Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 29” begins with the speaker lamenting his “outcast state” and is full of self-loathing, but that immense despair is transformed into absolute joy when he “haply” remembers his “sweet love”.
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,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
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 remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
Life can be incredibly cruel and most people have experienced some awful rejection, humiliation or hurt that made us feel isolated and completely worthless. The speaker in “Sonnet 29” has suffered some sort of “disgrace”. When he considers his loss of reputation in “men’s eyes” because of vicious “fortune”, he wants to “curse” his “fate”. The straightforward references to “fortune” and “fate” suggest the “disgrace” was beyond his control and he feels like a victim of circumstance.
He appeals for divine intervention to help him escape the “disgrace”, but there is bitterness in the word “trouble” because it suggests his “bootless cries” are an agitation and unworthy of a response from “heaven”. Personifying “heaven” as “deaf” is also a very effective way to show that no one is listening and his prayers will remain unanswered. This is reinforced by that unique metaphor “bootless cries”, which compares his pleas to a barefooted individual who is going nowhere.
In his list of self-pitying comparisons in the second quatrain, the speaker reveals he is jealous of “him with friends possessed” so he is desperate for some companionship and human comfort. However, he is now an “outcast” left “all alone” to “beweep” his misfortune.
The speaker questions his own qualities and situation by comparing himself to others. His voice sounds forlorn when he is “wishing” to be “more rich in hope” and to have greater “scope” and opportunities in life.
The phrases “featured like him” and “desiring this man’s art” suggest he wants to be as physically attractive and talented as those men he envies. By starting these lines with verbs and letting the stress fall on the first syllable, Shakespeare quickens the rhythm to convey the speaker’s desperation and despair.
Interestingly, when the speaker has “these thoughts”, he is “almost despising” himself. Modifying the verb “despising” with the adverb “almost”, softens his self-loathing and suggests he remained somewhat defiant against the hateful “fate” and “fortune”.
The poem is a typical Shakespearean sonnet with the first two quatrains setting up the problem – the speaker’s bleak view of his life. Then, there is an obvious volta: “yet” in line nine marks the dramatic shift from his terrible sadness to joyful feelings of love and well-being when he thinks about his “sweet love”.
In terms of structure, the lines are written in loose iambic pentameter but “yet” should be the stressed syllable of a trochee to emphasise the change in the speaker’s attitude
Whoever the mysterious “sweet love” might be, the mere thought of this person is enough to transform the speaker’s mood. This change is conveyed vividly by the beautiful simile in the third quatrain comparing his “state” to the “lark” rising from the “sullen earth” to “sing hymns at heaven’s gate”.
Firstly, the adjective “sullen” used to describe the “earth” reminds the audience of the speaker’s irritated “state”. The hyperbole suggests his whole world is dark and gloomy. There is also the pathetic fallacy of the “earth” being sulky, resentful and unwilling to talk. When Shakespeare wrote the sonnet, the word also referred to the mischievous influence the heavens had on our lives, which reiterates the speaker’s belief that the whole world is against him and his “disgrace” is not his fault. All these connotations of “sullen” combine to define the complexity of his emotional turmoil quite effectively.
The lark flies to “heaven’s gate”. This grandiose reference to the skies echoes “deaf heaven” in the third line, giving the audience a chance to compare the difference in tone between the two and recognise the speaker’s fantastic transformation. The bird triumphantly “sings hymns” in this image rather than the despairing “bootless cries” of the first quatrain.
Setting the moment at the “break of day” signifies a new light is being cast on his world and he is now fresh and hopeful.
Finally, Shakespeare may have chosen the “lark” because the ground-nesting bird was known to sing while flying incredibly straight. In this way, the poet suggests the transformation was immediate. However, “lark” also means to play and have fun, which reinforces the speaker’s renewed optimism.
The Rhyming Couplet
After being so dissatisfied with his life, he now confidently declares in the concluding rhyming couplet that he would not “change my state with kings”. It is quite a reversal, going from the impoverished “outcast” at the bottom of society’s hierarchy to a position that is even higher than the powerful and wealthy ruler of the kingdom.
His entire mood, perspective and identity has changed because of the “sweet love remembered”. In this way, the poem is a strong affirmation of the transformative power of love and companionship.
Wealth and Faith
The motifs of money and the divine are important images recurring throughout the poem. For example, in the first line, “fortune” may refer to chance, but it also has the obvious connotation of great wealth. Even the metaphor “bootless cries” suggests the speaker cannot afford to buy footwear. The poet then uses the language of finance to convey his changing feelings to the audience. He uses “rich” to describe the “hope” he desires in the second quatrain which is fulfilled in the concluding couplet when his “sweet love remembered” inspires “such wealth” of happiness he would not “change my state with kings”.
The language of divinity is obvious in the references to heaven, “fortune” and “fate”. It is important to note that the speaker showed disdain for “fate” in the first section but his “sweet love remembered” occurs “haply”, which means by chance.
There is nothing in “Sonnet 29” to tell the audience who exactly is being addressed in the poem. However, the first 126 sonnets in Shakespeare’s collection appear to be addressed to a “fair youth”, but the poem has never proven to be autobiographical. The speaker’s melancholy could be a literary meditation or trick. In fact, you could interpret the poem in terms of the writer’s faith or finances.
The First Edition
Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 29” was first published in 1609 in a sequence of 154 sonnets and the longer poem “A Lover’s Complaint”. Some scholars believe the publication was unauthorised because there are some typographical errors and obvious mistakes. If you look carefully at this Quarto version of the poem, you will notice the typesetters did not place a comma after “when”:
The whole line, therefore, is a simple subordinate clause which colours the next seven lines by offering a reason why he is crying and cursing his fate.
Some later editions of the poem place a comma after “when” and subtly change the reading of the line because it adds stress to the word. In terms of meter, the line now begins with a trochee instead of an iamb and the caesura forces us to dwell the word for a moment longer.
However, this attempt to emphasise the speaker’s problem could alter our interpretation of the poem because the syntax changes so, when he thinks of his “sweet love”, is it by chance or does he always turn his attention to “thee” when he is feeling sad?
The first edition also sets the eleventh line in parenthesis. In this version, it is the speaker who rises from the “sullen earth”. Other editions place the second bracket after this image in the twelfth line so it is the lark that flies from the ground. Some editors place the two lines in parenthesis so the lark sings at “heaven’s gate” rather than the speaker.
If you are revising for a test or controlled assessment, it is important you consider the version supplied by your teacher or examination board. You should also check the assessment objectives because you could score marks for demonstrating your understanding of context and how it influences our reading of the sonnet.
Watch a Performance of the Poem
Matthew McFayden’s reading of “Sonnet 29” sets the poem in a more modern context and shows the playwright’s work remains relevant to today’s audience. The actor’s wonderful voice and great delivery of the lines is certainly worth a listen.
- How does the speaker feel in the second line?
- From looking back at the first line, why does the speaker feel lonely and isolated?
- To whom does the speaker appeal for help in the third line?
- Explain the metaphor “bootless cries”.
- Identify the various reasons why the speaker wants to “curse” his “fate”.
- Why does the speaker’s feelings change in line ten.
- Why is the simile comparing his feelings to a lark effective?
- Why would the speaker not “change” his “state with kings”?
- What message does the poem convey?
- How does the structure of the poem support its message?
If you are working through CCEA’s Identity Poetry Anthology, you could consider comparing Shakespeare’s sonnet with the Paul Maddern’s “Effacé” in terms of how the identity of the speakers are defined by their relationships. You could also connect this poem with Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” because they both depict the importance of love in a cruel and menacing world