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Sonnet 29, like many of Shakespeare’s sonnets, explores themes of friendship, love, isolation, and religion. The speaker, down on his luck and shunned from society, wishes he could change lives with another man. He receives no relief from religious prayers and is only able to find happiness when thinking of the one person who loves him, the person to whom the sonnet is addressed. Sonnet 29 follows Shakespearean sonnet tradition not just in theme, but in structure as well, making great use of the typical three-quatrain structure in order to mirror the speaker’s journey from the beginning of the sonnet to the end.
That being said, Sonnet 29 has a unique rhyming pattern, and there are many instances in which Shakespeare strays from his usual iambic pentameter. These variations in rhyme scheme and meter, along with religious imagery and repetition throughout the sonnet, help to replicate the speaker’s movement from one state to another and explore love and religion as routes to happiness.
Shakespeare’s sonnets, with only a few exceptions, each follow the same form: fourteen lines separated into three quatrains and a final couplet. The sonnets also follow the traditional English sonnet rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. Sonnet 29, although not radically different from the other sonnets, does slightly deviate from this pattern. The rhyme scheme of Sonnet 29 is ABAB CDCD EBEB GG with the “B” rhyme being repeated in both the first and third quatrains. The significance of Shakespeare repeating the same end rhyme (state/fate and state/gate) is that he also repeats the word “state.
” At the beginning of the sonnet, the speaker expresses dissatisfaction with his current circumstances and “outcast state,” as he cries to a “deaf heaven” and wishes to be like someone else, someone that is perhaps better-looking, smarter, and has more friends (Line 2-3).
The speaker even exhibits depressive symptoms such as self-hatred and a lack of interest in things one once enjoyed, stating “With what I most enjoy contented least/Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising” (8-9). When Shakespeare uses the word “state” again in the third quatrain, it comes at a moment in which the tone of the sonnet shifts. The speaker proclaims “Haply I think on thee, and then my state…sings hymns at heaven’s gate” (10-12, my emphasis). When the speaker remembers that he is loved, he is able to forget or disregard his unfortunate circumstances. There is a clear shift in the speaker’s mindset from one of helplessness and sorrow to one of love and contentment as he moves from one state to another. By calling attention to the word “state,” the rhyme scheme of Sonnet 29 highlights the shift in tone of the sonnet, as expressed through these shifts in state.
Shakespeare’s sonnets are also written primarily in iambic pentameter. At first glance, Sonnet 29 appears to be no different. However, it is worth noting that some of the lines of the sonnet diverge from this pattern. For example, Lines 5, 6, 10, and 11 all begin with a stressed syllable, as opposed to an unstressed one, and Lines 3, 9, and 11 are hypermetrical, that is, having an extra syllable beyond the meter. In Line 3, the word “heaven” is sometimes abbreviated as “heav’n” to represent one syllable and preserve the meter. Lines 9 and 11, on the other hand, end with an extra unstressed syllable, in what is known as a feminine rhyme. This differs from the rest of Sonnet 29, as well as most of the other sonnets, which often utilize a masculine rhyme, consisting of a single stressed syllable at the end of a line. It is important to understand that these variations in meter do not mean that the sonnet is not written iambic pentameter (though it is certainly not strictly iambic).
Instead, these substitutions call the reader’s attention to certain words or key moments of the sonnet, such as in Lines 5 and 6, when the meter deviates from an iambic, rising rhythm, to a trochaic, falling rhythm. This shift to a falling pattern illustrates how the speaker has fallen into a depressive state. The trochaic meter is repeated again in Lines 10 and 11, but switches back to iambic pentameter immediately after the word “arising,” the moment in which the speaker’s mindset is changing. Furthermore, the direct pairing of “despising” and “arising” in the feminine rhyme of the third quatrain demonstrates how quickly the tone of the sonnet shifts. The word “despising” signifies the speaker’s initial feelings in his depressive, self-loathing state. Meanwhile, the word “arising” expresses his newfound contentment. In the first line of the quatrain, the speaker is still in the same initial state from the beginning of the sonnet, but by the third line, he is able to rise into a new state with a new outlook. In this way, the variations in meter are able to emphasize the sudden movement of the sonnet from one state to another.
The sudden shift in tone and state is further emphasized by the use of enjambment and caesura in the poem. In the third quatrain, Shakespeare compares the speaker “to the lark at break of day arising/From sullen earth” (11-12). The speaker, like the lark, arises from a “sullen” state after thinking of someone who loves him. This is a moment of enjambment, in which the simile spills over into the next line of the poem, as opposed to coming to a pause or complete stop. The movement of the simile from one line into the next imitates the speaker’s own transition from one state to another. The shift in the tone of the sonnet is not only abrupt, it is determined. At the beginning of the sonnet, Shakespeare’s makes heavy use of commas at both the ends of lines, and in the middle.
These caesuras and end-stops disrupt the flow of the sonnet; each line introduces a new thought and both the speaker and the sonnet seem directionless. When transitioning into his new state, however, the speaker now has a clear sense of direction. There is no pause or stop until the very end of the simile, when the transition is complete. The contrast of caesura and enjambment helps to differentiate the pre- and post-transition states. Caesura also calls attention the words directly before it. In the first quatrain, the word before the comma is “myself” (4). In the second quatrain, it is “him” (6). In the third quatrain, it is “thee” (10). These words track the thoughts of the speaker throughout the sonnet. At first, the speaker is thinking of his circumstances and situation, and is pitying himself. His thoughts then move to others as he wishes for a life other than his own. Finally, the speaker thinks of the person denoted by “thee.” It is this final thought that initiates the speaker’s transition, and it is directly after this word that the enjambment occurs. Love alone is enough to immediately lift the speaker into a new state of mind, and when it does, the effects continue for the remainder of the sonnet.
The word “state,” which is repeated in both the first and third quatrains, also appears in the final couplet of the sonnet. In its first use, the word “state” represented the speaker’s initial depressive state. When it makes its second appearance, the speaker’s “state” is changing. At the end of the sonnet, the speaker has completed his transition and is now in the final “state.” Here, at the end of the sonnet, “state” takes on a new meaning. While still being a reference to the change in the speaker’s mindset, or state of being, the word “state” is also used to reference one’s personal property or possessions. The speaker declares that “sweet love” brings enough “wealth” into his life, that he would “scorn to change [his] state with kings” (13-14). The Oxford English Dictionary defines wealth as both “the condition of being happy and prosperous” and “prosperity consisting in abundance of possessions.” The entire second quatrain of the sonnet consisted of the speaker “wishing” to trade lives with another man. Now, at the final line of the sonnet, the speaker would not even trade his state of mind or state of being with a king. He has enough “wealth” in love and happiness, that he does need the monetary or territorial possessions of monarchs. This final repetition of “state” in the concluding lines of the sonnet not only reveals the complete change in mindset from the beginning to the end of the poem, it also demonstrates the single-handed power of love to produce such a transformation.
State, however, is not the only word repeated in the sonnet. Shakespeare utilizes repetition throughout the entire sonnet in order to stress certain ideas. In the first quatrain, both Lines 3 and 4 begin with the word “And.” Line 3 outlines the speaker’s initial turn to religion as a source of solace, but, as the personification of heaven as being “deaf” suggests, his cries are not heard. In Line 4, which begins with “And” once again, the speaker starts off in the same place as he did in Line 3. His prayers were not heard and his situation has not improved. In this way, the repetitive sentence structure is highlighting the inability of religion to solve the speaker’s problems. Meanwhile, in the second quatrain, the phrase “like him” and “man’s” is repeated in Lines 6 and 7. The repetition of “like him” back to back puts emphasis on the speaker’s desire to be someone else. Rather than wish specifically for hope or friends, the speaker wishes to be “like” someone who possesses these things. The repetition of “man’s” in the next line further exemplifies this point. The emphasis is not on “art” or “scope,” but instead on a specific person. In this quatrain, the use of repetition is revealing the speaker’s true desire, not to simply improve his circumstances, but to escape them entirely.
Repetition is at play once again towards the end of the sonnet. Like the word “state,” the word “heaven,” is also repeated in both the first and third quatrains. Heaven is initially represented as “deaf” and unresponsive to the speaker’s problems. In Line 12, however, the speaker offers a different portrayal of religion. He describes how his state now “sings hymns at heaven’s gate,” as opposed to troubling heaven with unsuccessful or “bootless cries,” as was the case in Line 3. Whereas before the speaker felt helpless and ignored by heaven, he now feels like giving praise through hymns. This contrasting imagery at the beginning and end of the sonnet is in line with the movement of the speaker from one state into another over the course of the sonnet; the shift in tone in regards to the religious imagery matches the overall shift in tone.
That being said, what seems to be a shift in the speaker’s perspective of religion has little to do with religion itself. The first quatrain clearly demonstrated how religion did nothing to solve the speaker’s problems. At the end of the sonnet, when the speaker is able to rise above his circumstances and feel happiness, it is not because of religion, but because of love. The repetition of “heaven” in a more positive light in Line 12 suggests not necessarily that the speaker has changed his mind about religion, but that love, specifically the love of one person, accomplishes what the speaker had hoped religion would. It is true that when in a happier state, the speaker may feel more inclined to give praise to God, but there is a distinction to be made here between cause and effect. While the speaker’s change in state and mindset may involve a resurgence of religious feeling, love was the ultimate cause of this transformation.
Sonnet 29 is, for the most part, typical of the Shakespearean sonnets. It is this conventionality that make the small deviations in rhyme scheme and meter stand out, bringing attention to specific words and shifts in tone in the sonnet. Reproducing the “B” rhyme from the first quatrain again in the third quatrain puts emphasis on the word “state” and draws a contrast between the speaker’s mindset at the beginning and end of the sonnet. In Sonnet 29, rhyme scheme and meter, specifically the alternation between iambic and trochaic patterns, allows the reader to follow the speaker’s movement from one state of mind to another, even if the shift happens abruptly. Similarly, the repetition of words like “state” or “heaven” help to track the speaker’s mindsets in regards to religion and love. While religion alone was not enough to solve the speaker’s problems, Sonnet 29 reveals how love, even just from one person, is able to bring feelings of happiness and contentment back into one’s life.
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