A summary of Shakespeare’s 49th sonnet
‘Against that time’: these three words begin the first, fifth, and ninth lines of Shakespeare’s 49th sonnet – each of the poem’s three quatrains, in other words. In this poem, in other words, the Bard considers a dark day in the future when the Fair Youth will realise that he, Shakespeare, is not worthy of his love, and will go off him. The poem deserves some close analysis for its treatment of an all-too-familiar theme: how you cope with loving somebody who you think is just simply too good for you.
Against that time, if ever that time come,
When I shall see thee frown on my defects,
When as thy love hath cast his utmost sum,
Called to that audit by advis’d respects;
Against that time when thou shalt strangely pass,
And scarcely greet me with that sun, thine eye,
When love, converted from the thing it was,
Shall reasons find of settled gravity;
Against that time do I ensconce me here,
Within the knowledge of mine own desert,
And this my hand, against my self uprear,
To guard the lawful reasons on thy part:
To leave poor me thou hast the strength of laws,
Since why to love I can allege no cause.
Don Paterson, in his Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets, is not shy of criticising those sonnets which he doesn’t think quite succeed; but he considers Sonnet 49 an underrated gem. Before we go another further, though, a brief paraphrase of the poem’s meaning:
‘In preparation for that day (if the day should come) when you will realise my flaws and shortcomings, when you have finished weighing up the sums like an accountant and have recalled your respected position in society; in preparation for that day when you will walk straight past me like a stranger, and barely even look my way, when your love for me has turned away, and you will find reasons to keep away from me; in preparation for that day, I tell myself that the day will come when you will desert me, and I here raise my hand and hereby swear to defend you when you decide to leave me. For the decision to leave me is so strong as to be practically enforced by law, since I can’t understand why someone as great as you would love me in the first place.’
The argument is advanced using several tropes Shakespeare has already used in the Sonnets: accountancy and bookkeeping (‘audit’, ‘sum’), and the law (‘lawful’, ‘allege’). But some of the things we most admire about Sonnet 39 may be entirely aleatory or serendipitous: although the word doesn’t appear anywhere in the sonnet, we like the way ‘flaws’ peeps out from ‘strength of laws’ in that penultimate line, given the poem’s earlier talk of ‘defects’. The double meaning of ‘converted’ is also worthy of closer analysis: here it means both ‘turned away’ and ‘transformed’, and in fact chiefly, in all likelihood, means the former: the Fair Youth will turn away from Shakespeare in disgust or indifference.
If you found this analysis of Sonnet 49 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.