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

The Shakespeare sonnets play an essential rôle in my poetry world. Those 154 classic sonnets masterfully dramatize truth, beauty, and love.

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 129: "The expense of spirit in a waste of shame"

The speaker in sonnet 129 from the classic Shakespeare 154-sonnet sequence is confronting the issue of promiscuity, specifically how 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

Sonnet 129 is dramatizing the degradation caused by promiscuity. The speaker reveals that all manner of evil consequences result after copulation is engaged in solely out of lust.

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

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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.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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