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Shakespeare Sonnet 120

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 120

Sonnet 120 again finds the poet/speaker conversing with his muse. The reader has observed the various stances the speaker has taken over the course of the sonnet sequence, from blaming the muse for his own flaws to accepting the blame himself, and even sharing the blame.

No matter what the grievance, the speaker remains capable of creating a proper drama from it. His courageous and constant confidence in his own talent for creativity allows him the space to fling his creations forward in a brave way.

Sonnet 120

That you were once unkind befriends me now,
And for that sorrow, which I then did feel,
Needs must I under my transgression bow,
Unless my nerves were brass or hammer'd steel.
For if you were by my unkindness shaken,
As I by yours, you've passed a hell of time;
And I, a tyrant, have no leisure taken
To weigh how once I suffered in your crime.
O! that our night of woe might have remembered
My deepest sense, how hard true sorrow hits,
And soon to you, as you to me, then tendered
The humble salve, which wounded bosoms fits!
But that your trespass now becomes a fee;
Mine ransoms yours, and yours must ransom me.

Please note: For a brief introduction to this 154-sonnet sequence, please visit "Overview of the Shakespeare Sonnet Sequence."

Reading of Sonnet 120

Commentary

The speaker is once again confronting his muse for treating him poorly, but he has discovered a method for employing that mistreatment for his better good, as he virtually always does.

First Quatrain: Advantages of Unkindness

That you were once unkind befriends me now,
And for that sorrow, which I then did feel,
Needs must I under my transgression bow,
Unless my nerves were brass or hammer'd steel.

The speaker advises his muse that the earlier grievance perpetrated by her now has resulted in their friendship becoming even deeper, and because of this deep attachment, he is now able to perceive an advantage to that earlier unkindness. He confesses that he endured all that pain as a result of the muse’s mistreatment of him, and yet he can aver that despite his own offences, which he was required to acknowledge, the fact remains that it is quite natural for him to suffer; after all he is a human being, not a being made of steel. Being only human, he possesses normal physical organs that mental anguish may brunt.

By clearly stating his awareness of the trial and tribulations that an incarnated human being must suffer, the speaker demonstrates the profound nature of his learning and his searching for answers that confront each human psyche. With such correct understanding, he is laying the foundation for better behavior, even proper behavior in the future.

Second Quatrain: Empathy for the Muse

For if you were by my unkindness shaken,
As I by yours, you've passed a hell of time;
And I, a tyrant, have no leisure taken
To weigh how once I suffered in your crime.

The speaker then offers a conjecture regarding the reciprocal suffering of the muse. He suspects that if she felt as much sorrow as he did, then he knows by comparison that she also suffered extremely during the calamitous period of time. His own suffering allows him to empathize with the suffering of his muse.

Remembering that the muse and the speaker are in reality the same, the reader understands that the speaker again is dramatizing his situation as if he were a split personality. He must make this split in order to take a separate stance from the muse and thus be able to portray his feelings.

The speaker then reports that he has never backed down from complaining about any ill-treatment he has undergone at the hands of the sometimes too quiet muse. He feels no guilt in labeling those down times her offences. He feels the crime of omission is as sure as the crime of commission. He wants his muse to know that he is aware of their closeness as well as the fact that his ability to split them when needed remains a vital part of making creative art.

Third Quatrain: Long Night of Sorrow

O! that our night of woe might have remembered
My deepest sense, how hard true sorrow hits,
And soon to you, as you to me, then tendered
The humble salve, which wounded bosoms fits!

The speaker then offers a full-throated exclamation: he hopes that that night of pain and sorrow at feeling abandoned will remain with him, that he will continue to feel it in his deepest heart. And as he recalls how painful the abandonment felt to him, he realizes that she must also have suffered from the separation. He makes it clear that he knows that the painful night not only belongs to him but also to his muse.

Thus, the speaker again empathizes with his muse, knowing that the sorrow is mutually shared. But he then suggests that they both finally partake curative medicine that soothes and remedies the pain for both parties. The speaker reveals that his concerns for his soul aware remain threefold: for himself, for his muse, and for their relationship.

The Couplet: Free-Flowing Forgiveness

But that your trespass now becomes a fee;
Mine ransoms yours, and yours must ransom me.

The speaker then reminds the muse that her transgression has allowed him the freedom to transgress against her. But mutual heartache is not the better path, so he refashions the agreement to forgiveness flowing both ways: his error he will ransom for her error, and she will do the same for him.

The speaker thus concludes that both parties will thus be assuaged. The freedom that the speaker takes for himself is the same freedom that the muse possesses. Inspiration must flow both ways so that each party continually feeds the other. They may both continue the free flow of inspiration that keeps them ever moving on their path for achieving creative endeavors.

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© 2019 Linda Sue Grimes

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