A commentary on Shakespeare’s 129th sonnet
When we reach no. 129 in Shakespeare’s Sonnets (‘The expense of spirit in a waste of shame’), we come across a rarity: two classic sonnets one after the other (we’ll come to Sonnet 130 next week). This first one is famous for its analysis of the psyche (particularly the male psyche) after sexual gratification has been achieved. What explains the feeling of sadness, and even self-loathing, which often ensues? Before we take Sonnet 129 in hand and proceed to analyse it, here’s a reminder of the poem.
The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action: and till action, lust
Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust;
Enjoyed no sooner but despised straight;
Past reason hunted; and no sooner had,
Past reason hated, as a swallowed bait,
On purpose laid to make the taker mad.
Mad in pursuit and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have extreme;
A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind a dream.
All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.
In his masterly commentary on Sonnet 129 in his Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets, the poet Don Paterson brilliantly describes this poem as ‘a terrific display of self-directed fury, raging away in the little cage of the sonnet like a spitting wildcat.’ What does this sonnet mean? To paraphrase it: ‘The shameful act of sexual intercourse is lust personified; and until lust gets what it wants, it fills us with an aggressive determination to gratify it, no matter how cruelly it makes us act. But no sooner have we given in to our lusts than we despise them for driving us to do such uncharacteristically reprehensible things; it makes us to unreasonable things but as soon as we give it what it wants we hate it, feeling like a fish that has been tricked on purpose by a fisherman’s bait, and driven to try madly and frantically to free itself from the trap into which it has fallen. We are mad in pursuit of our lusts, and when we are able to gratify and possess our lusts we are mad too; our feelings become extreme when we are enjoying sex and when we are in pursuit of it. While we are experiencing arousal and pleasure it is bliss, but as soon as it’s over we are filled with misery: before that moment, it seemed a delightful prospect, but after it’s over, it seems like a dream and we can’t quite believe we felt that way. Everyone knows this only too well, yet nobody knows how to curb their lusts that drive us to such a pit of misery.’
So many words in Sonnet 129 do such a great deal of work, that we could easily write several thousand words of analysis on this poem. Consider that first line alone: ‘The expense of spirit in a waste of shame’. ‘Expense’ is both expending or giving away, but also implies cost, something that one has to give up (‘the price of pleasure’, if you will). The word ‘spirit’ means ‘inner vitality’ but also ‘sexual energy’, implying that giving in to one’s erotic urges saps one’s vitality; but ‘spirit’ might also be construed as a euphemism for ‘semen’, so ‘expense of spirit’ describes both the literal act of sexual climax and the emotional and psychological consequences of it. That phrase ‘a waste of shame’ can mean ‘a wasteland of shame’ (‘waste’ as an area of desolate land), but also ‘shameful waste’, suggesting that the sexual act was not worth the loss of vitality it was believed to incur. There is also a possible pun here on a woman’s (specifically a prostitute’s) waist, her ‘waist of shame’ – i.e. when the man expends his ‘spirit’ into a woman’s ‘waist of shame’, he loses something of his strength and life-force. In other words (as it were), there is a great deal of play and polyvalency packed into Sonnet 129.
As Paterson observes in his commentary on this sonnet, ‘Your anticipatory-thrill dopamine goes through the roof during arousal, but the prolactin secreted during orgasm suddenly suppresses it, so you get a mood-plummet’. This hormonal cause of the deflated and despairing feeling that can follow sexual intercourse is misinterpreted by us, Paterson argues, and we analyse this sudden mood-change as self-disgust, guilt, or ‘shame’ for having succumbed to sexual temptation (especially, we might add, bearing in mind the love triangle of the Sonnets involving the Dark Lady and the Fair Youth, the sex was adulterous). This ‘mood-plummet’ is more physical than psychological, yet what Shakespeare brilliantly captures in Sonnet 129 is the way we, as thinking animals, misinterpret this hormone-shift as a mind-issue rather than a body-issue. Has anyone expressed this very specific feeling better than Shakespeare? Each line seems to add some new and peculiarly acute insight into what it’s like. It was known to the ancients, too: Omne animal post coitum triste est is the phrase they used for it, meaning ‘after sex every animal is sad’ – the Roman physician Galen added ‘except women and roosters’, but we won’t probe too much into that.
If you found this analysis of Sonnet 129 useful, you can discover more about the Sonnets here.