Featured Poem: Sonnet 29 by William Shakespeare

This week’s Featured Poem comes from Liverpool Hope Reader-in-Residence Charlotte Weber, who talks about the joys of discovering – and sharing – this Shakespearean sonnet…

This is not a poem that I have always loved, or even been familiar with. It came to my attention late last year, when I was flicking through The Reader Organisation’s poetry anthology, Poems To Take Home. I am a big fan of Shakespeare, and of his sonnets: but they have always been to me a bit like a box of Quality Street. I have my select, favourite two or three – and I have trouble expanding my horizons and experimenting with a few new choices. But when I found this one, I knew I had been blindly over-looking a real gem. Or perhaps I had read it before, somewhere along the lines of school and university modules – but it had never come to me in the right way, anyway. Over the past 6 months, this poem has been steadily drawing me in.

I first used it in a group in one of our pilot, ‘taster sessions’ with first-year Education students at Liverpool Hope. After reading through the poem a couple of times, I asked the two 19-year-old girls what they thought. There was some general mumbling about Shakespeare at school, and ‘old language’, and we agreed that yes, sometimes it is hard to understand Shakespeare right away. So I asked the girls if they recognised any of the feelings that the speaker in the poem is describing. Silence. Looking down. Then one of the girls said, ‘Well, I know what he means by ‘looking on yourself’ – that’s like looking in the mirror, isn’t it, and not liking what you see.’ Silence. A sense of excitement… Then the other girl, very cautiously – ‘Yeah, that makes sense. And then after that, in the next bit, he’s starting to compare himself to other people, isn’t he? And feeling jealous? Everybody does that.’

Half an hour later, I finished a group in which we had managed to relate Shakespeare’s sonnet to one of the girls’ refusals to wear Bench clothing anymore, because ‘everybody cares too much about brands now, and all they do is make you self-conscious anyway.’ We had discussed how, when you are a teenager, other people’s opinions are SO important and nothing is worse than that feeling of not being part of a group – an ‘outcast’. In a display of real maturity, the girls spoke about how they were beginning to come out of that phase now, and realise who their real friends were – the people whose opinions really mattered to them. And that, we decided, is what happens to the speaker at the end of the poem, too. That feeling of ‘the lark at break of day arising / From sullen earth’ continues to make me remember all the times that I have been dragged out of an overcast mood by the kind, revelatory words of a loved-one.

Sonnet 29

When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
(Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

William Shakespeare

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