The Sonnets

Sonnet 129 immediately appealed to me for its utter disgust with lust. In its extreme hyperbole, it almost seems sarcastic, ironic: not only is “lust in action” described as “th’expense of spirit” – the loss of semen through orgasm, which was commonly believed to shorten life – but “th’expense of spirit in a waste of shame.” “And, ‘til action, lust/is perjured, murd’rous, bloody, full-of-blame/savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not-to-trust,” could be read as a haphazard compilation of the most terrible adjectives that came to mind. But further considered, all of these adjectives can logically be tied to lust: it is often lied for, occasionally tied to the violent impulse, bloody at times, and in this paradigm of believing it’s a shameful waste of spirit – both life and afterlife – surely its full-of-blame, it’s primal, which is extreme, and to the cultivated, rude, cruel, and not to trust.

With this little effort of the imagination, this has become a very dark poem, full of scathing energy, and, indeed, as it continues, it continues to run full-steam on this course, seemingly enjambing this list of adjectives to the next line, with “enjoyed,” which turns out to end the list, and also play double-duty as it begins another sentence, “enjoyed no sooner, then despised straight,” which again damns lust and those who lust while to a similar, parallel structured critic: “Past reason hunted, and no sooner had/Past reason hated, like a swallowed bait,” which is again a complete sentence in itself, but again the momentum of the poem augments the case of bait from accusative to nominative, and, in a new sentence, beginning on the next line, plays out the similie the previous line ended on, with a violent image of the act of lust: “On purpose laid, to make the taker mad/Mad in pursuit, and in possession so,/Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme.” Here, once lust-previous-to-action has been ruminated upon and cast in a most negative light, the speaker goes beyond describing it as an expense of spirit in a waste of shame, and proclaims that it drives the luster mad in all three tenses, forward and backward, and hints that this is part of some other’s plan – the plan of some utterly ambiguous other who has the power to create human response.

The poem continues: “A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe,/Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.” The first line here, separated only by a comma from the line before it, surely keeps up the momentum and damnation of the rest of the poem as it is almost an echo of the line, “Enjoyed no sooner, then despised straight,” but the second line, “Before, a joy proposed; behind a dream,” is more ambiguous. The first part of the line is almost synonymous with the line before it, but then there is a semi-colon, slowing down the tempo, and when the line picks up the conclusion of the line before, it has changed “very woe”, to “a dream”. This is less damning to say the least, and very morally ambiguous. A dream could be implying that there is no reality to the joy proposed, or something else.

In Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick essay on Shakespeare’s Sonnets, “Swan in Love”, from her book, “Between Men”, she uses the lines, “A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe,/Before, a joy proposed, behind, a dream”, to illustrate her point that in Shakespeare’s Sonnets, and all Homosocial English Literature, the male-male bond and male-female bond, are at odds, that the male-male, as seen in the sonnets to the fair, young man, are spatially conceived and thus stable, while the male-female bond of the dark lady sonnets are temporally conceived, and thus volatile, that his tension with the fair, young man can either lead to a progression of the male power as a whole or no change at all, while all tension with the dark lady will lead to a ruining of his manly power.

She explains this by arguing that Sexuality is unrealized in the fair, young man sonnets, and present in the dark lady sonnets, and that Sexuality, in all the sonnets, is characterized “as a principle of irreversible change, as the diachronic itself,” hence it can change bliss to very woe, and joy proposed, to a dream.

Using this conclusion, she aligns Time with emasculating female sexuality, opposed by marriage, family, and poetry. While I agree with her dichotomy, I believe that coming after a full stop, the couplet of this sonnet, “All this the world well knows, yet none knows well,/To shun the heaven, that leads men to such hell,” hints at a potential deeper progression, through the paradoxes that arise through the conflicts of these opposing forces, to something greater than the male power as a whole.

In Richard Levine’s essay, “Sonnet 129 as a Dramatic Poem,” he argues that the sonnet is best read as an internal-monologue of a speaker working through his disgust with a sexual action, rather than something more static, and points to the couplet as justification for that, stating that it implies a turn in the speaker’s feelings toward lust. Levine also points out that “dream” lacks concrete, negative implications, and states that in the same way, the word hell, the most inclusive damnation of lust in the poem, is undercut by being preceded by heaven, the most inclusive apotheosis of lust in the poem.

Truly, it can be read either way: heaven can undercut hell, or hell can undercut heaven. My interest is in that ambiguity, and, like the word “dream,” why it exists in this poem at all.

When considering the rest of Shakespeare’s work, paradoxical, dream-like love plays a rather important role. I am thinking specifically of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where the dream-world, the green world, viewed as a force of disorder within the play, has the strongest role in ordering the events of the play, and Demetrius, the only character who remains altered from his original state by the invisible spirits of the dream-world, proclaims his love to be the truest of all.

This is at once a clear instance of dramatic irony, but also a paradoxically redemptive moment, because his self-deception, which is so complete and thorough that it can barely still be called a deception, leads to an ordered, blissful state for the entire court. Likewise, depending on the realm – heaven or hell – to which one lends the dream of lust, ones response can vary widely. And while through most of this poem Shakespeare frames it in a negative light, he does so through the assumption of his society – that is, that it is the expense of spirit. But at other times he frames it as an equally-paradoxical, positive light, on a very personal level, which is how Levine reads the couplet of this Sonnet, and how I read the entirety of my favorite Sonnet, 138.

To me, a similar sigh resounds through both Sonnet 129 and 138, though it is discussed in neither. When I imagine “th’expense of spirit in a waste of shame” of Sonnet 129, I see a lover rolled over in his sheets after committing the act reprehended through at least the bulk of the rest of the poem, and hear him sigh a long breath of lament – a bit of his soul and breath-of-life escaping forever – but also satisfaction, for having released it in such a beautiful act. Even though the speaker tries to eliminate that second reading of the sigh from the image, it creeps back in through words like dream and heaven. Imagining Sonnet 138, I see a similar image, but now both lovers are present, lying in each other’s arms, sighing like the speaker of Sonnet 129, knowing that their contentedness is built on lies, but content none-the-less, because they have reconciled the contradictions of Sonnet 129.

“When my lover swears that she is full of truth/I do believe her though I know she lies.” In Margreta De Grazia’s essay, “Babbling Will in Shake-speares Sonnets”, she argues that this second line, “I do believe her, though I know she lies,” is an example of how Shakespeare’s “language, once appropriated by desire, loses its proper association with reason.” I agree with her that the clear statement of reason is, “I know she lies,” which is seemingly contradicted by the statement of desire, “I do believe her.” I even agree with her when she says that this paradox, along with many others in the sonnet sequence, break the law of noncontradiction, the basis of Aristotelian logic, but I must disagree with her when she states that this renders his “dialectic” impotent.

By calling his sonnets and sonnet sequence a “dialectic”, Grazia is clearly working under the assumption that sonnets are a form of rhetoric, but even within that framework, Shakespeare is succeeding on a higher level than that of the law of noncontradiction, and one that she pointed out, no less: that of paradox – a seeming contradiction that reveals a greater truth. In this sonnet Shakespeare can simultaneously know the dark lady lies and believe her, moving his poem beyond the realm of rhetoric because it is not a dialectic, it is art, it is a sonnet sequence.

To read that second line and dismiss it for internal contradiction is to miss the point; to read it line and realize it is a paradox that contains a deeper truth, and search for that deeper truth in the poem and oneself is the point. And, indeed, the rest of the poem does explore the truth behind this paradox.

Many people argue for reading both meanings of the word lie into this second line, implying that the dark lady is unfaithful, but the poem proceeds to explain, in great detail, what she lies about: “That she might think me some untutored youth/Unlearned in the world’s false subtleties.” She tells him he is young, and though he knows she lies, he believes her: “Thus vainly thinking that she thinks me young,/Although she knows my days are past the best,/Simply I credit her false-speaking tongue;/On both sides thus is simple truth suppressed.”

Here, we immediately feel like we are in a different world than that of Sonnet 129. There is no raging, emotional energy at work. We have already experience two full stops, and one semi-colon: the speaker is much slower, and more reflective, making clear statements. That established, he argues that there is something more at work here than simple self-delusion: “But wherefore says she not she is unjust,/And wherefore say not I that I am old?/O, love’s best habit is in seeming trust,/And age in love loves not to have years told.”

. Where Sonnet 129 can easily be read as a speaker working though an emotion, this can easily be read as a speaker writing a poem about an emotion they have figured out. In Heather Venler’s commentary on this Sonnet, from her book, “The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets,” she argues that it is not a poem of resolution because it ends where it begins, and depends on reported speech, i.e. we do not hear the dark lady say she is unjust, but hear it reported by the speaker. To me, both of these points only indicate a greater degree of resolution. The conclusion of the poem does not alter the beginning because it is a logical progression through paradoxes, to a clear ending.

And the reason for lack of reported speech is clear: because the speaker does not feel he has to report it – as the poem implies, that is not important; what is important, is the way he frames it in his mind: “Therefore I lie with her, and she with me,
And in our faults by lies we flattered be.” As Heather Dubrow points out in her book, “Captive Victors,” this speaker is both fully aware, and through that awareness, utterly naïve. In other words, he can only achieve this state of pure bliss because he is aware such a state can never be achieve, and thus he must create it, a point William Blake would make about The Fall centuries later. And in this sonnet, for every time the speaker is the subject, he is also the object of his subject, so we can see, whether he can or not (we’ll never know), that she is equally aware of his dishonesty, and thus equally, blissfully, naïve.

Both the speaker of this poem, and his lover, believe what they must to be content, happy; through unreality, creating the most pleasant reality for all involved, like the speaker of Sonnet 129 must do in order to make a heaven of his hell, and like Demetrius does for the reality of all the characters of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. While it could be argued that the speaker of this sonnets happiness is more precarious because he knows it is based on lies, while Demetrius does not, I would agree with William Blake that the reverse is true, that coming from the speaker’s awareness that he is Demetrius-like creating a heaven of hell, with his wisdom of both the positive and negative aspects of knowledge, he more fully understands the value therein, and can thus turn a perturbed sigh that within its social context sparks a rage straight to hell, into a blissful sigh that through the lover’s mind, into his lover’s arms, raises him to heaven.


Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial

Desire, N.Y.: Columbia U.P., 1985

Levine, Richard, “Sonnet 129 as a ‘Dramatic’ Poem.” Shakespeare Quarterly 16 (1965):

p. 179

De Grazia, Margreta, “Babbling Will in Shake-speares Sonnets 127 to 154.Spenser

Studies 1 (1980)

Vendler, Helen, The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Harvard University Press (1997)

Dubrow, Heather, Captive Victors, Cornell University Press (1987)

share this page: