Shakespeare Sonnet 129: "The expense of spirit in a waste of shame"

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, aka "William Shakespeare"

Source

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 129

Sonnet 129 dramatizes the pit of promiscuity, where copulation engaged in solely out of lust engenders all manner of evil consequences. Exploring the nature of lust, he finds that urge to be an evil that promises "heaven" but delivers "hell."

Sonnet 129: The expense of spirit in a waste of shame

The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjur’d, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust;
Enjoy’d no sooner but despised straight;
Past reason hunted; and no sooner had,
Past reason hated, as a swallow’d bait,
On purpose laid to make the taker mad:
Mad in pursuit, and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof,—and prov’d, a very woe;
Before, a joy propos’d; behind, a dream.
All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

Reading of Sonnet 129

Commentary

First Quatrain: The Evil Nature of Lust

The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjur’d, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust;

In the first quatrain of sonnet 129, the speaker describes the nature of "lust" as "perjur’d, murderous, bloody, full of blame, / Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust." Jesus described Satan as "a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it" (John 8:44).

The speaker in sonnet 129 thus echoes Christ’s description likening "lust" to the devil, or Satan, who tempts human beings, promising happiness but delivering misery and loss. Worse even than "lust" itself, however, is "lust in action," or the sex act, which results in "Post coitum triste omni est"; the Latin phrase translates, "After coitus, everyone experiences gloom."

Second Quatrain: Lust, the Lower Nature

Enjoy’d no sooner but despised straight;
Past reason hunted; and no sooner had,
Past reason hated, as a swallow’d bait,
On purpose laid to make the taker mad:

The speaker then continues his indictment of lust and its concomitant action. No sooner is the act consummated than it is "despised" immediately. Lust rushes the human mind "past reason," causing the aroused individual to hate what he actually knows, that as soon as he lets down his guard, he will be made "mad." By allowing his body to dictate to his mind what he knows intuitively, the person giving in to lust will become "as a swallow’d bait."

The sex urge is a strong one, implanted in the body to ensure continuation of the human species, but when the human being allows himself to engage in that act without the purpose of procreation, he is subjugating his will to the whims of his lower nature that he is supposed to control. The human mind knows through intuition that sex for sex’s sake is an abomination to the soul. Wasting the life energy for sexual gratification alone is tantamount to torturing the soul.

Third Quatrain: Possessed by a Devil

Mad in pursuit, and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof,—and prov’d, a very woe;
Before, a joy propos’d; behind, a dream.

The sex urge when allowed to arouse the body to action causes the individual to become "mad in pursuit" of gratification; he behaves as if possessed by a devil. The body craving sexual congress moves in a frenzied orgy: "Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme / A bliss in proof,—and prov’d, a very woe." The excessive desire that drives the frenzy always results in "a very woe." What seemed to promise "bliss," in actuality, discharges only sorrow and remorse.

Before engaging in the promiscuous act, the one in the throes of sexual desire feels convinced that that desire is "a joy propos’d," but after its completion, the dejected one realizes that that promise was nothing but "a dream."

The Couplet: Knowing Evil, but Failing to Avoid It

All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

The speaker is clearly asserting that the human mind is fully able to understand that the sex urge must be eschewed, except for procreation. He, therefore, insists that the whole world is aware of this fact, yet ironically, the human condition continues to replay itself, and in spite of possessing this sacred knowledge that leads to right behavior, human beings often fall pray to the erroneous promise of "the heaven that leads men to this hell."

Instead of following the advice from the soul and from great spiritual leaders and from great philosophical thinkers who have offered warnings against this depraved act, the weak individual allows him/herself to be lured into this depravity repeatedly.

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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