129 Sonnet Analysis Essay

Sonnet 129

TH’expence of Spirit in a waſte of ſhame
Is luſt in action, and till action, luſt
Is periurd, murdrous, blouddy full of blame,
Sauage, extreame, rude, cruell, not to truſt,
Inioyed no ſooner but diſpiſed ſtraight,
Paſt reaſon hunted, and no ſooner had
Paſt reaſon hated as a ſwollowed bayt,
On purpoſe layd to make the taker mad.
Made In purſut and in poſſeſſion ſo,                                        Mad
Had, hauing, and in queſt, to haue extreame,
A bliſſe in proofe and proud and very wo,                             a
Before a ioy propoſd behind a dreame,
All this the world well knowes yet none knowes well,
To ſhun the heauen that leads men to this hell.

Technically Sonnet 129 is a fine exercise in rhetoric, indebted to types and examples found in primers such as Thomas Wilson’s The Arte of Rhetorike. In Shakespeare’s hands it rises above the purely rhetorical, becoming together with Sonnet 116 one of his most celebrated and diversely treated sonnets. It opens with an inversion: the subject of the sentence’s first part is “lust,” defined as “Th’expense of Spirit in a waste of shame;” “expense” intends outpouring as well as waste; “Spirit” is the generative or life force which keeps the body alive and which, as an essence, was identified with semen and, as a ‘spright’ or pole (Latin = contus), with an erect phallus (as in Mercutio’s line, “To raise a spirit in his Mistresse circle,” [Rom. 2.1.24]); “waste” intends ‘useless expenditure,’ but is suggestive also of an expanse of land (desert) and ocean (a watery waste); “shame” introduces to the sonnet a sense of guilt. Lust is thus defined as the outpouring of vital forces in a shameful excess; or it is the expending of semen wastefully (for no generative purpose) and excessively; or it is the emission from the phallus extravagantly and shamefully; and finally with the pun on waste/waist, all the above, the emission being into a waist full of shame (compare Lear’s outburst, “Downe from the waste they are Centaures, though Women all aboue: but to the Girdle do the Gods inherit, beneath is all the Fiends. There’s hell, there’s darkenes”). 1 Lust, furthermore, is essentially a (sexual) act (“in action”), “action” being the ninth of the measures (or Aristotelian and logical categories), by which a thing’s nature is classified.

The opening inversion allows the next line to comprise a near-perfect rhetorical chiasmus, “lust . . action /  action . . lust.” Until enacted (“till action”), lust is categorized as given to, or as the cause of, or the result of the breaking of an oath (“periurd”); it gives rise to or results in murder and blood-letting (“murdrous, blouddy”); it is “full of blame:” it carries with it deep guilt or leads to recrimination. Lust before its physical enactment is “Sauage,” wild, without reason and reckless; “extreame,” not moderate; “rude,” lacking civility, even violent; “cruell,” inflicting hurt and suffering; lust is “not to trust,” not to be trusted. As soon as lust is indulged (“Inioyd;” to enjoy a woman was to have one’s will of her), it brings directly with it loathing, of the act, of the self, of the other (“dispised straight”). Lust is to be by “Past reason hunted,” sought by earlier justification or pursued beyond (“Past”) reason (lust is not governed by reason). But once “had,” as one might ‘have’ sexually, it brings disgust of any earlier justification (“Past reason”) or disgust beyond reasonableness and hinting at madness. Such disgust is like a swallowed bait – continuing the hunting phrase, ‘to take the bait’ – laid down with specific purpose “to make the taker mad.” Lust seemingly is not solitary, but requires the collaboration of a futher agent. (Note the alternating consonants of “make the taker mad” and compare the similar structure used of infected reason in Sonnet 137.9-11, “Past cure I am, now Reason is past care, /And frantick madde with euer-more vnrest, / My thoughts and my discourse as mad mens are.”)

The “mad” of the octet’s conclusion is repeated at the start of the sestet in the inaccurate quarto printing, “Made In pursuit.” Lust in the pursuit of its object is reckless and blind to reason. It is uncontrolled “in possession so,” evoking the frenzy of dogs in the moment of capture and pointing to the frenzy of physical orgasm. “Had, hauing, and in quest, to haue,” is an example of the Latin figure, compressio: whether a past possession, or a present or future one, lust is “extreame,” immoderate and without right reason (a “quest” was used of dogs in a hunt). Lust is an ecstasy in the experiencing of it (“blisse in proofe”) and, having been experienced (“proud” = ‘prov’d’), turns to a “very woe.” (The quarto’s “and” should be amended to ‘a;’ the spelling of ‘prov’d’ as “proud” is common in the sequence, compare Sonnets 67.12 and 75.5.) Lust before its enactment is a blissful prospect (“a ioy proposed”) and in retrospect a mirage, the subject of phantasy and reliving. The couplet turns from definition to lament: “All this the world well knowes.” But no one will heed the lesson (“yet none knowes well”) to loathe or avoid (“shun”) the paradox: the “heauen that leads men to this hell.” The heaven is the paradise or garden of bliss that lust affords; the “hell” is both the torment that is its consequence and the female pudenda, Lear’s “waste,” about which he exclaims, “There’s hell.”


129.1. Lr. 4.6.124 ff.

There are two important things to notice about the structure of this sonnet. One is that, except for the closing couplet, it consists of a single run-on sentence. The other is that it is built around a single simile, which takes up the seventh and eighth lines. The effect of crowding most of the poem into a single outburst is to leave the reader with a feeling of agitation mirroring the conflicting emotions that accompany sexual lust. Run-on sentences are often the targets of English teachers’ red pencils, but at times such sentences can be extremely effective.

Shakespeare often filled his sonnets with metaphors and similes, as he did in his famous Sonnet 73, in which he compares his time of life to winter, to sunset, and to a dying fire. In other sonnets, however, he deliberately avoids metaphors and similes in order to obtain the maximum effect from a single striking image. This is the case in another of Shakespeare’s most famous sonnets, Sonnet 29, which begins, “When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes.” After complaining at length about his miserable condition, the speaker changes his tone entirely and says that, should he happen to remember the friendship of the person he is addressing, his state, “Like to the lark at break of day arising/ From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate.” These are two of the most beautiful lines in English poetry, and they are more effective because they are not competing with any other imagery...

(The entire section is 458 words.)


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