A summary of Shakespeare’s 50th sonnet
And so we come to the 50th sonnet in Shakespeare’s sequence of 154 sonnets. In this poem, Shakespeare describes a journey on horseback in which he travels away from his beloved. From the sonnet’s second word, ‘heavy’, onwards, the language of Sonnet 50 invites close analysis as the emotion joins with the physical in a fine example of pathetic fallacy.
How heavy do I journey on the way,
When what I seek, my weary travel’s end,
Doth teach that ease and that repose to say,
‘Thus far the miles are measured from thy friend!’
The beast that bears me, tired with my woe,
Plods dully on, to bear that weight in me,
As if by some instinct the wretch did know
His rider lov’d not speed being made from thee.
The bloody spur cannot provoke him on,
That sometimes anger thrusts into his hide,
Which heavily he answers with a groan,
More sharp to me than spurring to his side;
For that same groan doth put this in my mind,
My grief lies onward, and my joy behind.
First, a brief paraphrase of Sonnet 50: ‘How wearily and miserably do I travel when my destination, as it comes into view, only reminds me of how far I have travelled away from my friend. My horse, tired of bearing such a miserable rider, plods along slowly and dully, bearing both my physical weight and the misery that weighs me down emotionally – going so slowly, it’s as if my horse senses that I don’t want to be journeying away from you. The spur of my boot, bloody from where I have angrily dug it into the horse’s flank to get him to go faster, cannot force him to increase his speed; he groans in response to the pain occasioned by the spur’s contact with his skin. That groan pains me more than the actual physical pain of the spur hurts him! For his groan reminds me that you, who make me happy, are left behind, and what lies ahead, my destination, makes me miserable.’
Sonnet 50 is harder to summarise through paraphrase than many of the previous sonnets, because a number of the words Shakespeare uses in this poem turn on ambiguity: they need to mean two quite different things at once. For instance, in that opening line, ‘How heavy do I journey on the way’, ‘heavy’ does not mean simply ‘wearily’ or ‘miserably’ but also carries the literal meaning: it’s as if the horse has to bear Shakespeare’s literal weight, while he, Shakespeare, bears an equal but altogether more metaphorical, or emotional, one. ‘Dully’ in the sixth line also captures this emotional and physical slowness; the First Quarto printing of Shakespeare’s Sonnets in 1609 had ‘duly’ here, which most commentators on Sonnet 50 agree also works and is in keeping with the mood and meaning of the line. However, ‘dully’ fits more neatly with ‘heavy’ (and the ‘heavily’ that comes in line 11).
Shakespeare’s 50th sonnet is an example of pathetic fallacy, that term the nineteenth-century artist, art critic, and writer John Ruskin coined to describe the attribution, in literature and art, of human feelings and responses to inanimate things or animals – here, the horse that Shakespeare is riding, onto whom the Bard projects his own melancholy caused by leaving his friend, the Fair Youth, behind. Although the animal is obviously groaning with the pain induced by the rider’s spur digging into its flesh and drawing blood, Shakespeare (rather selfishly from our twenty-first-century viewpoint, with our greater kindness to animals) chooses to see this groan as a sort of echo of his own inward groan that is a result of his lovesickness. He doesn’t want to be riding away from the Youth; what’s more, when his journey is over and he reaches his destination, he still won’t feel happy, because he’ll be even further from his friend.
Stephen Booth, in a masterly gloss on this sonnet in his Shakespeare’s Sonnets (Yale Nota Bene), remarks that the endings of lines 10 and 12 would probably have sounded virtually identical in Shakespeare’s time, since the ‘g’ of ‘-ing’ words would have been spoken and heard as a more or less silent letter, so ‘into his hide’ and ‘spurring to his side’ would have been almost less than a rhyme and more of a repetition or echo (a sort of curious variation on rime riche, we might say). This echo or incidental repetition neatly reflects the mood of the poem, which is about moving forward, but only slowly. Whereas a typical rhyme moves things forward noticeably (from ‘love’ to ‘above’, for instance), ‘into his side’ and ‘-ing to his hide’ seem to stall – a bit like Shakespeare, and his horse, on their reluctant journey away from the Fair Youth.
If you found this short summary and analysis of Sonnet 50 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.