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,
Featured 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.
* * *
I haven’t read Shakespeare for a while but I rediscovered this one recently. If you’re unfamiliar with Shakespeare, not only did he write an impressive set of plays with piercing psychological and existential insights into humanity, he also wrote 150 sonnets on love, 150 alluding to the number of psalms in the Bible. Above is sonnet 29, which asserts the narrator’s consolation in love when jealously despising what other people have.
The first line determines the problem: The narrator lacks some fortune (possibly material wealth, or even basic means), and is somewhat looked down on by others around him.¹ This leads to sorrow (2), prayers with the accompanying feeling of being unheard (3), self-debasement (4), and jealously assessing those around him (5-8). There’s possibly a pun on ‘rich’ (5; cf. ‘wealth’ in line 13), although I’m unsure to what extent Shakespeare’s use coincides with our modern association with material affluence. The narrator is jealous of others because of their friends (6), and skills and freedoms (7), to the point that it undermines everything he himself enjoys (8).
When the narrator thinks on his love (9-10), he is like the lark (a type of bird) who sings to heaven in the midst of an imperfect world (11-12). To get to the depth of the metaphor here, Shakespeare’s classical sense of earth = imperfect (bad?) and heaven = perfect (good?) needs to be felt. The sonnet ends with an affirmation of the narrator’s love over the utmost of material and social capital in the metaphor of the king.²
This sonnet is in keeping with Shakespeare’s others which contrast worldly imperfections with the perfection of love. In Sonnet 66 the narrator desires death in light of social evils such as the poor having nothing and the rich having everything, rape, censorship, and general abuses of power, yet concludes he couldn’t because “to die, I leave my love alone.” Peter Rollins said it like this:
“If one believes that the world is meaningful, yet does not love, they cannot help but experience the world as meaningless. Yet if one believes that the world is meaningless yet loves, that person cannot help but experience their world as meaningful.”
Here, love is not affected by any externalities but is of primary importance when assessing life’s value. Regardless of what the narrator experiences, nothing can take away his sole joy, which is love. But maybe this is too simplistic a way of reading the sonnet, and especially assessing love. Here love is reduced to a consolation. Everything else sucks but at least you have love. Compare Sonnet 130: The narrator, quite humourously, and in defiance of the history of poetry, humanises his female subject by denying her any deific qualifications:
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground
Yet after this he concludes she is just as good as any woman whose devotee has cast elaborate, poetic, ‘false’ constructions upon. What becomes apparent is that the humanity, even imperfection, of the narrator’s subject is an essential component of their love. She is still ‘as rare’ as any woman who ostensibly commands goddess-like features. The same idea can be found in sonnet 29. Such is the ‘wealth’ of the narrator’s love that the narrator would not swap his state for that of kings (13-14). Of course, ‘state’ here can be read as the state of love removed from any other which-ways of material or social circumstance, but who’s to say the exact nature of the narrator’s relationship would improve or at least remain if he had ‘fortune’ and the attention of other ‘men’s eyes?’ In this sense the narrator’s love is not a just a mere consolation to his circumstances but his circumstances are essential to that love itself. His love becomes a reflection on his circumstances which would not be possible without them.
* * *
¹This quick analysis provides possible parallels from Shakespeare’s life.
²Probably primarily material. Although kings would have enjoyed all the pomp and ceremony of the court they would have had to deal with their subjects! Additionally, being a king did not necessarily meant you had any special ‘art’ or skill (7), but then again Shakespeare may be only construing ‘art’ as valuable as it is a means to freedom.