Sunday, March 22, 2009

Notes of Classic Literature: An Explication/Examination/Explanation of William Shakespeare's Sonnet 29

Sonnet XXIX.

“When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes”

WHEN in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featur’d like him, like him with friends possess’d,
Desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee,—and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.


Anyone who’s seen the film “Pretty Woman” knows how important this sonnet is. It is a great way to get women to like you more, and to sleep with you, which is what all great poems do. But what is the poem really about? Or, put another way, what is the poem saying, and what am I saying when I say the poem out loud?

The first thing to remember is that the author, William Shakespeare (“shack-uh-SPEER-ee,” sometimes mispronounced “shake-SPEER”), lived from 15__ to 16__, about 400 years ago. That explains why some of the language “does not fall pleasingly upon the ears” (Wordsworthfellow, 1810) of the modern reader. It also explains why some of the words are “confusing” (James, 1794). But once we learn about William the poet's time, and his use of popular slang, a whole new world opens up to the modern reader.

Title: Sonnet XXIX


The word “sonnet” is defined as a type of poem that William Hamlet and others of his era produced. It was typically used as the format for poems meant to impress ladies the poets wished to sleep with, or men who were paying the poets to author poems. People used to do that. Today, of course, poets write television commercial jingles and ringtones. “XXIX” refers to the poem’s placement amongst the other poems. It is a printer’s error.

WHEN in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes


The poem begins with the poet feeling sorry for himself. He is disgraced by fortune (he has very little money) and other men don’t like him.

I all alone beweep my outcast state,


Because other men don’t like him, he beweeping alone. An “outcast” is defined as someone who has been “cast out,” again a reference to his not having any friends. The point is that the author sure is sad and lonely.

And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,


But he whines about it to anyone who will listen, even if they’re not listening. Heaven, in this case, is deaf, which means Heaven (likely a stripper name, possibly Heaven Devine, although scholars are unsure on this point) can’t hear anything anyway. This of course is meant to be ironic, Heaven isn’t literally deaf, she’s just a stripper, and they’re paid to indulge the clients while dancing for them, or giving them lap dances. Just don’t try to touch them! That brings out the bouncers, and they really have no sympathy.

“Bootless cries” is a clear reference to Gargantua Pantagruel’s famous poem “Rabelais,” in which we learn “the boots of the cries/trample children ‘neath them/with effective despise”. The author, William Othello, is stating that his crying has not the same trampling effect as Pantagruel’s. It’s rumored that Pantagruel and Othello actually met, although that might be apocryphal.

And look upon myself, and curse my fate,


“Oh, the huge vanity!” as Brownstone wrote in 1880. But this is an unfair misunderpropriation of the terminology as William the poet used it in his time. Commonly, it was believed that those who “stared at themselves” were insane, and were to be committed to psychiatric hospital. Such a “fate” would indeed be “cursed.”

Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,


Me like this line, because the playful structure of the sentence, in which the author refers to himself as “me” and dropping the quantintative usurper “were” (i.e., “Wishing I were more like someone who weren’t so loathsome and stupid”), clearly denotes the mind of one who is insane, per the previous line. Moreover, the author, already established to be poor of money and possessions, is shown here to be lacking in “hope” as well. He would rather have “hope” than “money,” but “hope” doesn’t put food on the table, money does- another example of the deranged mind in action.

Featur’d like him, like him with friends possess’d,


Here we learn the problems with the iambs as set forth by the sonnet template. In order to qualify as a “sonnet,” each line of the poem must have a certain number of syllables (I’ll leave it for the reader to figure just how many syllables that is), which means that you have to drop in a lot of words that make no sense, such as “featured,” but you also have to remove a syllable from said word (“e”) in order to make it fit your template. The man is saying his “him” (not spelled “hymn,” or “song of religious devotion”) is without friends, by which he means that the strippers will not truly love him (“him,” not “hymn”- as I’ve said, this is a confusing poem). His life is devoid of friendship, even he now understands the strippers are only in it for the money, and he has stated he does not have money. As Bonny John Donne bragged in 1607 in response to this poem, “the hymn of him of the sonnet twenty-nine/Was shown to have nothing, nothing of mine” (“friends”).

Desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope,


Here the jealousy of the narrator comes through. At the time William Cymbeline wrote this poem, the term “art” referred to “sexual prowess,” and “scope” (which is short for “telescope”) meant “penis” (as Galileo put it so eloquently, “the telescope telescopes outward when aroused by the sight of stars” --some science scholars argue that this was the real reason Galileo went blind). The poet is expressing his sexual inadequacy- a bold statement for the times, when sexual inadequacy was not looked upon with same magnanimity as it is today (“it’s okay; it happens to everybody at one time or another”). As Shelley Keats put it in his famous 1812 poem “Spring Break ’12,” “Help me deal with my telescope’s changes/Please point out where all the strange is”.

Note: there is some debate over whether or not the line is meant to imply anything homosexual about the poem. As I’ve already stated, the lines above clearly imply that the author is at a strip club. Perhaps he is over-compensating, as Camille Paglia has argued (“Sonnet 29 is All About Homosexuality,” Chronicle of Higher Education, Spring 1989), attending strip clubs to “mask” his true feelings. I would argue this is not the case, but I don’t feel it’s important enough to argue one way or the other. If the reader chooses to believe that William Juliet was writing this poem to a man, that is his/her business. But I think that’s full of beans.

With what I most enjoy contented least;


Here the substitution of the word “contented” for “counted” is a playful way for the author add syllables to the line. He is lamenting the fact that he is impotent- he can watch the strippers with their "supple, nubile bodies grinding, undulating, and gyrating with the pulsating rhythms of the fevered night” (Behn, “The Town Fop,” 1676), but his penis cannot become “sufficiently engorged with blood to make it hard enough to insert into a woman’s oven” (Behn, “The False Count,” 1681).

Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,


Clearly, the author is being ironic in this line. There’s no “almost” about it- the impotent bastard clearly despises himself, because he’s a despicable character. As Litotes has said in his famous history of the period “The History of the Period,” “Any man who cannot get it up will be full of self-loathing and hatred for himself, which is just two ways of saying the same thing, but it is important enough to be restated.” “Important” enough, especially when the “r” is dropped from that word!

Haply I think on thee,—and then my state,


After starting with a made-up word so as to fit his syllable count, the author then begins to turn the tide of his feelings away from the self-loathing, to think on “thee blank.” Many have wondered about the addition of an extra “e” to the word “the,” and moreover wondered about the word that is hidden by the “—“. I can tell you that the “—“ is meant to stand in for “vagina.” Unfortunately, in William Lear’s time, there were no slang terms for “vagina.” It was considered so vulgar that it was unpublishable, as was any reference to it (How that would change in just a few short years with the publication of Robert Herrick’s famous “Ode to Julia’s Vagina” in 1622!). This is another example of why I believe the poem is heterosexual in nature. (The extra “e,” by the way, is meant to replace the e from the word “possess’d” [see above].) The narrator is hopeful that he will be able to become erect by thinking about vaginas, and all he can do is think about them, since he is probably in a mental hospital, as I’ve already established.

I should add that “state” is another slang term for “penis.” It’s been calculated that there were approximately 28,000 slang terms for penis during William the poet’s time.

Like to the lark at break of day arising


He compares his penis (“state”) to a bird (“lark”) flying (“arising”). Now things have really changed for the narrator! After all his impotence, just thinking about the vagina of the subject of this poem is enough to get it up again! Hooray for him! Also, this is where we get the term “morning wood,” where you wake up in the morning (“break of day”) with a boner (“arising”). As Duvet put it, “Awakened at the break of day/The cock a-crowing twice/Rolled over for a morning lay/Damn that sure was nice” (1744).

From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;


Ejaculation! The “sullen earth” was his former impotence (“earth” was a slang term for “penis” in William Antony’s time), and “singing” was a slang term for “ejaculation.” (Aside: It’s estimated that there were at least as many slang terms for ejaculation as there were for penis. Ironically, there were also slang terms for female ejaculation- see Christopher Marlowe’s “Dido, Queen of Carthage” from 1586 [“carthage” was a slang term for female ejaculation].) The narrator has overcome his problem, and just in time, because the poem is almost over.

For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.


This couplet (two lines that rhyme) brings together everything we’ve seen in the poem up to this point, from dropping syllables (“e” in “remembered”), to making up words to fit his cadence (“scorn” for “masturbate”). “Wealth” is a slang term for “ejaculation.” There is some argument in literary circles over whether or not the term “sweet love” was actually a slang term for vagina, but the evidence is shaky at best (see above for my explanation of why I don't believe it's so), and I want to deal only with what we literary scholars know for absolute certainty. Instead, I’ll simply rephrase the couplet in modern terms:

"Thinking about your lovemaking prowess causes me to ejaculate,
But unfortunately you’re not here, so I must masturbate."

I hope this explication of William Shakespeare’s famous 29th Sonnet has been helpful to you, the modern reader, and I hope you’ll think of me when you masturbate.

Ricky Sprague
March 22, 2009

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

I like how you modernized the couplet. Awesome

Ricky Sprague said...

Many thanks, anonymous! I certainly hope this essay has helped your understanding of the poem!

Jacob said...

Yes, in fact I was doing research on the sonnets of William Shakespeare. Due note that I have cited you as one of my sources.
Thank you very much.

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I have taken some poetry courses in college and I have read Shakespeare and I really needed a Shakespearian dictionary to understand or to try to understand his message behind the poems at the beginning, but then it was easier