A reading of a classic Shakespeare sonnet
‘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.
In summary, 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. He confesses his envy of those who have more luck, or more friends, or some talent or range of vision which he himself lacks.
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.
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). 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 would be foolish.
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.