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Shakespeare Sonnet 30: "When to the sessions of sweet silent thought"

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 30: "When to the sessions of sweet silent thought"

In sonnet 30 from the thematic group, "The Muse Sonnets," in the classic Shakespeare 154-sonnet sequence, the speaker is dramatizing the simple idea that despite all of the sorrow and lack he has experienced in his life, the one thing he can count on to restore "all losses" and end his sorrow is his dear friend, his ability to write poems.

Sonnet 30 belongs to that thematic group which is mistakenly thought to be addressed to a young man and which has been mislabeled "The Fair Youth Sonnets." However, no young man appears in any of the sonnets in this group. No person at all appears in any of sonnets in this group. The speaker muses only on his poems and his ability to compose them; thus, "The Muse Sonnets" offers a more accurate label for this thematic group. The "dear friend" he is addressing in this sonnet is his talent, his ability to write sonnets. That ability is truly the speaker's best and dearest friend, as he makes clear repeatedly in this thematic group.

Sonnet 30: "When to the sessions of sweet silent thought"

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear times’ waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unus’d to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancell’d woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanish’d sight:
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restor’d and sorrows end.

Reading of Sonnet 30

Commentary

Indulging the "when-then" construction again, the speaker is addressing his talent—his ability to write soul inspiring poems—claiming that often it is only this talent that produces his poems that can lift his spirits after he has suffered dark moods from enduring the world’s indignities.

First Quatrain: When-Then

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear times’ waste

Shakespeare sonnet 30 functions through the "when-then" structure as many of the sonnets do. The speaker contends that "when" one event occurs, "then" a second event will follow the first one. In this sonnet's first stanza, the speaker’s when-clause dramatizes his thinking back to his earlier life. A rough paraphrase might read, "when I think of things that happened in the past as I muse in times of lovely silence . . . . "

This colorfully described occasion of "sessions of sweet silent thought" refers to the times during which he is musing on writing a poem. When such a musing session happens to lead him to thoughts of sadness and loss, he "sigh[s]" at what he was unable to accomplish or at what he was unable to attain, and he bemoans his wasted time in certain pursuits.

Again, the reader will have noted that the when-then structure seems to be a favorite of this poet for placing dramatic word in the mouths of his speakers. A fascinating study might result from concentration on the several sonnets that employ the when-then construction. Because any narrative short or long depends on the phenomenon, "what happens next?," the when-then construction offers the mini-stage for that phenomenon to play out. As soon as readers/listeners are confronted with a "when" clause, they know that they are being set up for the "then" part, which answers the question, "what happens next?," concocted in the "when" clause.

Second Quatrain: Sad Memories

Then can I drown an eye, unus’d to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancell’d woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanish’d sight

Such sad memories cause the speaker to cry a flood of tears, and he goes on to remember friends who have died, and old lost loves who made him sorrowful, but long since he had forgotten. Still these memories, when they attend the speaker during a session "of sweet silent thought," lay heavy on his heart, and he suffers anew as if the sorrow had just begun. Even though the speaker had overcome the sorrow, and his tears were "unus’d to flow," the memories can become so vivid that they overtake his composure, and his tears rush freely down cheeks that had long remained dry and stalwart against pain.

As mentioned earlier, there are no people in this thematic group of sonnets; the mere mention of "precious friends hid in death’s dateless night" remains just a mention. The speaker is not addressing those people. He is not even emphasizing their existence; his mention actually emphasizes their absence. Thus, the statement that there are no persons in any of this thematic group remains accurate—perhaps with the proviso that with the exception of mere mentions offered to emphasize other phenomena, for example, in this sonnet’s case, the absence of those "friends."

Third Quatrain: Heavy Grief

Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.

The speaker's past grief becomes so heavy that he has the ability to take account of it as if the grief were newly minted. He has the ability to shape in it a poem to narrate again his sorrowful report. He can retell the sad story to make it so real that others can experience it in his poems.

The speaker possesses great confidence in his knowledge of his own heart and his ability to create art with his grief. This talented speaker's memories provide the material, and his mind and genius for writing allow him to capture his emotion in sturdy poems.

The Couplet: Removing Pain

But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restor’d and sorrows end.

Despite the fact that the speaker's sorrows are deep and wield his strength to tears, and the lack he has suffered makes him doubt some of his past choices, all he has to do to recover is remember that his God-given gift of poetic genius is enough to remove all pain and sorrow. The speaker thinks of his ability to compose as a "dear friend."

The speaker’s reliance on his God-given talent remains a strong feature in this set of sonnets. He repeatedly demonstrates that he knows he is a great poet; he is aware of his considerable gifts in dreaming up scenarios and then capturing and stationing just the right word in just the right place to allow those precious thoughts and images to dance and sing in his little songs.

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

© 2020 Linda Sue Grimes

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