A reading of a Shakespeare sonnet
‘Let those who are in favour with their stars’ – also known as Sonnet 25 – is not the most famous poem in Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Yet it is worth reading and analysing not least because of the light it can shed on some of the other, more famous sonnets in the sequence, so this is what we’re going to attempt here – some notes towards an analysis of Sonnet 25 and its language and meaning.
Let those who are in favour with their stars
Of public honour and proud titles boast,
Whilst I, whom fortune of such triumph bars
Unlook’d for joy in that I honour most.
Great princes’ favourites their fair leaves spread
But as the marigold at the sun’s eye,
And in themselves their pride lies buried,
For at a frown they in their glory die.
The painful warrior famouséd for might,
After a thousand victories once foiled,
Is from the book of honour razed quite,
And all the rest forgot for which he toiled:
Then happy I, that love and am beloved,
Where I may not remove nor be removed.
Let’s start with a brief summary of the meaning of Sonnet 25, then. Shakespeare starts off by saying, that those people who have honour and titles can boast of them all they want; but unlike them, the poet can boast of an honour that, unlike theirs, was not sought – and so he rejoices in it all the more.
In lines 5-8, Shakespeare observes that the honours and titles that others boast of are changeable and unreliable because they were granted as favours: for instance, princes’ favourites at court flatter a prince merely because he is a prince, much as a marigold opens its leaves simply because the sun shines on it. As soon as these favourites fall foul of the prince, they, and their glory, perish – just as the marigold withers and dies when the sun does not shine on it.
Then, in lines 9-12, Shakespeare switches to the example of the brave and mighty warrior, who can win a thousand victories on the battlefield; but as soon as he loses just once, all of his previous triumphs are forgotten, and his name is erased from the history books. (Note: some editors have ‘famouséd for fight’ rather than ‘famouséd for might’, but ‘might’ seems to fit slightly better here, given that it goes without saying the warrior would be famous because he fought; it’s his might or strength that made him famous.)
In the final couplet, Shakespeare contrasts these fickle examples of honour and glory with his own feeling of honour, which couldn’t be more different: he rejoices in the love he bears for the Fair Youth, and the love he in turn receives from him, because he cannot remove himself from such an honour, nor can his lover remove him.
The meaning of Sonnet 25 is, then, relatively straightforward, especially when it is contrasted with the previous sonnet, which was altogether more of a challenge to analyse and interpret. The poem deepens the sense that Shakespeare has something special with the Fair Youth, a feeling that will reach its apex in the altogether more celebrated Sonnet 29. For now, though, he is seeking to convey the sense of honour which being admired by the young man brings. And who hasn’t felt special because the person you consider most special returns the sentiment?