Literature

A Short Analysis of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29: ‘When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes’

A classic Shakespeare sonnet analysed by Dr Oliver Tearle

‘When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes, / I all alone beweep my outcast state …’ Excluding Sonnet 18, Sonnet 29 is probably the first really famous poem in Shakespeare’s sonnet sequence. But why is it so widely regarded and anthologised? Let’s take a closer look at Sonnet 29 with some close analysis.

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 my self 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.

Sonnet 29: summary

To summarise Sonnet 29, then:

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,

The Bard is down on his luck and out of favour with his peers, and is all on his own, crying about being shunned by everyone. He cries up to heaven, but to no avail, and curses his wretched plight.

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;

He confesses his envy of those who have more prospects, or more friends, or some talent or range of vision which he himself lacks.

Yet in these thoughts my self 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.

But then, in the midst of all these dark thoughts, just as he’s almost beginning to hate himself, by chance the Bard thinks of his beloved, and then he is filled with joy and, rather than wanting to cry to heaven he now sings hymns at heaven’s gate. Because remembering his beloved’s sweet love brings a ‘wealth’ far greater than anything owned by a king – love, if you like, makes a man ‘richer’ than all the gold that kings own.

Sonnet 29: analysis

This is a pretty straightforward sentiment, and requires no in-depth analysis – and perhaps that’s the key to the poem’s success. Well, that and the fact that the sentiment is very well expressed, of course, so it’s fun to analyse the language of Sonnet 29. Note, for instance, how Shakespeare repeats the word ‘state’ (it features three times in the poem), playing on its double meaning of ‘kingdom’ and ‘situation’. Indeed, ‘state’ is used twice to end a line, and so the b rhyme is the same as the f rhyme, which doesn’t often happen in a Shakespearean sonnet (which is typically rhymed ababcdcdefefgg).

And note how the word ‘state’ comes at us three times in total: Shakespeare curses his ‘outcast state’, then his ‘state’ is altered by thinking on his beloved, and then he would turn his nose up at the chance to alter his ‘state’ (or situation) with that of a king who has everything. This ‘state’ pun is a little obvious, perhaps, but it does neatly anticipate the meaning of that final couplet, namely that swapping the Bard’s humble but blessed state of being loved for a whole kingdom (and the love of an entire people) would be foolish.

Who is the addressee of Sonnet 29, ‘When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes’? Like all of the early Sonnets (indeed, the first 126 of them!), Sonnet 29 is addressed to a young man with light hair and a fair complexion – known commonly as the ‘Fair Youth’. By this point in the sonnet sequence, Shakespeare is opening up about his true feelings for the young man – although, of course, we don’t need to get side-tracked by biographical analysis of the poem when reading Sonnet 29. Because Shakespeare addresses his poem directly to its recipient, the poem can be read as a universal declaration of how Being In Love Makes All Other Problems Disappear. And can make us feel like kings.

What do you think of Sonnet 29? When ‘in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes’, and feeling yourself all alone, have you ever taken solace from recalling the fact that you are loved?

Continue to explore the world of Shakespeare’s work with our pick of the 10 greatest Shakespeare plays and our pick of the most common misconceptions about Shakespeare. You might also enjoy our analysis of Shakespeare’s famous Sonnet 116.

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.

The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.

10 Comments

  1. Jeanie Buckingham

    I have always found that a cream doughnut helps.

    Sent from my iPad

    >

  2. ‘Like to the lark at break of day arising’ – my heart responded when I read this line. So beautiful.

  3. Mathew Macfayden recorded a modern visual of this sonnet. He captured its essence well.

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