One of the most beautiful and inspiring sonnets by William Shakespeare is Sonnet 29 (“When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes”). And due to its impeccable diction and brilliant metaphors it is one of the most accessible. Sadly, it is mainly Shakespeare’s Elizabethan era vocabulary (what linguists call “Early Modern English” that occurred soon after The Great Vowel Shift of the mid 1500s) and syntax (often inverted) that makes them a real challenge to modern readers. In the introduction to Shakespeare’s Sonnets Freshly Phrased, Joseph Gallagher notes, “Though usually straightforward is some respects, they can be quite difficult for modern readers — thanks to their often compact, allusive, elliptical, and highly metaphoric quality, and thanks to four centuries of vocabulary and stylistic changes.” Thou speakest truth, my lord!
However, regardless of their linguistic distinctiveness (or idiosyncrasies, based on your perspective), the brilliance of the sonnets is in their timelessness, that it is to say, they speak to every generation, subject to their interpretations. As Shakespeare scholar Jonathan Bate observed, “The genius of [Shakespeare’s] sonnets is their power to generate readings [ie, interpretations].” Which is an ideal segue to Sonnet 29. Shakespeare scholars divide the sonnets into two groups: Sonnets 1-126 are addressed to an alluring young man; Sonnets 127-154 are addressed to a woman or mistress (often referred to as the Dark Lady). Sonnet 29, of course, belongs to the first group and concerns itself with uplifting brotherly love (as opposed to sexual or agape love). But the poem, which is about the power of love, can apply to a friend, a lover, a spouse, or even on a spiritual level — Jesus’, God’s, or any deity’s redemptive love. The transformative message is found in the sonnet’s final couplet (known as the volta, “the turn” that expresses a profound epiphany): no matter how bad life seems to be or how alone you feel, the recollection of the love of a friend, lover, etc. is enough to make you feel extremely fortunate and enriched. Or expressed more succinctly, if you are loved take comfort that your life has meaning and you are never alone.
Below is Sonnet 29 as it was published in 1609 by Thomas Thorpe followed by a rephrased version for modern readers by Joseph Gallagher. Note that Shakespeare’s sonnets were meant to be read aloud, not silently in your mind. Take a moment to discover — or rediscover — its enduring beauty and inspiring message; and more importantly, share it with someone you love.
When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heav’n with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
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 rememb’red such wealth brings,
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
SONNET 29 REPHRASED
Sometimes, when I am in the bad graces of good fortune and have lost the esteem of others,
I find myself in utter loneliness.
Then shedding tears over my plight as an outcast, I badger deaf heaven with my useless prayers.
I gaze into the mirror and curse my fate.
I wish I had someone else’s richer prospects
or better looks, or more numerous friends.
I wish I had that man’s artistry, or that man’s influence.
My favorite delights please me least.
Yet, even in the midst of these almost self-hating thoughts,
I sometimes happen to think of you.
Then my state of mind becomes like the lark that rises
from sullen earth at daybreak and sings its hymns at the gates of heaven.
For when I remember your sweet love I feel so rich
that I would treat with contempt the chance to trade places with a king.
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For further reading: Shakespeare’s Sonnets: Freshly Pressed by Joseph Gallagher
The Genius of Shakespeare by Jonathan Bate
The Sonnets by William Shakespeare
Shakespeare’s Sonnets with Commentary by Stephen Booth