Shakespeares sonnets Sonnet 128 How oft when thou my music music playst William

Shakespeare (1599) In this sonnet, the speaker reflects on the many times when the beloved has played upon the virginal, a very early version of the piano. Its keys were called jacks, and they were made of wood. In line 1, "my music" refers to the beloved, who is music and who simultaneously produces music, and using "music" twice emphasizes the beloved's importance. The effect is somewhat magical for the speaker, who hears the mechanism that causes the jacks to coax music from the "blessed wood" (l. 2) of the instrument animated by the beloved's "sweet fingers" (l. 3). The speaker's ear is confounded, or amazed, by the "wiry concord" (l. 4) that comes from the interaction of the lover's fingers and the mechanism of the jacks that causes them to pluck the virginal's wires and call up musical sound.

The sonnet then moves from a long shot to a close-up of the beloved's fingers. The speaker focuses on the jacks that are touched by the beloved in the act of playing the instrument. While the wood jacks are completely inanimate and moved solely by the motion of the beloved's fingers, the lover, perhaps feeling slighted by the beloved, hyperbolically imagines that the jacks are leaping up of their own free will "to kiss the tender inward" (l. 6) of the beloved's hand. The speaker somewhat ridiculously envies "those jacks" (l. 5), speaking of them as human and bold. His "poor lips" should reap the "harvest" of kisses that the jacks reap. And while all this musical kissing goes on, the speaker sits by and "blushes," embarrassed by the "wood's boldness" (l. 8).

The third quatrain continues this image and plaintively presents the outlandish wish that the speaker's "poor lips" would gladly undergo a complete change to become wooden jacks if they could be assured of being "kissed" by the beloved's fingers, which "walk with all gentle gait" (l. 11) over them. In fact, the jacks, being touched by the beloved, become "more blessed" (l. 12) than the speaker's living lips. In the couplet, the speaker moves back from the position of being envious of the inanimate jacks to tell the lover to "give thy fingers" (l. 14) to them, but give "me thy lips to kiss" (l. 14). This sonnet presents a picture of a lover so insecure, yet so enamored of the beloved, that he would do anything to attract her attention, even going so far as to become a thing, rather than a person.

See also Shakespeare, William; Shakespeare's sonnets (overview).

Theodora A. Jankowski

Shakespeare's sonnets: Sonnet 129 ("Th' expense of spirit in a waste of shame") William

Shakespeare (1599) Sonnets of the early modern period often focus on love and are beautifully phrased with gentle tempos. However, Sonnet 129 is something completely different both in meter, tempo, and subject. It is a poem that is passionate, angry, and bitter, with a jarring, rough tempo. It is not difficult to discover the reason for this shift in tone. The other sonnets may be about love; this one is about lust.

The first quatrain begins by defining lust in its active mode: "Th'expense of spirit in a waste of shame / Is lust in action; . . ." (ll. 1-2). "Spirit" here refers to "vital energy," or sperm. The belief at this time was that each man had a limited amount of vital energy in his body. Each time he ejaculated, he released some of that energy and reduced his life by some span of time, usually a day. Therefore, each ejaculation, whether caused by sexual intercourse, masturbation, or a nocturnal emission, cost a man some of his life. So the belief was that a man could literally ejaculate himself to death if he engaged in too much sexual intercourse. The speaker of this sonnet feels shame because he has wasted some of his vital energy—"spirit"—in lust rather than in something worthwhile, like fathering a child with his wife.

Lust was also believed to have a bad effect on men's personalities and bodies. Lust is "perjured, murd'rous, bloody, full of blame, / Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust" (ll. 3-4) and, as such, causes men to lie and to be cruel, rude, savage, bloody, and murderous. If this preintercourse behavior was not bad enough, the actual experiencing of sexual intercourse can do nothing to stop it. Once the man has "enjoyed" sexual intercourse, it is "despised" (l. 5) because lust is unreasonable. There is shame involved in being dominated by an emotion and not reason, being at the mercy of a body part rather than the thought processes of a brain that is able to control one's urges. The speaker "hunts" sexual activity "past reason" (l. 6), but once he has obtained it, he hates it equally unreasonably, as though he has been made mad by some sort of poison, such as the "poison" of lust. He is mad when he goes after intercourse and mad once he has achieved it: "Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme" (l. 10). Sexual intercourse may be "bliss" (l. 11) or "joy" (l. 12) when thought about or during the act, but afterward it is a "woe" (l. 11) or a "dream" (l. 12), probably a bad one. The couplet ends with a truism: Everyone knows how bad it is to be controlled by lust and constantly chase after sex, yet nobody knows how to avoid the "heaven" of sexual intercourse that leads to the "hell" of madness, irrationality, and shame that constant sexual activity causes.

Sonnet 129 reflects the uncontrolled passion of the speaker. There are no beautiful words, soft phrases, or tuneful lines. The lines of Sonnet 129 are harsh and jarring. Lines 3 and 4 present a list of characteristics of the lust-possessed person in sharp, repetitive spondees (a metrical foot with two long or stressed syllables). paired words do not explore the good and bad of a subject, but focus on the bad and worse: "enjoyed . . . But despised" (l. 5); "Past reason hunted . . . Past reason hated . . ." (ll. 6-7); "Mad in pursuit and in possession" (l. 9); "Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme" (l. 10); "A bliss in proof and proved a very woe" (l. 11). Thus, the rhythms of this sonnet reflect the tortured feelings examined within it.

See also Shakespeare, William; Shakespeare's sonnets (overview).

Theodora A. Jankowski

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