A summary of Shakespeare’s 51st sonnet
‘Thus can my love excuse the slow offence / Of my dull bearer when from thee I speed’: Sonnet 51 is very much a continuation or Shakespeare’s 50th sonnet, which focused on the journey Shakespeare made away from his friend and beloved, the Fair Youth.
Thus can my love excuse the slow offence
Of my dull bearer when from thee I speed:
From where thou art why should I haste me thence?
Till I return, of posting is no need.
O! what excuse will my poor beast then find,
When swift extremity can seem but slow?
Then should I spur, though mounted on the wind,
In winged speed no motion shall I know,
Then can no horse with my desire keep pace.
Therefore desire, (of perfect’st love being made)
Shall neigh, no dull flesh, in his fiery race;
But love, for love, thus shall excuse my jade,
Since from thee going, he went wilful-slow,
Towards thee I’ll run, and give him leave to go.
Sonnet 51 poses a challenge for the critic or commentator concerning the second word of the 11th line; but we’ll come on that curious debate. First, a brief paraphrase of this ‘sequel’ to Sonnet 50: ‘The love I feel for you can overlook the slowness with which my horse travels, since neither he nor I wish to be journeying away from you; why should I seek to speed away from where you are? Until I make my return journey and am speeding back to you, I don’t need a post horse – i.e. a really fast one. What excuse will my poor horse find for not running fast enough for me? Even if he travels as fast as he can, it will still seem too slow when I’m journeying back to you. When the time comes to return to you, I will dig my spurs into the animal’s side, and ride like the wind, as fast as though I were flying; yet it will still feel as if I’m standing still. There isn’t a horse in the world that can ride as fast as I want it to, in my impatience to get back to where you are. Therefore my desire will neigh like a horse in a race, expressing impatience to get to the finish-line. For my love for you, I will excuse my tired horse from his duties: since when I was travelling from you, he went deliberately slowly, I will run back to you, and let him go.’
The 11th line of Sonnet 51 has caused critics and editors no end of trouble. What on earth does Shakespeare mean? How should we interpret this line – and do we need to emend it before it’s possible for it to start making sense? We’ve opted to preserve the word ‘neigh’ which features in the original printing of the Sonnets, but to add punctuation to the line so that its meaning becomes more plain: ‘desire, which is no dull flesh like my horse but is instead a powerful force encouraging me to speed my way, shall neigh like a horse running a race.’ In his authoritative Shakespeare’s Sonnets (Yale Nota Bene), Stephen Booth recommends reading ‘naigh’ as ‘deny’ (sometimes spelt, we might add, ‘denay’, at least when used to mean ‘denial’), so the line roughly means ‘shall refuse or deny no dull flesh’ or, to paraphrase, ‘will take any old flesh’, with an obvious sexual innuendo.
Don Paterson, in Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets: A New Commentary, suggests altering ‘neigh’ to ‘rein’, since this could have been misread as ‘neigh’ (inspired by the horsey theme of the sonnet) by the printer or compositor, hence the ‘mistake’ in the original edition of the Sonnets. But ‘neigh’ (or ‘naigh’ in that first 1609 printing) does fit with the idea of horse and rider being a sort of team, with Shakespeare only deciding to sever his ties with his steed at the end of Sonnet 51, and essentially do all his own running.
Our own small contribution to this analytical or editorial debate would be to point out that ‘nigh’, as a verb, was sometimes rendered as ‘neigh’ or ‘naigh’, and as well as meaning ‘to draw near’ also carried the sense (first attested, according to the OED, in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight from c. 1390) of ‘to take or accept’ or ‘to partake of’. If we grant that ‘naigh’ was a variant spelling on ‘nigh’, and that ‘nigh’ could mean ‘to partake of’, this section of Shakespeare’s sonnet might be interpreted as: ‘Therefore desire … Shall partake of no dull flesh in his fiery race.’ In other words: ‘I won’t need my dull old horse on the way back, as my desire will carry me home to my beloved.’ But also, in keeping with the implied sexual meaning: ‘I won’t accept any old flesh to satisfy my burning desire’ – i.e., only you, the Fair Youth, will do.
However, you may disagree with this proposed reading of the lines, and wish to apply the principle of Occam’s Razor: since ‘naigh’ (‘neigh’) makes sense in the context of a poem about horses. But then the equine meaning doesn’t necessarily have to stand apart from the proposed alternative: in choosing to render either ‘deny’ or ‘accept’ as ‘neigh’, Shakespeare was lending the word a suitably horsey secondary meaning, even while the principal sense was ‘deny’ (or, if you buy our analysis, ‘accept’). But enough of such word-sifting.
If you found this summary and analysis of Shakespeare’s 51st sonnet 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.