Cheney, Patrick. "'O, Let My Books Be . . . Dumb Presagers': Poetry and Theater in Shakespeare's Sonnets." SQ 52, no. 2 (2001): 222-254.
Shakespeare's sonnets: Sonnet 29 ("When, in disgrace with Fortune and men's eyes") WILliam Shakespeare (1599) This sonnet begins with the speaker wallowing in a pit of depression, disgraced both in terms of fortune—he has had a lot of bad luck—and in the world's view of him. Consequently, the speaker views himself as a weeping, lonely outcast who prays to heaven constantly. But heaven is deaf and never hears these useless cries. All that is left is to look at his pitiful self and curse fate. We know the speaker is very unhappy, but the first quatrain does not tell us of the cause of this upset.
The second quatrain gives us more detail. The speaker wishes to be like someone who is more hopeful, has better prospects, someone who believes that things will eventually work out well. He wishes to look like someone else, presumably someone more good-looking, and he wishes for friends like someone else— either more friends or better ones. He also wishes for the artistic abilities of someone else, though these abilities could be in writing and not necessarily painting or drawing. He wishes to have the scope, the range, or generally grand abilities of some other person. The speaker sums up this longing by indicating that he is least content with his own talents which he once presumably enjoyed.
It seems as though there is nothing that can remove the speaker from this black pit of despair. In fact, the third quatrain reminds the reader again that these thoughts of the speaker's own inadequacies make him almost self-despising. But then, suddenly, things change. The speaker uses the word haply (l. 10) to indicate that this change is "by chance." Also, however, haply puns on happily, what this chance reflection makes him feel. The speaker is able to change this depressed "state," or mood, by thinking of "thee," who is clearly identified as the speaker's beloved. This person can change the speaker's mood amazingly and completely.
The rest of the quatrain demonstrates this newfound happiness by focusing on one image that signifies the speaker's new state: a lark singing at the gate of heaven, the place that was previously deaf to the speaker's cries. The speaker probably chooses the lark to indicate his extreme happiness and change of mood because of the lark's habit of flying straight up in the air in the early morning singing all the time. The direction the lark flies—up—is opposite the direction in which the speaker was living—down. This word can refer to depression—or to the direction of human life "down" on the "sullen" earth. Since the speaker was hardly in the mood to sing earlier in the sonnet, the image of the small bird pouring out its song becomes a blissful alternative to the speaker's unhappy state.
The speaker's depression calls to mind the Christian sin of despair. Given all that he laments in life, we might consider that he is very close to experiencing this sin, which can be viewed by the depressed person as a feeling that he is being denied the love of God. Thus, while a despairing soul might be "cured" of despair through feeling and acknowledging the love of God, for the speaker, the beloved's love replaces that of God. This substitution can be regarded as blasphemous on one level, but also as platonic in that the beloved becomes the means by which the speaker is directed toward a personal acknowledgment of God's love. Additionally, the "disappearance" of the bird in the air as it is viewed could make one believe that the lark has flown up to heaven. The beauty of its song thus surely indicates that it must be singing hymns "at heaven's gate" (l. 12), hymns God would certainly want to hear, even if God was deaf to the cries of the speaker.
The final couplet reinforces the speaker's reliance on the beloved to provide happiness. While he had previously wished to trade everything in his life, from his abilities to his looks, with any number of persons, he now acknowledges that the mere remembrance, the thought, of this beloved brings such a wealth of happiness that he now would scorn to change his particular status in life with anyone, even a king.
See also Shakespeare, William; Shakespeare's sonnets (overview).
Theodora A. Jankowski
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