A reading of a Shakespeare sonnet
We left Shakespeare, at the end of Sonnet 27, lamenting the fact that thoughts of the Fair Youth keep him awake at night; now, in Sonnet 28, he continues this thread, bemoaning the fact that his nights and his days are ruined thanks to his love for the young man. ‘How can I then return in happy plight, / That am debarred the benefit of rest?’ In other words, if I can’t get some rest at night and recharge my batteries, how am I going to be able to function during the day? Below is a short summary and analysis of Sonnet 28.
How can I then return in happy plight,
That am debarred the benefit of rest?
When day’s oppression is not eas’d by night,
But day by night and night by day oppressed,
And each, though enemies to either’s reign,
Do in consent shake hands to torture me,
The one by toil, the other to complain
How far I toil, still farther off from thee.
I tell the day, to please him thou art bright,
And dost him grace when clouds do blot the heaven:
So flatter I the swart-complexion’d night,
When sparkling stars twire not thou gild’st the even.
But day doth daily draw my sorrows longer,
And night doth nightly make grief’s length seem stronger.
We agree with Don Paterson, in his Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets: A New Commentary, that this poem is a little underrated cracker, though we can’t agree with him that Sonnet 29, which follows it, is a ‘duffer’ and ‘fluff’. But it’s certainly odd that Sonnet 28 has not attracted as much admiration as some of the other sonnets.
In summary, Sonnet 28 focuses on Shakespeare’s inability to get any rest, either during the day or at night. How can he be happy during waking hours when he can’t get any rest when he goes to bed of a night? A sleepless night makes the day hell, and a hellish day keeps him awake at night. It’s a game of ‘mutual oppression’, if you will. The phrase ‘happy plight’ seems oxymoronic, but ‘plight’ in Shakespeare’s time didn’t have the negative connotations it now has – it could simply mean ‘state’ or ‘condition’.
What’s more, although night and day are typically seen as ‘enemies’ or opposites, they are happy to shake hands and broker peace between themselves in order that they may conspire to make the poor Bard’s life a misery. Day makes life hard because he has to ‘toil’ or work all day, and night makes things worse because he is plagued by the unpleasant thought that no matter how hard he works, he seems further and further away from his love.
From line 9, Shakespeare says that he tries to rid himself of this wretched state by telling the day that the Youth is bright and so takes some of the pressure off the day, since the young man can also make the day bright, even when the sky is filled with clouds. Similarly, he says that he tells the night that when it’s completely dark and the stars don’t twinkle (‘twire’ is an old word for ‘twinkle’), the brightness provided by the Fair Youth makes the evening light and golden.
Shakespeare concludes by saying that day makes his sorrows greater every day, and night makes the length of his period of grief seem even longer. (Some editions alter ‘length’ to ‘strength’ in that last line, but the majority favour ‘grief’s length’.)
The language of Sonnet 28 is fun to examine and analyse. The night/day dichotomy – they are opposites, but presented here as complements, conspirators in league with each other – allows Shakespeare to flex his rhetorical muscles. In that final couplet, for instance, ‘day doth daily’ and ‘night doth nightly’ complement each other, with the strategic placing of these two complementary phrases in the final couplet of the poem reinforcing the idea of night and day being a sort of double act, working to undermine the poet’s peace of mind.
Otherwise, there’s not much else to say (at least we can’t think of anything illuminating): the poem is plain and simple and there’s no need for further analysis or comment. What do you think of Sonnet 28?
If you found this analysis of Sonnet 28 useful, you can discover more of Shakespeare’s best sonnets with ‘Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore’, ‘When to the sessions of sweet silent thought’, and ‘Farewell! thou art too dear for my possessing’.
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.