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Sonnet 30 by William Shakespeare

On Tuesday, I posted Sonnet 29 ("When in disgrace with Fortune and men's eyes"), including a lovely (seriously, gloriously, lovely) performance of the poem by Matthew Macfadyen. Today, I'm posting the next of the sonnets in Shakespeare's collection: Sonnet 30 ("When to the sessions of sweet silent thought"). Thematically, it has quite a bit in common with Sonnet 29. Again, the poet is sitting alone with his memories. Whereas in Sonnet 29 he was envying other men, in this poem, he's regretting his own losses, including lost loved ones; his mourning is eradicated by his memories of the loved one (again, the Fair Youth).

Sonnet 30

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time's waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,
For precious friends hid in death's dateless night,
And weep afresh love's long since cancelled woe,
And moan th' expense of many a vanished sight.
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o'er
The sad account of fore-bemoanèd moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
  But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
  All losses are restored and sorrows end.

This Shakespearean sonnet (ABABCDCDEFEFGG, in iambic pentameter) uses the conceit (or extended metaphor) of analogy to the courtroom. The terms "session, summon, woes, cancelled, expense, grievances, account, payment and losses" are all borrowed from the terms of the courtroom. Even the phrase "remembrance of things past" (borrowed by Proust for his masterpiece, a la récherche du temps perdu) is a reference to a court proceeding, for it's drawn from the Bible and The Wisdom of Solomon, chapter 11, verse 12: "For a double grief came upon them, and a groaning for the remembrance of things past."

One of the things that makes this poem so lyrical and such a delight to read aloud and/or listen to is Shakespeare's use of alliteration throughout, which is often coupled with his use of wordplay. Thus, "Which I new pay as if not paid before" has double alliteration within the line. The use of alliteration is rife in the first twelve lines of the poem, with lots of sibillants in the first three lines, and the addition of Ms in line two or Ns in line three, while line 4 features Ws. Line 5 features Ns again, line 6 Fs and Ds, line 7 Ls, and line 8 Ms and Ns. Line 9 is big on Gs (and also the wordplay and double alliteration that comes with "grieve grievances"), line 10 likes Ls and Ws (in the repetition of "woe"). Line 11 is back to Ms and Ns (with the wordplay of "fore-bemoanèd moan"), and line 12 likes Ns and Ps (with the already noted wordplay of pay and paid).

In Line 13, however, where the true turn comes in this poem, and where the poet stops mourning his lonely state because he remembers his absent beloved, there is no appreciable alliteration. (Think and thee have very different "th" sounds associated with them, after all.) Shakespeare was anything if careless as a poet, and I believe that break in the alliteration pattern was purposeful, to give additional weight to the penultimate line of the poem: But if the while I think on thee, dear friend. The final line includes a number of Ss again, as well as multiple Ls and Rs, restoring the lost alliteration at the same time that the poet realizes that thoughts of the beloved are more than enough to eradicate his gloom over his real-life losses.

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Tags: analysis of poems, brush up your shakespeare month, poetry, poetry friday, shakespeare, sonnets
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