A reading of Shakespeare’s 27th sonnet
Every sonnet sequence should have at least one poem about sleeplessness. Sir Philip Sidney (1554-86) had ‘Come sleep, O sleep, the certain knot of peace’ in his Astrophil and Stella, and, in Sonnet 27 beginning ‘Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed’, Shakespeare has his sleepless poem, which we’re going to analyse here.
Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed,
The dear repose for limbs with travel tired;
But then begins a journey in my head
To work my mind, when body’s work’s expired:
For then my thoughts–from far where I abide–
Intend a zealous pilgrimage to thee,
And keep my drooping eyelids open wide,
Looking on darkness which the blind do see:
Save that my soul’s imaginary sight
Presents thy shadow to my sightless view,
Which, like a jewel hung in ghastly night,
Makes black night beauteous, and her old face new.
Lo! thus, by day my limbs, by night my mind,
For thee, and for myself, no quiet find.
First, a quick summary of Sonnet 27. It begins with a familiar scene, and something we’ve probably all endured at some point: Shakespeare goes to bed, his body tired out and ready for sleep, but his mind is running wild and keeping him from dropping off. He finds his thoughts wandering to the Fair Youth, and such preoccupations keep him wide awake and his eyes wide open, staring into the darkness of night.
However, one image appears in Shakespeare’s ‘imaginary sight’ – what the Bard calls, in Hamlet, his ‘mind’s eye’ – and this ‘shadow’ appears in the darkness and, rather unshadowlike, gleams and shines like a rare gem: namely, an image of the Fair Youth himself, the beautiful young man whom we know, by the time we read Sonnet 27, Shakespeare has fallen head-over-heels for.
Shakespeare concludes Sonnet 27 by saying that during the day his limbs get plenty of exercise running around after the Youth (following him around, we presume), while at night, it’s his mind’s turn to be kept busy by this bewitching vision of the Youth’s beauty.
The meaning of Sonnet 27 is relatively straightforward, and so the wording Shakespeare uses requires no particular paraphrase of analysis. We can turn, then, to the delicious use of language in this sonnet. Take those vowel sounds: the poem’s focus on the ‘night’ and the ‘mind’ is echoed in the words chosen to end the lines, many of which have a long ‘i’ sound: tired, expired, abide, wide, sight, night, mind, find. (Here again, compare Sir Philip Sidney, and his Sonnet 99.) It just so happens that the ideas Shakespeare wants to link – sight with blind, mind with eye, night with sight, and so on – all contain this same vowel sound, but it is one which Shakespeare capitalises on here, allowing the ear to hear what the eye cannot see (but the mind’s eye can, in lines 9-10).
Note also that Shakespeare casts his devotion to the Fair Youth in religious terms: his mental journey to the Youth is a ‘zealous pilgrimage’, and it is not just Shakespeare’s heart, but his soul that imagines the Youth’s beauteous figure. Yet perhaps Sonnet 27 is best viewed as a ‘light’ sonnet: there is little more that needs to be said about the poem’s meaning, and it lacks the complexity of some of the ‘greater’ and more famous sonnets.
That said, Sonnet 27 is a nice little development in the Sonnets; even though it doesn’t advance the narrative of the sequence in any real sense, it offers an insight into the depth of Shakespeare’s devotion to the Youth. As our series of analyses moves further into the Sonnets, we’ll notice the depth of that devotion increasing yet further, but also being tested.
If you found this analysis of Sonnet 27 useful, you can discover more of Shakespeare’s best sonnets with ‘That time of year thou mayst in me behold’, ‘Let me not to the marriage of true minds’, and ‘No longer mourn for me when I am dead’.
If you’re studying Shakespeare’s sonnets and looking for a detailed and helpful guide to the poems, we recommend Stephen Booth’s hugely informative edition, Shakespeare’s Sonnets (Yale Nota Bene). It includes all 154 sonnets, a facsimile of the original 1609 edition, and helpful line-by-line notes on the poems.