Shakespeare Sonnet 128: "How oft when thou, my music, music play’st"

Updated on January 30, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

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

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

The real "Shakespeare"
The real "Shakespeare" | Source

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 128

In sonnet 128, the speaker creates a little drama, featuring his beloved lady friend playing a harpsichord. As he watches, he feigns jealousy of the keys across which the mistress' fingers press and glide as she performs her music.

Sonnet 128 : How oft when thou, my music, music play’st

How oft when thou, my music, music play’st
Upon that blessed wood whose motion sounds
With thy sweet fingers, when thou gently sway’st
The wiry concord that mine ear confounds,
Do I envy those jacks that nimble leap
To kiss the tender inward of thy hand,
Whilst my poor lips, which should that harvest reap,
At the wood’s boldness by thee blushing stand!
To be so tickl’d, they would change their state
And situation with those dancing chips,
O’er whom thy fingers walk with gentle gait,
Making dead wood more bless’d than living lips.
Since saucy jacks so happy are in this,
Give them thy fingers, me thy lips to kiss.

Reading of Sonnet 128

Commentary

First Quatrain: Watching the Woman Play a Harpsichord

How oft when thou, my music, music play’st
Upon that blessed wood whose motion sounds
With thy sweet fingers, when thou gently sway’st
The wiry concord that mine ear confounds,

The speaker claims that it is quite often that when he hears and watches the woman play music for him, he notices how her "sweet fingers" move and how she "gently sway[s]." The first quatrain does not complete his statement, but it nevertheless supplies the details that the lady is playing "upon that blessed wood," and that her music results in "concord that [the speaker’s] ear confounds."

The speaker sets up the claim with just enough detail to allow his reader/listener to observe only a snippet of the event. By beginning his sentence, "How oft when thou, my music, music play’st," the speaker creates ambiguity: this construction could be a question or it could an exclamation.

Second Quatrain: A Joyful Exclamation!

Do I envy those jacks that nimble leap
To kiss the tender inward of thy hand,
Whilst my poor lips, which should that harvest reap,
At the wood’s boldness by thee blushing stand!

The second quatrain completes the thought begun in the first quatrain, and the reader/listener learns that the statement is indeed an exclamation: "how oft . . . do I envy!" The speaker is, in fact, dramatizing his envy of the wooden keys of the instrument, probably a harpsichord, upon which his lady friend is playing.

He claims that he envies "those jacks" because they "nimble leap / To kiss the tender inward of [her] hand." While he stands helpless, imagining that his lips should be enjoying that opportunity, instead of the pieces of inert wood.

Third Quatrain: A Strange and Comical Exchange

To be so tickl’d, they would change their state
And situation with those dancing chips,
O’er whom thy fingers walk with gentle gait,
Making dead wood more bless’d than living lips.

The speaker then comically creates the image of his lips changing place with the keys on the keyboard. Her fingers are gently pressing those keys, and he would prefer her fingers be playing over his lips. He offers the melodramatic notion that her fingers playing over those "dancing chips" or keys is "Making dead wood more bless’d than living lips."

The Couplet: Clever Conclusion

Since saucy jacks so happy are in this,
Give them thy fingers, me thy lips to kiss.

The speaker then offers the clever conclusion that is it fine for those "saucy jacks" to be "so happy" that his lady is moving her fingers over them, and thus the speaker will accept their happiness, and he tells his lady directly that she can give her fingers to the keyboard, but she should give the speaker her " lips to kiss."

A Brief Overview of the 154-Sonnet Sequence

Marriage Sonnets 1-17

The speaker in the Shakespeare “Marriage Sonnets” pursues a single goal: to persuade a young man to marry and produce beautiful offspring. It is likely that the young man is Henry Wriothesley, the third earl of Southampton, who is being urged to marry Elizabeth de Vere, the oldest daughter of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.

Many scholars and critics now argue persuasively that Edward de Vere is the writer of the works attributed to the nom de plume, "William Shakespeare."

For more information regarding Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, as the real writer of the Shakespearean canon, please visit The De Vere Society, an organization that is "dedicated to the proposition that the works of Shakespeare were written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford."

Muse Sonnets 18-126 (Erroneously "Fair Youth")

The speaker in this section of sonnets is exploring his talent, his dedication to his art, and his own soul power. In some sonnets, the speaker addresses his muse, in others he addresses himself, and in others he even addresses the poem itself.

Even though many scholars and critics have traditionally categorized this group of sonnets as the "Fair Youth Sonnets," there is no "fair youth," that is "young man," in these sonnets. There is no person at all in this sequence, with exception of the two problematic sonnets, 108 and 126.

Dark Lady Sonnets 127-154

The final sequence targets an adulterous romance with a woman of questionable character; the term “dark” likely modifies the woman’s character flaws, not her skin tone.

Two Problematic Sonnets: 108 and 126

Sonnet 108 and 126 present a problem in categorization. While most of the sonnets in the "Muse Sonnets" do focus on the poet's musings about his writing talent and do not focus on a human being, sonnets 108 and 126 are speaking to a young man, respectively calling him "sweet boy" and "lovely boy."

Sonnet 126 presents an additional problem: it is not technically a "sonnet," because it features six couplets, instead of the traditional three quatrains and a couplet.

The themes of sonnets 108 and 126 would better categorize with the "Marriage Sonnets" because they do address a "young man." It is likely that sonnets 108 and 126 are at least partially responsible for the erroneous labeling of the "Muse Sonnets" as the "Fair Youth Sonnets" along with the claim that those sonnets address a young man.

While most scholars and critics tend to categorize the sonnets into the three-themed schema, others combine the "Marriage Sonnets" and the "Fair Youth Sonnets" into one group of "Young Man Sonnets." This categorization strategy would be accurate if the "Muse Sonnets" actually addressed a young man, as only the "Marriage Sonnets" do.

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