Back when I was a University lad I studied a few of the works of one William Shakespeare. Perhaps you’ve heard of him? Ahahahaha! One of my favorites is Sonnet 129. It goes like this:
The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,
Enjoy’d no sooner but despised straight,
Past reason hunted, and no sooner had
Past reason hated, as a swallow’d bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad;
Mad in pursuit and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.
All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.
Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129 is written in the English sonnet form developed by Surrey. It is comprised of 14 lines written in iambic pentameter and it follows an ababcdcdefefgg rhyme scheme. Its primary focus is upon lust and the pursuit of something lustful, however, the conceit of the poem is not as obvious. The most likely focus of the writer’s lust is a woman, but it could be solely about sexual urges. Moreover, considering Shakespeare does not bother with adhering to the rules of writing, the conceit of this sonnet could be something more unconventional, such as the process of writing. The conceit is never specified, so we can only assume what Shakespeare intends it to be from the language he uses and the context those words present. As with any sonnet, but especially this one because it is one of Shakespeare’s, we must be open-minded to the many potential meanings of each line to try to uncover the central conceit or conceits.
As I have previously stated, Shakespeare knows the conventions of writing, but he does not always follow them, at least not completely. In Sonnet 129, Shakespeare offers a poem that fits within the traditional English sonnet structure, but the subject matter of it is not typical. He presents the common theme of a chase, but the subject of the chase is never revealed as anything more than something the writer lusts for. There is not even a deer or any other physical object to represent this lustful thing (allowing for the possibility that the conceit might not be something physical). Furthermore, the pursuit of this lustful thing appears to tire the writer, and even drive him mad. Shakespeare does a good job of presenting a very well thought out poem that initially appears to be a typical sonnet, but when studied more thoroughly reveals itself to be a very original and deeply concise work of art. Each line, and in some cases each half line, relates in some way to another part of the poem, thereby creating links between a shifting of themes (usually in a pair of lines) around a central value. First, the sonnet presents an action that the writer strongly lusts for. Then it runs through a pair of lines pertaining to judicial jargon, followed by instinctive urges to hunt, urges that drive the writer mad in the next few lines. The moments after, during, and before the action are observed and remembered longingly before the sonnet is brought to an all too swift end.
The first complete sentence of the sonnet: “Th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame / Is lust in action;” implies that the writer pours out his soul in the pursuit of or the action with the object of his lust, but his effort is all for naught. The next full sentence (“and till action, lust / is perjured, murd’rous,… not to trust;”) states that lust outside of the action with the object of lust, specifically before the action, is so severe for the writer that he considers it criminal, as is clear by his use of words that are most commonly used in court to describe the worst delinquents. The writer goes on to explain that his lust is “Enjoyed no sooner but despised straight” meaning that he does not enjoy the lust he has before the interaction, but despises it. He elaborates upon this in the next two lines: “Past reason hunted; and no sooner had,” implying that he when his lust transcends beyond reason and rationality he hunts the lustful encounter, but does not obtain it; and in “Past reason hated, as a swallowed bait,” he hates when his lust overtakes reason and it feels like he has taken the bait in his hunger for the lustful action, like a fish hooked by an angler. These two lines (6 and 7) are related most obviously because they start the same way as descriptions of what the writer does when his lust carries him beyond his rational, but they are also related by the words “hunted” and “swallowed bait” which refer to the pursuit of the ultimate lustful action. In line 8, “On purpose laid to make the taker mad” the writer alludes to the lustful “bait” he has “swallowed” in line 7. The transition from line 8 to line 9 is linked by the word “mad” which ends 8 and begins 9. Line 9 reads , “Mad in pursuit, and in possession so;” and it expands on how the writer is now ensnared by his lust (“and in possession so”) which drives him after the ultimate action (“Mad in pursuit”). Line 10 is one of the most important lines of Sonnet 129 because it presents the never-ending, ever-maddening timeline of the writer’s lustful desires. “Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;”refers to the vicious cycle the writer finds himself in where he has experienced the great lustful action, where he is experiencing it, and where he is pursuing it yet again. It is a “quest” for him that seemingly continues forever. It is important to note the use of the word “extreme” which was used previously in line 4 amongst the felonious adjectives. In line 4, “extreme” was used to accentuate the wrongdoing ways of lust and how it pushes the writer over the edge before he achieves the great action. Here again in line 10, “extreme” is presented along with the pre-action phase of the writer’s pursuit, so that he is tortured by it and what it promises to bring him. Lines 11 and 12 can each be cut in two, and these halves relate with the halves of the other line. The first half of line 11 is “A bliss in proof” meaning the enjoyment of the action, or the “having” from line 10. This is assured by the second half of line 11 “and proved, a very woe;” which implies that the writer has already experienced the action, so he is woeful because it is over. The first part of line 12 reads “Before, a joy proposed;” alluding to the anticipation of the action. The second half of line 12, “behind, a dream.” reiterates the whole of line 11 by referring to the after phase of the action (that which is covered in the second half of line 11), as well as by labeling the completed action as “a dream” which is very similar to “bliss” (in the first half of line 11). It is also interesting to note that the first period of the poem comes at the end of line 12, implying that Shakespeare composed the first 12 lines of the sonnet as one solid thought regarding the cycle of lustfulness that runs through the mind of the writer, while the rhyming couplet serves to summarize the theme of the poem. The couplet does well to sum up what is written in the poem and what is not written but detectable regarding its theme. Line 13 plays upon itself by presenting the notion “All this the world well knows;” then by refuting it with “yet none knows well.” This also ties in with the central conceit of the poem, for we have the general idea about what the sonnet refers to in regards to the writer’s sentiments of lust, but we are never told specifically what is being lusted for. Thus, we know well the theme of the sonnet, but we do not know the subject. The last line presents another paradoxical relation within itself with “heaven” and “hell,” but the focus is on the way the divine kingdom and the lake of fire are used to describe the writer’s feelings of lust towards the action he desires. The action is referred to as “heaven that leads men to this hell.” Hell is the lust that drives the writer towards the “heavenly” action, as well as the suffering both before and after the action is achieved. Ultimately, Shakespeare uses the couplet to say that everyone knows of lust and its power, but no one knows how to break free of it and the pain it makes us inflict upon ourselves.
It is important to remember that the central conceit is open to interpretation and could be almost anything. Furthermore, Shakespeare appears to intentionally write ambiguously to allow his conceit to be anything while he includes words and terms that hint at multiple explanations. The first full line provides the most options for interpretation as it speaks directly of the theme of lust put into an action. The only unknown thing to us is the action that takes place. According to the footnote in the Norton Anthology (my college textbook that is frequently used in many British Literature courses), and the typical first impression of sonnets, the central conceit is a woman and the action in this case is sex. The NA suggests that the “Th’ expense of spirit”, which is obviously the writer pouring out his soul in some fashion, is the literal expulsion of life: ejaculation. The NA continues as it points out that “waste” can refer to a woman’s waist, thus adding to the sexual metaphor. “Waste” can also imply that something was squandered, thereby expanding the sexual action to be carried out alone as well. However, perhaps the theory that Shakespeare is discussing sex, although it is common, is not correct. Perhaps Shakespeare’s “lust” is the creative process of writing where he eagerly works towards the next great piece, the composition of which would be his great “action.” There still is a certain sexual tone to it in the pursuit of completing the ensuing masterpiece, and considering writing was Shakespeare’s lifestyle it does not seem farfetched to propose that he wrote a sonnet about writing in a sexual style.
Even by analyzing each line of Sonnet 129, we still cannot be sure of what it all adds up to. Nevertheless, I have attempted to update it here:
A The lust-driven action is pouring out
B The soul in a wasted effort; and till
B The action occurs, lust is criminal;
A Not enjoyed, rather despised and cast out:
A Beyond rationale I seek lust; without
B Success as I take the bait and fall ill
B With hatred for lust; I question Free Will:
A I am crazed with rage; lust brings me to shout
C Consumed I’ve become by this lust I feel
D Past, Present, and Future, none of which last;
D Pleasure now becomes melancholy past
C Before, hope for joy; after, nothing real.
E Everybody knows, but nobody does,
E How fire steals light where lust once was.
Thanks for reading/ reliving your own Brit Lit classes from the past. As a worker of words, however crude I may be as one, I thoroughly enjoy learning the craft of mining the English language for more creative tooling and perfecting the art of writing with it, whether it be for poetry, reporting, storytelling, dumping into an internet blog or any other means. It truly is a fascinating language, and one that Shakespeare helped to shape into what it is today, sometimes by chiseling, sometimes by glaciating a massive groove, but always to move the written word forward. One does not simply do this and not get a little bit nudge nudge wink wink saynomore. No matter what you thought of your English classes in the past, I hope you return here next Monday and the Monday after for the quarterly State of the Season.
Forsooth, methinks the stroke’s the word,