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1. In the narrative of Shakespeare’s sonnets, “Sonnet 29” falls among the phase (sonnets
1-129) where the voice of the older poet, the voice of experience and good counsel,
fights off challenges for a young man’s affections from another poet and from a dark
lady. In this schema, “Sonnet 29” falls at a low, melancholy point in the apparent
narrative. It is a complaint, in the true Renaissance style, where the persona dwells on a
sense of loss–in this context, the possible loss of favor in the eyes of the young man.
The poem begins with the famous line, “When in disgrace with Fortune and men’s eyes,”
as if the voice is reconnoitering his situation and finding that his stock is at an all-time
low. What seems to pervade “Sonnet 29” is, however, a comic structure, a fall from and a
return to favor and hope, and a sense of how one recovers from a type of “fall” from
grace.
2. The word “Fortune,” capitalized in the first line of the poem is set in the line as a
personification. This “Fortune” is the classical “fortuna”–the idea of a force in the
universe that controls the destiny of an individual. In classical literature, particularly
Boethius’s A Consolation of Philosophy, ‘Fortune’ is the antagonist who acts against
reason and ‘Philosophy.’ Fortune, in the Sophoclean sense, is the predetermined pattern
of an individual’s life that cannot be avoided–it is the destiny of an individual, the
narrative of a life, that must inevitably come to pass. In the Renaissance sense of the
word as explained by Niccolo Machiavelli, fortune is the raw material of ability and
circumstance that life presents to an individual. Machiavelli suggests, in his treatise on
the nature of political leadership, The Prince, that an individual can overcome the
negative powers of fortune or destiny by exercising what he calls “virtu” or the power of
intelligence over circumstance. Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 29” is a poem about how one
reasons one’s way around circumstance. The poem is not only a matter of counting one’s
blessings but of finding them. Like Boethius in the opening of A Consolation of
Philosophy, the persona of “Sonnet 29” is woeful and announces that when he is “in
disgrace” “I all alone beweep my outcast state.” His plaintive cries fall on “deaf Heaven.”
God, as the poem suggests, does not tolerate complaints. The persona’s cries are
“bootless,” or useless. The word “bootless,” however, also suggests that the persona is
thinking out loud without really having a firm foundation for his musings–a no-no in the
world of Renaissance thought, where the Virgilian precept of approaching life with strong,
emotionally detached, and objective reasoning was still the order of the day. Like
Boethius in A Consolation of Philosophy, the persona of this poem must find his way to
solace through the power of thought and through the banishment of emotions where he
might feel sorry for himself. In the Renaissance perspective, feeling sorry for oneself and
reason are incompatible. Suffice to say, cursing one’s “fate” and “Wishing me like to one
more rich in hope” or envying “this man’s art, and that man’s scope” may serve the need
to air one’s complaints but can do little to see one toward the kind of resolution that a
sonnet must afford: the solution to the problem at hand.
3. Shakespeare’s use of the sonnet form, especially in “Sonnet 29,” allows him to air a
complaint in poetry (in Boethius, Dame Philosophy sends the Muses packing in the first
several pages because, as she reasons, poetry does nothing but lock one into one’s
problems) while at the same time reasoning the poet to demonstrate the possibilities and
the complexities in the process of reason. The sonnet, unlike the lyric, cannot stand still
either emotionally or rhetorically. It presents a problem in the opening octave and then
determines to answer it in the sestet by what is often a one-hundred-and-eighty degree
turn of reasoning between lines 8 and 9. This turn of reasoning, the volta, especially in
“Sonnet 29,” shifts the poem from being simply a litany of woes and self-indulgent
“bemoaning” and into an examination of the cause and effect relationship behind the
poem, to the point where the sonnet can almost be considered an early form of
psychotherapy. The voice asks, “what is wrong” and then probes for the answer.
4. For the persona of “Sonnet 29,” all is not lost. He realizes that even in his deepest
moment of self-loathing, “in these thoughts myself almost despising,” there is a glimmer
of hope. The shift from woe to consolation demands that every issue under consideration
be examined from the opposite perspective–a trait that Boethius spells out quite clearly.
The emotions rarely allow one the privilege of seeing the other side of an argument; yet
the persona of “Sonnet 29” rises out of his emotional distress in line 9, a tall order in that
the volta demands considerable strength of intellect and a kind of hopeful dispassion that
sees light in darkness and possibility in despair.
5. He announces in line 10, “Haply I think on thee,” which suggests that the persona’s lot is
not as bad as he had thought because he has the young man’s friendship. This is more
than just a matter of considering the opposite idea as a matter of “thinking” one’s way
through the argumentative process of the sonnet: it is a miracle of images. “Like to the
lark at break of day arising / From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate,” the poet
likens his friendship with the young man. The Platonic idea of friendship, what Jonathan
Swift perceives as the great virtue in the Houyhnmms in Book IV of Gulliver’s Travels, is,
perhaps the highest possible ideal one can seek to attain. Friendship, in the classical
sense, is something that is more continuous than love. It survives the momentary
passage of passions, it advises and counsels, and it stands the test of time. It is more
than power and more than wealth. Friendship, for the persona of “Sonnet 29,” is “wealth”
that is counted only in the spirit, and the memory of it brings him to the recognition that it
is worth more than any amount of momentary recompense. “I scorn to change my state
with kings,” he notes. What should be remembered is that in the center of Dante’s Hell
are those who betrayed friendship, Brutus and Judas.
6. What “Sonnet 29” proves is not only the value of friendship but the undeniable worth of
reason. The form itself, the sonnet, is a rhetorical rather than a lyrical structure, and
although it offers lyric elements such as the rhyming couplet at the conclusion or the
balanced meter, its chief value is as an argumentative structure, a means of working
one’s way toward reason in any situation. The Renaissance mind pursued balance and
proportion in all things, and the sonnet is a balanced way of looking not only at emotional
problems but through them. In this process of pursuing balance, the tools are not only
reason but imagination and memory.
7. The image of the lark ascending at daybreak to sing “hymns at heaven’s gate,” is not
merely a flight of fancy but the realization that memory and the imagination are the
repositories of hope, wherein the true value of the more lasting aspects of one’s
existence–friendship, truth, faith–are there to shore up one’s defenses against a world
bound up in entropy and emotional tides, if only one is able to reason his or her way to it.

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