A reading of Shakespeare’s 30th sonnet
‘When to the sessions of sweet silent thought / I summon up remembrance of things past’: these rank among the more famous lines from Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Sonnet 30 very much continues the idea introduced in the previous sonnet, that when he’s feeling a bit down the poet can make himself feel much better simply by thinking of the Fair Youth. Here is a short summary and analysis of Sonnet 30 and its uplifting loveliness.
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancelled woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanished sight:
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restor’d and sorrows end.
The second line may be familiar to some readers as the title of one of the English translations of Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (although in fact, Shakespeare himself was quoting the phrase: it’s found in the Wisdom of Solomon, a book from the Old Testament Apocrypha: ‘For a double griefe came upon them, and a groaning for the remembrance of things past’). This, and that opening line’s reference to ‘the sessions of sweet silent thought’, set the trend for Sonnet 30: it’s a poem of quiet contemplation, less ranting or frenetic than the previous sonnet.
In summary, Shakespeare tells us – and the Fair Youth to whom he addresses Sonnet 30 – that when he starts to think back over his life, he begins to feel down when he reflects how he has failed to achieve the things he wanted, and has wasted so much time. He weeps for his friends who are now dead, for unrequited love that has long since been banished from his mind (until now, anyway); he also weeps for things which he can no longer look upon and enjoy. Then he is made unhappy again by insults and slights he has received in the past (that are dead and buried), and he can add up his list of woes as though they’re recorded in an accounts book. These woes are all ‘fore-bemoanèd’, i.e. he’s already chewed them over many times and been made sad by them. It’s as if he’s paying for these past wrongs now for the first time, when in fact he’s already done so many times over in the past. But if Shakespeare simply thinks for a short while about the young man, then all of his sorrows are banished, and he is made happy again.
One of the most notable things about Sonnet 30 is Shakespeare’s use of financial terms from accounting: ‘dateless’, ‘cancell’d’, ‘expense’, ‘tell o’er’, ‘account’, ‘pay’, ‘losses’, and ‘restored’ are all borrowed from the world of accounts, but to these we might add ‘dear’ and ‘precious’, which – under pressure from these other words – come to take on a monetary flavour. It’s as if Shakespeare were analysing his list of woes in a methodical way, like a bookkeeper; this is not some disordered remembrance of past ills, but the action of an orderly and organised man who, for all his rational mindset, cannot get over the bad things that have happened to him in the past.
Sonnet 30 also borrows from the legal profession, too: ‘sessions’ and ‘summon’ in the first two lines are both related to the courts. There’s an official or ‘by-the-book’ feel to this poem, which prevents it from being mere self-indulgence. It also has a strong central conceit, as with many of the other sonnets. Shakespeare’s self-analysis and self-scrutiny are reined in by the economic tinge to the words he uses to describe his dark memories.
Continue to explore Shakespeare’s work with our pick of the 10 greatest Shakespeare plays. If you found this analysis of Sonnet 30 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 ‘When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defaced’.
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.