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Shakespeare Sonnet 28: "How can I then return in happy plight"

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

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford - the real "Shakespeare"

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford - the real "Shakespeare"

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 28: "How can I then return in happy plight"

In sonnet 28 from the thematic group, "The Muse Sonnets," in the classic Shakespeare 154-sonnet sequence, the speaker is now addressing his muse. He is becoming tired and weary, and his creativity appears to have stagnated: he is suffering from writer’s block. The speaker then complains that both day and night some strange force seems to be engaged in preventing him from producing his belovèd sonnet.

Because the speaker takes his duties and responsibilities very seriously, especially those duties related to his writing talent, he now seeks answers from the muse, who seems to be allowing his writing to remain blocked—a situation against which this speaker will continue to remonstrate as he progresses through this sequence.

Sonnet 28: "How can I then return in happy plight"

How can I then return in happy plight
That am debarr’d the benefit of rest?
When day’s oppression is not eas’d by night,
But day by night, and night by day oppress’d,
And each, though enemies to either’s reign,
Do in consent shake hands to torture me,
The one by toil, the other to complain
How far I toil, still further off from thee.
I tell the day, to please him thou art bright
And dost him grace when clouds do blot the heaven:
So flatter I the swart-complexion’d night;
When sparkling stars twire not thou gild’st the even.
But day doth daily draw my sorrows longer,
And night doth nightly make grief’s strength seem stronger.

Reading of Sonnet 28

Commentary

As the speaker continues to suffer the writer’s malady known as "writer’s block," he complains and bemoans his temporary impediment both day and night as it seems all the world is conspiring against him to keep him from fulfilling his beloved writing duties.

First Quatrain: Questioning His Muse

How can I then return in happy plight
That am debarr’d the benefit of rest?
When day’s oppression is not eas’d by night,
But day by night, and night by day oppress’d

In the first quatrain, the speaker questions his muse, wondering how he can ever be happy again. He cannot refresh himself, because he cannot sleep. His belovèd muse seems to have abandoned him. During the day, he is oppressed, and then during the night he still remains oppressed. He is unable to write during the day, and then at night he worries about not being able to write. This speaker usually remains so confident in his abilities, but as all creative individuals do, he is suffering a period of dryness.

Nothing seems to work to call forth joy and creativity from his heart and mind. He will not settle for writing trivialities. And this dedicated speaker/poet knows well that he could still pound out drivel, but he remains dedicated to revealing only the best in his heart and mind, and he knows his little dramas must always demonstrate the high quality of art that he demands from himself.

Second Quatrain: Keeping Separate Kingdoms

And each, though enemies to either’s reign,
Do in consent shake hands to torture me,
The one by toil, the other to complain
How far I toil, still further off from thee.

Day and night keep separate kingdoms and seem to have little to do with each other, but now during the writer’s time of dryness and emptiness, it seems that day and night both conspire to keep him in a state of "torture." The speaker toils by day—tries his best to overcome his block, and then by night he also toils by complaining how much he toiled during the day; yet all of this toiling does not bring the speaker closer to enjoying and fulfilling his belovèd accomplishments, his talent, and his creation of poetry. He remains, "still further off from thee."

Notice that the speaker uses the term "further" rather than "farther." The speaker employs the term "further" to indicate that he is not referring to distance in physical miles. Such a word choice is one of the many indicators that this thematic group of "muse sonnets" does not contain any references to people, let alone a "fair youth." "Farther" would indicate distance from a person, but "further" indicates a distance only in the speaker’s mind/heart/soul

The speaker is not traveling on a journey which is separating him from another person. He is merely cut off temporarily from his God-given talent, represented by his muse, by writer’s block. It seems that both night and day are conspiring to keep him weary and block his creative juices from flowing: each succeeding day adds an additional or "further" veil of separation from his adored duty to write his sonnets.

Readers will be quick to notice that even when this speaker is complaining about something as mundane as writer’s block, he is still creating high quality little dramas. His masterful command of language and skill in creating scenarios remains in tact even as he wends his way through periods of dryness. He does, in fact, make lemonade from the lemons that he is often handed.

Third Quatrain: Coaxing Daylight

I tell the day, to please him thou art bright
And dost him grace when clouds do blot the heaven:
So flatter I the swart-complexion’d night;
When sparkling stars twire not thou gild’st the even.

The speaker tries to coax day to let him create by telling day that his poet creations are also "bright" and can actually brighten up day’s domain when there are clouds blocking the sun. And the speaker then "flatter[s]" the god of night by telling the "swart-complexion’d" one that his poetry can light up the heavens when the stars are not visible.

The speaker uses the term "twire" which means twinkle but also in the Shakespearean time period meant "to sing." His poems, he avers, can sing for the stars, if night time will only relent and let him rest. The speaker’s clever thinking never fails him as he never fails to persevere. His relentless pursuit of his goal keeps him ever steadfast on his journey of creativity.

The Couplet: Cajoling the Gods

But day doth daily draw my sorrows longer,
And night doth nightly make grief’s strength seem stronger.

But no matter how intensely the speaker cajoles the gods of day and night, day seems to make his life ever more sorrowful, and night makes his grief even heavier. During the day, he remains focused on his negative situation which makes his "sorrow" grow; then after nighttime covers the landscape, those sorrows grow from the simple melancholy that darkness brings both literally and symbolically.

By repeating significant terms, such as ""day doth daily" and "night doth nightly," the speaker places emphasis on his claim that both day and night find him in dire straits. His challenge of employing terms in their varied forms alerts the reader that this speaker has thought deeply about his issues, has worked diligently to address them, and ultimately he has succeeded in his venture.

Shakespeare Identified Lecture, Mike A'Dair And William J. Ray

© 2020 Linda Sue Grimes