does make a huge difference to the way the line is read. Extra significance is given to those words which should be pronounced with a bit more weight as the line rises at the end. Technically this line is a spondaic pentameter due to the extra stresses.

Shakespeare, writing in Elizabethan times, would have been acutely aware of metrical changes in his sonnets.

'Sonnet 27' and the Language of 'Sonnet 61' (Lines 1 - 4)

'Is it thy will, thy image should keep open
My heavy eyelids to the weary night?
Dost thou desire my slumbers should be broken,
While shadows like to thee do mock my sight?'

'Sonnet 61' continues the theme of sleeplessness but adds a whole lot more to the plot: the speaker's jealousy is confirmed. He cannot sleep for thinking about what the beloved youth is up to, with others all too near.


© 2019 Andrew Spacey

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