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Shakespeare Sonnet 29: "When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes"

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 29: "When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes"

The speaker in the classic Shakespeare 154-sonnet sequence always remains down to earth and never boasts about his considerable talents for poetry creating. At times, the talented scribbler, however, finds himself dismayed by his lot and especially about what others may think of him. It is during those melancholy periods that the speaker garners much satisfaction from his ability to create lovely sonnets. Thus, he comes to acknowledge how fortunate he is to possess such a prepossessing talent.

In Muse Sonnet 29, the speaker explores the contrast between the dark moods that sometimes afflict him. When he places his mind on the negative aspects of critical and financial burdens, he becomes a victim of that darkness of mood. But then after he removes his mind from that darkness, a special light flips on, and he becomes cognizant that his own position in life is better than that of "kings."

Sonnet 29: "When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes"

When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featur’d like him, like him with friends possess’d,
Desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee,—and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

Reading of Sonnet 29

Commentary

The speaker is affirming his considerable talent, offer something of a benediction for having been afforded the ability to create his works of art. And although he may suffer outward defeat among society’s critics, he knows he can retain mental equanimity owing to his creative abilities.

First Quatrain: Sometimes He Experiences Difficulties

When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate

In the first quatrain of Shakespeare sonnet 29, the speaker admits that there are times in his life when things are not going well, times when he thinks he is being disparaged and disgraced by others. He admits to feelings of despair at such times and that he even cries like an outcast victim, while whining and cursing his low estate. It does him no good, but he, at times, continues to complain and bother "heaven" with his worthless petitions.

The form that this speaker uses in this sonnet is the "when/then" construction, in which the "when clause" indicates a situation followed by another happening, or "when this happens, then this happens." This construction is one of the speaker’s favorites, for it allows him to create drama through cause and effect.

Because narratives both long and short hinge on the "what happens next" phenomenon, the when/then construction offers that flavor to any piece that depends on movement through time and space. This sonnet construction thus offers the speaker the opportunity to place before the reader/listener a prevailing situation and then speculate or even eventuate the later outcome.

Second Quatrain: Sometimes He Feels Cursed and Hopeless

Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featur’d like him, like him with friends possess’d,
Desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least

The second quatrain continues the "when" clause but further describes the speaker’s discontent. When he finds himself feeling cursed and outcast, he might wish he were like some other man, particularly like those who appear to have more "hope" than he does. But he adds that he might also prefer to be as handsome as some other men, or have better, friendlier friends. He continues to make such contrasts by claiming that he might also wish he could create like some other creative men and also possess the same level of understanding that others possess.

All of this wasted envy of others, however, causes the speaker to disdain the very things he loves most; he finds himself less content with all things he loves because of his negative attitude. He realizes that he has become negligent and oblivious, even failing to find joy in the things in his life that usually make him happy, all because of his falling into unhealthy, bitter views of his own situation. He has failed to sustain the gratitude he needs to remain productive, creative, and observant of life-sustaining qualities.

Third Quatrain: Poetry Rescues His Vagrant Thoughts

Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee,—and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate

When the speaker is feeling cursed and outcast by others and wishing he were more like those who are more acceptable, and these thoughts are making him "almost" hate himself, he then asserts that he has a life-line that brings him back from all of his dark moods that have hindered his perceptions. And that life-line is his poetry. He simply remembers the profound influence that his poetry has on his life—and suddenly his state of mind becomes transformed.

That transformation causes his mood to brighten, and he suddenly receives a visitation by the beautiful image of a "lark" soaring into the sky at daybreak. The bird has suddenly risen from the "sullen earth" and now is singing at the door of heaven. The speaker has quite appropriately likened his feeling to the bird that is known for its singing. In this group of sonnets, the speaker consistently celebrates his art, his creation of poems in terms of songs—so appropriate because the term "sonnet" translates as "little song" from the Italian "sonetto."

The Couplet: Art Lifts His Spirits

For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

The speaker has invested so much love and affection in his own art that it can be only that art that lifts his spirits when he becomes depressed with worldly activity. The speaker's ability to craft polished sonnets lifts him from the doldrums, and it heralds his realization that he is better off than royalty because of that art. After the speaker finally remembers his cherished poetry, he realizes that he is in a better position than that royalty. His considerable talent elevated his mind and heart to a status of importance that he would not trade for any kingdom. He becomes elated with all that lives within his own abilities.

In sonnet 29, the speaker has gone from a nearly depressed state of negativity to one of joy and profound positivity. After confessing that sometimes finds himself in moods that are so dark that he whines and cries and bemoans his lot and then contrasting despairingly his lot with others, he then simply withdraws his mind from those trivialities, places it upon his own talent, his muse, and his creative works, and suddenly his dark mood is erased and brightened and begins to soar to heavenly realms like a song-bird rising from the mud ball of earth.

Did Shakespeare Really Write Shakespeare? – Tom Regnier

© 2020 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on November 29, 2020:

Thank you for the kind words, Shafqat M.

I have commentaries on all 154 sonnets in the Shakespeare sonnet sequence. These sonnets remain one of my favorite pieces of literary work. They delve into real human experience and offer a profound musing on human issues of the heart, mind, and soul.

Shafqat M from Srinagar, Kashmir on November 25, 2020:

You're a resourceful and erudite person. I see you've been publishing extensively on Shakespeare. It's just remarkable!