The Power of the Sonnet

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The Power of the Sonnet

 

Sonnet 30 tells us that the speaker is a person who has long been stoic, whose tears have for a long time been unused to flow. In the situation sketched in the poem, he begins by deliberately and habitually making these tears flow again; he willingly--for the sake of an enlivened emotional selfhood--calls up the griefs of the past. In receding order, before the weeping "now", there was the "recent" dry-eyed stoicism; "before that," the frequent be-moanèd moan of repeated grief; "further back in the past," the original loss so often mourned; and "in the remote past", a time of achieved happiness, or at least neutrality, before the loss. This time-line is laid out with respect to various lacks, grievances, and costs, as we track the emotional history of the speaker's responses to losses and sorrows.

The initial, habitual "now" of weeping, is at the end surprisingly transformed into a final, actual "now", which resembles the remote happy past when one had love, precious friends, and the full enjoyment of those vanished sights, before sorrow entered, extended itself in mourning moans, and (even worse) hardened the soul into stoicism. The act described in the sonnet--a deliberate, willed, and habitual turn from the stoic back to mourning--is the only way the speaker has found to reconstitute the pre-stoical feeling self. However, this technique turns out to be a dangerous one. In line 12, we see the speaker not self-consciously remourning a woe that he knows to be an old one, but pitched, beyond his original intention, into a grief that no longer is aestheticized, but rather seems rawly new, original, horrible: "I new pay as if not paid before." The pay / not paid locution cancels out the previous locutions in which the second use of a verb or noun positively intensifies the first one, as in "grieve at grievances" or "fore-bemoaned moan." It is this wholly unexpected result--as an aestheticized, voluntarily summoned memory of "paid" grief turns into real "not paid" grief--that pitches thought into "I think." The speaker calls a halt, even if in supposition, to the "sessions of sweet silent thought" because they have grown suddenly painful.

The intricacy of the temporal scheme is pointed out by the sonnet itself, in its ostentatiously repetitious grieve at grievances foregone...fore-bemoanèd moan...pay as if not paid.

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..One could say that Shakespeare is here inventing a new verb: sigh, sight, sought. A sigh is the eventual result of a sight sought.

The ingenuity of this sonnet has not prevented generations of readers from being drawn into its vortex. The increasing psychological involvement, as the quatrains proceed--I summon up...Then can I...Then can I--acts as a present vertical emotional intensification balancing the horizontally broadening panorama stretching into further panels of the past. To be able to find pleasure in resummoning griefs that were once anguishing indicates, in itself a loss of perceptual freshness. This is, however, balanced by the genuine pathos of the elegiac recollection of precious friends. The hardness of long-maintained stoicism foregone, cancelled, unused threatens the capacity both to mourn the past and, most especially, to love afresh. Altogether, 30 is not only one of the richest sonnets of the sequence, but also one of the most searching, in its analysis of inevitable emotional phases, and of the dangerous delectation (whether morose or not) of reexperienced grief. In the exactness of Shakespeare's psychological portraiture, the roaming generalities of (things past...many a thing...old woes) yield to the greater specificities of  friends, love, vanished sight[s], which yield in their turn to the accelerating intensifications of grieve-grievances, woe-to-woe, fore-bemoanèd-moan, pay-paid.

And yet the successive phases of feeling (so well enacted by the general, the particular, and the rapidly intensified) seem to melt into one another because of the resemblance of their syntactic structures, as if they were all one long process, each generating the next. Shakespeare respects the fluidity of mental processes (exemplified in lexical and syntactic concatenation) as much as the division of those processes (for analytic purposes) into phases reaching from a present into four layers of the past.

The credibility of the couplet depends on the probability that once the things summoned up in thought become rawly painful, the speaker will in reaction turn to the (recent) friendship with the young man ("I think on thee"), at which event the unexpected renewed pain of the speaker can be consoled. It is important that the consolation itself is expressed in the passive voice in one verb and intransitively in the other: "If I think on thee, losses are restored and sorrows end." No agency is ascribed to the young man. Not "You restore all losses; you end my sorrows." The speaker does not dare to claim any active participation by the young man in the restoration of happiness.

It is in such simultaneous marshaling of temporal continuity, logical discreteness, and psychological modeling that Shakespeare's Sonnets surpass those of other sonneteers. His enormous power to order intellectually recalcitrant material into lyrically convincing schemes is nowhere more visible than in this example

 


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