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Shakespeare Sonnet 28: "How can I then return in happy plight"

Updated on April 8, 2018
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

The real Shakespeare
The real Shakespeare | Source

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 28

In Shakespeare Sonnet 28, the speaker is now addressing his muse: he is become tired and weary and his creativity seem to be on hold: he is suffering writer’s block. The speaker then complains that both day and night some strange force seems to be engaged in preventing him from producing his beloved sonnet. Because the speaker takes his writing duties very seriously, he now seeks answers from the muse for allowing him to be blocked as writer.

Sonnet 28

How can I then return in happy plight
That am debarr’d the benefit of rest?
When day’s oppression is not eas’d by night,
But day by night, and night by day oppress’d,
And each, though enemies to either’s reign,
Do in consent shake hands to torture me,
The one by toil, the other to complain
How far I toil, still further off from thee.
I tell the day, to please him thou art bright
And dost him grace when clouds do blot the heaven:
So flatter I the swart-complexion’d night;
When sparkling stars twire not thou gild’st the even.
But day doth daily draw my sorrows longer,
And night doth nightly make grief’s strength seem stronger.

Reading of Shakespeare Sonnet 28

Commentary

The speaker is suffering writer’s block and complains that both day and night seem to be conspiring to keep him from fulfilling his beloved writing duties.

First Quatrain: Questioning His Muse

How can I then return in happy plight
That am debarr’d the benefit of rest?
When day’s oppression is not eas’d by night,
But day by night, and night by day oppress’d,

In the first quatrain, the speaker questions his muse: how can I ever be happy again, when I cannot get a refreshing sleep, and when my beloved muse seems to have abandoned me? During the day, he is oppressed, and then during the night he is oppressed. He is unable to write during the day, and then at night he worries about not being able to write.

This speaker is usually so confident in his abilities, but as all creative individuals do, he is suffering a period of dryness, when nothing seems to work to call forth joy and creativity from his heart and mind.

Second Quatrain: Keeping Separate Kingdoms

And each, though enemies to either’s reign,
Do in consent shake hands to torture me,
The one by toil, the other to complain
How far I toil, still further off from thee.

Day and night keep separate kingdoms and seem to have little to do with each other, but now during the writer’s time of dryness and emptiness, it seems that day and night both conspire to keep him in a state of "torture."

The speaker toils by day—tries his best to overcome his block, and then by night he also toils by complaining how much he toiled during the day. And all of this toiling does not bring the speaker closer to his beloved accomplishments, his talent, and his creation of poetry. He remains, "still further off from thee."

Notice that the speaker uses the term "further" rather than "farther." The speaker employs the term "further" to indicate that he is not referring to distance in physical miles. The speaker is not traveling on a journey which is separating him from another person. He is merely cut off temporarily from his God-given talent by writer’s block.

It seems that both night and day are conspiring to keep him weary and block his creative juices from flowing: each succeeding day adds an additional or further veil of separation from his adored duty to write his sonnets.

Third Quatrain: Coaxing Daylight

I tell the day, to please him thou art bright
And dost him grace when clouds do blot the heaven:
So flatter I the swart-complexion’d night;
When sparkling stars twire not thou gild’st the even.

The speaker tries to coax day to let him create by telling day that his poet creations are also "bright" and can actually brighten up day’s domain when there are clouds blocking the sun. And the speaker then "flatter[s]" the god of night by telling the "swart-complexion’d" one that his poetry can light up the heavens when the stars are not visible.

The speaker uses the term "twire" which means twinkle but also in Shakespeare’s time meant "to sing." His poems, he avers, can sing for the stars, if night time will only relent and let him rest.

The Couplet: Cajoling the Gods

But day doth daily draw my sorrows longer,
And night doth nightly make grief’s strength seem stronger.

But no matter how he cajoles the gods of day and night, day seems to make his life more and more sorrowful, and night makes his grief even heavier: "But day doth daily draw my sorrows longer, / And night doth nightly make grief’s strength seem stronger."

The poet’s use of the poetic device known as incremental repetition—"day doth daily" and "night doth nightly"—offers a meaningful component to this poem that focuses so heavily on the day and night as conspirators in this speaker’s complaint.

A Brief Overview of the 154-Sonnet Sequence

Marriage Sonnets 1-17

The speaker in the Shakespeare “Marriage Sonnets” pursues a single goal: to persuade a young man to marry and produce beautiful offspring. It is likely that the young man is Henry Wriothesley, the third earl of Southampton, who is being urged to marry Elizabeth de Vere, the oldest daughter of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.

Many scholars and critics now argue persuasively that Edward de Vere is the writer of the works attributed to the nom de plume, "William Shakespeare."

For more information regarding Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, as the real writer of the Shakespearean canon, please visit The De Vere Society, an organization that is "dedicated to the proposition that the works of Shakespeare were written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford."

Muse Sonnets 18-126 (Erroneously "Fair Youth")

The speaker in this section of sonnets is exploring his talent, his dedication to his art, and his own soul power. In some sonnets, the speaker addresses his muse, in others he addresses himself, and in others he even addresses the poem itself.

Even though many scholars and critics have traditionally categorized this group of sonnets as the "Fair Youth Sonnets," there is no "fair youth," that is "young man," in these sonnets. There is no person at all in this sequence, with exception of the two problematic sonnets, 108 and 126.

Dark Lady Sonnets 127-154

The final sequence targets an adulterous romance with a woman of questionable character; the term “dark” likely modifies the woman’s character flaws, not her skin tone.

Two Problematic Sonnets: 108 and 126

Sonnet 108 and 126 present a problem in categorization. While most of the sonnets in the "Muse Sonnets" do focus on the poet's musings about his writing talent and do not focus on a human being, sonnets 108 and 126 are speaking to a young man, respectively calling him "sweet boy" and "lovely boy."

Sonnet 126 presents an additional problem: it is not technically a "sonnet," because it features six couplets, instead of the traditional three quatrains and a couplet.

The themes of sonnets 108 and 126 would better categorize with the "Marriage Sonnets" because they do address a "young man." It is likely that sonnets 108 and 126 are at least partially responsible for the erroneous labeling of the "Muse Sonnets" as the "Fair Youth Sonnets" along with the claim that those sonnets address a young man.

While most scholars and critics tend to categorize the sonnets into the three-themed schema, others combine the "Marriage Sonnets" and the "Fair Youth Sonnets" into one group of "Young Man Sonnets." This categorization strategy would be accurate if the "Muse Sonnets" actually addressed a young man, as only the "Marriage Sonnets" do.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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