Shakespeare’s sonnets, as poems, have been obscured by the enormous amount of speculation, much of it unjustified, that has grown up around the problems presented by the dedication. The following sonnet is commonly grouped with 125 others that are believed to have been written to a much admired young man, who was Shakespeare’s junior in both years and social status.
The form in which the poem is written is often referred to as Shakespearean or English form. As in most of Shakespeare’s sonnets the argument proceeds by quatrains. Each quatrain presents an idea in itself. The poet in the first quatrain bewails his own lot; in the second contrasts that lot with other men’s; in the third, thinking of his beloved friend, he rises like the lark that “sings hymns at heaven’s gate”; and in the couplet his happiness is generalized in a final contrast.
To elaborate on what I have just said seems unnecessary but one must assume that one’s audience is completely stupid, thus the elaboration. In the first line the poet speaks of himself as being out of luck, and/or money and not well received by his fellow man. He has taken to crying about his social ostracism in line two. In an attempt to clarify for himself why he is in such a state he “troubles” heaven with his “bootless” or useless cries. But as the poet has made clear heaven turns a deaf ear and no response is forthcoming. Again he becomes introspective and curses his fate. This first quatrain has given us an image of a grown man “down and out” if you will, who is accepting no responsibility for his life’s station.
By the second quatrain the poet has taken to wishing he were more hopeful. He wants to be more popular with his peers and he desires the literary skill, “art”, and intellectual prowess, “scope”, of other men. It is almost humorous to think that Shakespeare, at one time, wished to be a better writer. Even that which most delights the poet no longer stays the pain he is feeling.
All is not lost, however. The third quatrain offers our poet hope. He is almost to the point of despising himself when suddenly salvation finds him. By some chance he thinks of his love (be that love male or female we know not). These thoughts overwhelm him with joy. His whole mood becomes “like the lark at break of day”. In short, he is uplifted. To show just how happy the poet has become he gives us a final contrast in the closing couplet.
For thy sweet love rememb’red such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
To give a more modern contrast, he wouldn’t change his life for all the tea in China.
Shakespeare is recognized as the penultimate playwright of our planet. A plethora of Ps, how perfectly prosaic. His sonnets are less well known than his plays but no less skillfully written. His poetry in fact conforms better to our modern view of good poetry than do his plays conform to our standards of good English. Shakespeare didn’t write his sonnets for publication and that makes them all the more valuable to the reader. These sonnets are much more a part of the poet than the plays. Thanks to Thomas Thorpe, who arranged the sonnets in 1609 for publication at the end of Shakespeare’s dramatic career and without his consent, we have some of the finest poetry not intended for the public.