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Analysis of Sonnet 29 by William Shakespeare

Updated on July 5, 2017
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Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare | Source

William Shakespeare and Sonnet 29

Sonnet 29 focuses on the speaker's initial state of depression, hopelessness and unhappiness in life and the subsequent recovery through happier thoughts of love.

The first eight lines are full of self-pity and negative impressions, whilst the final six lines are all about the positives sweet love brings that help drive despondency away.

There are several interesting differences in this sonnet - the metre (meter in USA) changes from the usual iambic pentameter several times, there are rare feminine endings to some lines and certain rhymes repeat.

So, an unusual Shakespearean sonnet, with profound insights into the emotional turmoil a human can experience when in love. As to who Shakespeare was in love with is a moot point. His sonnet sequence is supposedly inspired by the 'lovely boy' or the 'dark lady' but in truth we may never know, or need to know.

Suffice to say that the sonnets represent a magnificent, complex body of work and stand alone in the landscape of poetry, a world wonder.

Sonnet 29 speaks to all those who have felt that they are worthless or overshadowed by others they deem to be superior but who can overcome dark feelings by thinking of someone they love, who loves them in return.

Sonnet 29 Variations

William Shakespeare's Sonnet 29 was originally published in 1609 by Thomas Thorpe of London. You can see this original below, together with a modern version. Please note that there are many variations on different websites - I have chosen one which is closest to the original.

NB The first line of the original does not have a comma after the opening word When - but many variations online are published with a comma, which alters the reading and scanning of the line.

Sonnet 29

Sonnet 29

Sonnet 29
Sonnet 29 | Source

Reading Sonnet 29

This version of the sonnet needs an extra special approach from the reader because it is essentially one long sentence split into smaller clauses. Only line 11 runs on into the next line, the rest of the lines have commas which allow the reader time to pause. And watch out for lines 6,7 and 10 which have extra commas, and be aware of the natural caesura between earth and sings in line 12.

Critical Summary of Sonnet 29


In a nutshell, a depressed loser somehow finds joy and meaning in the sweetness of love. Life is worth living after all.

This existential crisis is deep however; the speaker is full of self-accusation and inner turmoil. He feels disgraced. Out in the public sphere he knows the males are taking note of his angst and his self-loathing is even having an effect on Fortune - this guy is way down on his luck.

'I all alone beweep my outcast state' is one of the most self-pitying moans ever put into iambics. What a sob story.

The association here is with the old testament Job, who cursed God for his misfortune and lived in misery. No one would listen to his pleas for help and understanding. Heaven hears not his bootless (useless) cries.

He feels cursed, destiny has been cruel to him. He spends time alone, perhaps staring into a mirror, and so develops deep negative feelings about the world. The successful people around him he especially loathes

So, this poor depressive is having a tough time, and doesn't like being who he is. He wants to be someone else, someone talented and handsome but he's not quite certain he could handle being someone else - the things that brought him happiness now make him more upset.

His emotional instability - note the trochees in lines five and six - means that his envy of those more hopeful, skilful and with broader social connections only worsens matters. Note the this and that antithetical stance in line seven, suggesting that the speaker is in danger of tearing himself apart.

Historically it could have been an uncertain time for William Shakespeare. If this sonnet was written around 1592 then the playwright and poet may well have been feeling a bit down. The plague outbreak had caused all theatres to close down, so he would have been unable to perform his plays.

Plus, a certain older rival, Robert Greene, had written an insulting deathbed notice, warning all playwrights to beware of the 'upstart crow' who had taken London and the theatre world by storm. Namely, one William Shakespeare from rural Stratford-on-Avon.

Thankfully, redemption is at hand. Haply means by chance, or by accident, or perhaps. And it so happens that the speaker is thinking of his love and all at once the world seems a brighter place. His state alters, he likens the feeling to a lark rising in song (a popular simile with Shakespeare); an almost religious outpouring.

Such is the optimism and inspiration gained from this memory that the speaker now feels rich, wealthier than a king, better off in all respects. The former darker world fades away; life is refreshed and the speaker wouldn't change places with a king.

Analysis of Sonnet 29

Sonnet 29 is a fourteen line Shakespearean (or English) sonnet with a turn or volta after eight lines, which make up the 'problem', and the final six lines which shift the narrative and provide a solution.

This sonnet is a little different from the others Shakespeare wrote because some scholars think it has three parts and is not a traditional when/then type of sonnet.

The first eight lines are indisputably about the speaker's darker side, then lines 9 and 10 express a subtle change of tone before lines 11-14 conclude with a more positive outlook.

Rhyme Scheme

The rhyme scheme abab cdcd ebeb ff is slightly different to the traditional abab cdcd efef gg - which points to the author wanting to place emphasis on contrasting lines with the same rhyme.

  • So this variant occurs in lines 10 and 12 where state/gate, match lines 2 and 4 state/fate.

It's interesting to note that the word state turns up three times, twice reflecting the importance the speaker attaches to their status as a human being in terms of feeling, and once in the last line where my state signifies their position or material ownership, likened to a king's.

  • Note the closeness of lines 9 and 11 with 13 and 14 - helping to tighten the latter part of the sonnet : despising/arising/brings/kings.

More Analysis Line by Line

Iambic Pentameter and trochee.

Sonnet 29 does have a basic iambic pentameter rhythm, that is, each line is made up of five unstressed and five stressed syllables, making a total of ten syllables per line. But there are some exceptions, notably lines 3,5,6,9,10 and 11.

Starting with the first line:

  • When in / disgrace / with For / tune and / men's eyes,

which is regular steady iambic pentameter (five feet), as is line two:

  • I all / alone / beweep / my out / cast state,

but when we get to line three things start to change:

  • And trou / ble deaf / heaven with / my boot / less cries,

note the inverted trochee heaven with which brings sharp double stress to deaf heaven (heaven is treated as one syllable) before normal rhythm is retained in line 4 :

  • And look upon myself and curse my fate,

but line 5 disrupts the status quo again:

  • Wishing / me like / to one / more rich / in hope,

Another trochee starts the line, putting the emphasis on the speaker's plight, as in line 6:

  • Featured / like him, / like him / with friends / possessed,

and in lines 7 and 8 iambic pentameter returns:

  • Desir / ing this / man's art, / and that / man's scope,
  • With what I most enjoy contented least,

Before line 9 introduces the extra beat with 11 syllables:

  • Yet in / these thoughts / my self / almost / despis / ing,

the extra beat or hyperbeat also known as a feminine (unstressed) ending, rare in a Shakespeare sonnet. Line 10 is different again:

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

a trochee starts the line which reverts back to iambic. Meanwhile line 11 is the sister to line 9:

  • Like to the lark at break of day arising

whilst lines 12-14 are regular iambic pentameter:

  • From sullen earth sings hymns at heaven's gate,
  • For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
  • That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

© 2017 Andrew Spacey

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