A summary of Shakespeare’s 52nd sonnet
Sonnet 52 is another poem about absence, and about Shakespeare having to be apart from the Fair Youth. The rather dense and knotty conceit, which centres on locked-up treasure, requires a bit of untangling and closer analysis, but first, here is Sonnet 52 and a brief paraphrase of its content.
So am I as the rich, whose blessed key,
Can bring him to his sweet up-locked treasure,
The which he will not every hour survey,
For blunting the fine point of seldom pleasure.
Therefore are feasts so solemn and so rare,
Since, seldom coming in the long year set,
Like stones of worth they thinly placed are,
Or captain jewels in the carcanet.
So is the time that keeps you as my chest,
Or as the wardrobe which the robe doth hide,
To make some special instant special-blest,
By new unfolding his imprisoned pride.
Blessed are you whose worthiness gives scope,
Being had, to triumph, being lacked, to hope.
Sonnet 52 takes up the idea of a locked-up treasure which we’d previously encountered in Sonnet 48. Here, though, Shakespeare is trying to console himself for the fact that there are times when he and the Fair Youth must be apart; he tells himself that the pleasure of seeing the young man again, after an enforced absence, is all the sweeter. ‘Absence makes the heart grow fonder’, we might say, or ‘anticipation is nine-tenths of the pleasure’.
So, to paraphrase the meaning of Sonnet 52: ‘I’m like a rich man with a key to his locked-up treasure, who refrains from opening it up and looking at his riches all the time – it’s better to open the treasure chest only rarely, because then the pleasure of gazing upon his riches is heightened. Or it’s like feast days which are rare and scattered throughout the annual calendar, like rare gems, or precious jewels set in a necklace (or carcanet). The time when we are apart is like that treasure chest, or like a wardrobe which houses a fine robe; knowing it’s there but being unable to touch it all the time makes those special times when you can touch it even more special. You are truly blessed [Fair Youth], because when someone possesses you they feel they have triumphed, and when someone lacks your presence, they live in hope and anticipation of being with you again.’
As Don Paterson points out in his Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets: A New Commentary, line 10 uses wordplay to enact the meaning of the line: the ‘robe’ is literally hiding in the word ‘wardrobe’. This is a nice touch in a sonnet whose meaning Paterson, for one, doesn’t altogether buy: is Shakespeare trying to have his cake and eat it here? Essentially, Sonnet 52 might be interpreted as saying: ‘When I have you, I’m happy; when you’re apart from me, I look forward to being with you.’ Perhaps he is trying too much, with this conceit, to convince himself: the gentleman doth protest too much, methinks.
In Sonnet 52, Shakespeare immediately starts off by likening himself to a rich man, and he ends by likening himself to the blessed. But we should remember that this sonnet comes in a broader sequence which is concerned with absence, uncertainty, and moping. If you found this analysis of Sonnet 52 helpful, 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.