Updated date:

Shakespeare Sonnet 8: "Music to hear, why hear’st thou music sadly?"

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

Title page to first edition

Title page to first edition

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 8: "Music to hear, why hear’st thou music sadly?"

IIn “Marriage Sonnet 8” from the classic Shakespeare 154-sonnet sequence, the speaker compares a happy marriage to musical harmony, hoping to evoke in the young lad the desire to attain that harmony in his life. The speaker will be offering many different strategies for the same argument as to why the youth should hurry up and marry before old age sets in, destroying his youthful beauty. And the speaker particularly encourages the young man to begat children as a way for his fine physical qualities to be passed on to the next generation.

The clever speaker seems to revel in his own process of creating his little dramas. Each sonnet becomes a showcase, a stage, and blank page upon which to create and perform his balancing act of producing interesting scenarios as well as well-argued claims. This speaker has one goal in mind for his first 17 sonnets, and he clings to its mission with great gusto and zeal.

Sonnet 8: "Music to hear, why hear’st thou music sadly?"

Music to hear, why hear’st thou music sadly?
Sweets with sweets war not, joy delights in joy:
Why lov’st thou that which thou receiv’st not gladly,
Or else receiv’st with pleasure thine annoy?
If the true concord of well-tuned sounds,
By unions married, do offend thine ear,
They do but sweetly chide thee, who confounds
In singleness the parts that thou shouldst bear.
Mark how one string, sweet husband to another,
Strikes each in each by mutual ordering;
Resembling sire and child and happy mother,
Who, all in one, one pleasing note do sing:
Whose speechless song, being many, seeming one,
Sings this to thee: ‘Thou single wilt prove none.’

Reading of Sonnet 8

Commentary

The Shakespeare sonnet 8 finds the speaker employing a music metaphor along with his best logic and analyses to convince the young man that he should wed and produce offspring.

First Quatrain: The Metaphor of Music

Music to hear, why hear’st thou music sadly?
Sweets with sweets war not, joy delights in joy:
Why lov’st thou that which thou receiv’st not gladly,
Or else receiv’st with pleasure thine annoy?

The speaker employs a metaphor of music in attempting to persuade the young man to realize that both marriage as well a music produce a lovely harmony. The first quatrain finds the older speaker observing the young man’s glum response to some piece of music they have experienced. The speaker asks the young man about this gloomy expression, stating, "Sweets with sweets war not, joy delights in joy." According the speaker, the young man is a pleasingly handsome, therefore,"sweet" man; thus the speaker asserts that the young lad should discern the same qualities in the music that he himself possesses.

The speaker continues to query the lad about his response to the music by asking him if he would like to receive that which he was glad to have or if receiving what pleases him would disappoint him. It sounds like a knotty question, but the speaker, as he always does, is attempting to influence the young man into believing that his status as a single, wifeless/childless man, is a negative state of affairs. The speaker’s verbal attempt remains colorful, employing sweetness, joy, and music as objects of pleasure, instilling in the young man the notion that the latter’s sweet qualities are too important not to be shared with the succeeding generation.

Second Quatrain: Marriage as Pleasing as Musical Harmony

If the true concord of well-tuned sounds,
By unions married, do offend thine ear,
They do but sweetly chide thee, who confounds
In singleness the parts that thou shouldst bear.

The speaker wishes for the young man to comprehend a harmonious life like musical melody is to be attained with a solid marriage; the metaphor of harmonious music seems to remain ineffectual because the young lad appears to have separated out individual parts of the music for pleasure instead hearing the sum of the harmonious parts, and the speaker hopes to make the young man realize that a harmonious marriage that produces beautiful offspring is as pleasing to the world as a piece of beautiful music, which has its various parts working together to produce the whole.

Third Quatrain: Strings That Play

Mark how one string, sweet husband to another,
Strikes each in each by mutual ordering;
Resembling sire and child and happy mother,
Who, all in one, one pleasing note do sing:

The speaker then compares the family of father, mother, and child to the strings that when played in the proper sequence result in the lovely song: "one pleasing note do sing." The speaker hopes that the young man will accept his fervent urgings to marry and take on a family, instead of allowing his good qualities to waste away in the frivolity of bachelorhood. The speaker is convinced that if the young man fails to pass on his pleasing features, he will have wasted his life. The speaker's use of the musical metaphor shows the speaker’s emphasis on physical beauty. He also alludes to the mother of those beautiful offspring. If the young man marries and produces those lovely heirs, the union will also be adding to the world a "happy mother." The pleasing family filled with grace and beauty will enhance the world as beautiful music from a symphony does.

The Couplet: No Family, No Music

Whose speechless song, being many, seeming one,
Sings this to thee: ‘Thou single wilt prove none.’

The couplet finds the speaker, as usual, nearly begging the lad to understand that if he remains a bachelor, thus producing no family, no offspring, his life will have no music and will continue without the wonderful qualities of harmony and beauty. The music metaphor, thus, has offered beauty as a goal as well as the peace and harmony that the speaker desires for the young man.

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.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

Related Articles