A reading of a Shakespeare sonnet
We swap the visual imagery of the previous sonnet for a musical theme in Sonnet 8, as the opening line (‘Music to hear, why hear’st thou music sadly?’) makes clear. What follows is a short summary and analysis of Sonnet 8 in terms of its language and meaning.
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.’
Shakespeare begins Sonnet 8 with a somewhat ambiguous line: ‘Music to hear, why hear’st thou music sadly?’ That opening phrase, ‘Music to hear’, could be interpreted either as an address to the Fair Youth (i.e. ‘You yourself are music that should be heard’) or as a description of the music that is ripe for being heard (i.e. ‘As there is music for you to hear, why are you sad when you listen to it?’). However we choose to analyse it, this opening line establishes the musical theme of Shakespeare’s argument in this sonnet.
In summary, Shakespeare is continuing his attempts to persuade the Fair Youth to marry and have children. Why are you sad when you hear music? The second line suggests (at least as we interpret it) that that opening phrase, ‘Music to hear’, should be analysed as a description of the Youth himself. So, in other words, in these first two lines Shakespeare is addressing the Youth and saying: Since you yourself are as beautiful and harmonious as music, why are you sad when you hear actual music? This is wrong, Shakespeare goes on to argue, because sweet things should be in agreement with other sweet things, joyful things with other joyful things – and since you and music are both beautiful, it is wrong that you should be made sad by music. Shakespeare’s argument then gets a little odd: apparently the Fair Youth loves music, but nevertheless is made sad by it (‘Why lov’st thou that which thou receiv’st not gladly’). Why, the Bard asks, do you gladly welcome something that makes you unhappy?
This is puzzling: it isn’t entirely clear why the Youth should love music if it makes him sad – but of course, music often makes us feel unhappy, or wakens memories of lost loves or nostalgia for a vanished time. Shakespeare is writing some three centuries before Oscar Wilde quipped: ‘Music makes one feel so romantic – at least it always gets on one’s nerves – which is the same thing nowadays.’ But the argument in Shakespeare’s sonnet seems to be similar (though Wilde of course had his tongue in his cheek). The inference is that the Youth is made unhappy by music because, whilst he loves the music, it reminds him that he is single and has no lover. Finding a lover, marrying, and having children is the fix for this that Shakespeare proposes.
Anyway, on with the summary. The next four lines (lines 5-8) certainly bear out what we’ve just said. If the Youth is saddened by the harmonious sound (‘concord’) that music creates, it is because on some level the Youth interprets this as a rebuke to him, who – unlike the music – is not in harmony with anyone else (i.e. in love). When Shakespeare writes that the Youth ‘confounds / In singleness the parts that thou shouldst bear’, he cleverly combines a romantic image with a sexual one: he is pointing out that the Youth is perverting the course that is expected of him, that he should marry and play the ‘part’ of husband and father; but he is also refusing to use his private ‘parts’ to ‘bear’ or sire children. This sexual wordplay runs through the sonnets, of course.
In the third quatrain (lines 9-12), Shakespeare commands the Youth to listen how each string in a musical composition is ‘husband to another’, and they work together by ‘mutual ordering’, much as a marriage is about the husband and wife working together effectively. Together, a father, a mother, and a child all ‘sing’ one note together, through combining their individual voices or music.
Shakespeare concludes Sonnet 8 by saying that the ‘speechless song’ embodied by this imagined family unit (‘speechless’ because it does not require words) is a warning to the Youth that, if he remains single, he will actually end up being nobody (‘none’ because, as the previous sonnets have argued, if you don’t leave an heir your line will die out when you die).
Throughout Sonnet 8, Shakespeare uses repetition of key words to reinforce the idea of musical harmony: ‘Music to hear, why hear‘st thou music sadly? / Sweets with sweets war not, joy delights in joy’. But this disappears later in the sonnet, as Shakespeare contrasts this vision of harmony with the Fair Youth’s undesirable state of singlehood. The final rhyming couplet – the very form of the couplet suggesting the harmony and union which the Fair Youth, in remaining single, rejects – even contrasts the two states, with ‘one’ rhymed against ‘none’ to suggest that, in remaining as a musical soloist, a ‘one-man band’ if you will, the Youth will come to nothing.
Sonnet 8 is the first to adopt this musical analogy to help Shakespeare make his point, and a close analysis of the rhymes and repetitions reveals another deft poetic argument from the Bard. You can continue to explore Shakespeare’s early sonnets with our analysis of Sonnet 9.