A Short Analysis of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 43: ‘When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see’

A summary of Shakespeare’s 43rd sonnet

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 43 opens with an apparent paradox: ‘When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see’. How can you see most clearly when your eyes are, in fact, closed? The answer: when you’re dreaming. This is another one of William Shakespeare’s sleep sonnets, returning to a theme first explored in Sonnet 27.

When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see,
For all the day they view things unrespected;
But when I sleep, in dreams they look on thee,
And darkly bright, are bright in dark directed.
Then thou, whose shadow shadows doth make bright,
How would thy shadow’s form form happy show
To the clear day with thy much clearer light,
When to unseeing eyes thy shade shines so!
How would, I say, mine eyes be blessed made
By looking on thee in the living day,
When in dead night thy fair imperfect shade
Through heavy sleep on sightless eyes doth stay!
All days are nights to see till I see thee,
And nights bright days when dreams do show thee me.

First, a paraphrase of the meaning of Sonnet 43: ‘I see the most clearly when my eyes are closed: all day when they are open, they see things but don’t really regard them properly. But when I’m asleep, in my dreams my eyes see you and, in the dark of night, I see you more brightly than in daytime. Given how brightly you shine in people’s eyes when they are asleep, imagine what a wonderful and happy display your real form (whose shadow has the ability to make other shadows bright) could create in daytime, using your light (which is much clearer than the daylight)! How happy and blessed would my eyes be made if I could look on you during the daylight, given that in the darkness of night your fair but insubstantial shadow manages to imprint itself upon me during sleep! All days are nights (i.e. dark) until I see you again, and yet nights are bright days given the dreams that show you to me.’

Something is always lost when you paraphrase a poem, they say, but this is arguably truer of Sonnet 43 than most other poems, since much of the sonnet’s energy derives from its play on words – such as the way ‘form’ shifts from a noun to a verb in the sixth line: ‘How would thy shadow’s form form happy show’ (and look at how ‘show’, while we’re on this line, is a constriction, and yet at the same time a happy and brighter recasting, of ‘shadow’). Or consider the playing around with ideas of ‘seeing’ and the associations of ‘night’ and ‘day’ with, respectively, misery and happiness. For what marks out Sonnet 43 as an example of the ‘sleepless sonnet’ (for another notable example, see Sir Philip Sidney’s ‘Come sleep, O sleep’) is the way it deftly overturns these associations, making night the happy time (because it shows Shakespeare an image or shadow/shade of the Fair Youth’s beautiful form) and day the dark time (because the Fair Youth is absent):

All days are nights to see till I see thee,
And nights bright days when dreams do show thee me.

But there are other noteworthy features of the poem, worthy of close analysis: ‘fair imperfect shade’ teeters on the edge of oxymoron (how can something be both fair and imperfect? Well it can when the Fair Youth is only an illusion, an untouchable figure or ‘shade’, rather than the flesh-and-blood reality).

If you found this short analysis of Sonnet 43 useful, you can discover more about Shakespeare’s Sonnets here.

One Comment

  1. Thank you again for your work on these neglected poems!

    Like Sonnet 33 which calls forth the word Son and may be read to refer to the loss of an infant child (commented on previously), Sonnet 43 may be read in a similar way. The emphasis on shadows and shades in lines 5, 6, 8, and 11 evokes the idea of the afterlife much more strongly for a 17th century reader than it does for us today. Following the loss of a loved one, many people experience vivid dreams in which the deceased is still living. The poet’s yearning to see the child in the “living day” becomes more acute if the only “real” hope of seeing him is in heaven. Compared with the other sonnets, the language of this poem is very simple and so consistent with the addressee being an infant child.