Shakespeare Sonnet 30
Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford
The speaker in Shakespeare Sonnet 30 dramatizes the simple idea that despite all of the sorrow and lack he has experienced in his life, the one thing he can count on to restore “all losses” and end his sorrow is his dear friend, his ability to write poems.
Sonnet 30 belongs to the group that is mistakenly thought to be addressed to a young man, but no young man appears. No person appears in any of this sequence of poems. The speaker muses only on his poems and his ability to compose them.
The “dear friend” he is addressing is his talent, his ability to write sonnets. That ability is truly the speaker's best and dearest friend.
Reading of Sonnet 30
First Quatrain: “When to the sessions of sweet silent thought”
Shakespeare sonnet 30 functions through the “when-then” structure as many of the sonnets do. The speaker contends that "when" one events occurs, "then" a second event follows the first one.
In this sonnet's first stanza, the speaker’s when-clause dramatizes his thinking back to his earlier life: “When to the sessions of sweet silent thought / I summon up remembrance of things past.”
This occasion of “sessions of sweet silent thought” refers exactly to the times that he is musing on writing a poem.
When such a musing session happens to lead him to thoughts of sadness and loss, he “sigh[s]” at what he was unable to accomplish or at what he was unable to attain, and he bemoans his wasted time in certain pursuits.
Second Quatrain: “Then can I drown an eye, unus’d to flow”
Such sad memories cause the speaker to cry a flood of tears, and he goes on to remember friends who have died, and old lost loves who made him sorrowful, but long since he had forgotten.
Still these memories, when they attend the speaker during a session “of sweet silent thought,” lay heavy on his heart, and he suffers anew as if the sorrow had just begun.
Even though the speaker had overcome the sorrow, and his tears were “unus’d to flow,” the memories can become so vivid that they overtake his composure, and his tears rush freely down cheeks that had long remained dry and stalwart against pain.
Third Quatrain: “Then can I grieve at grievances foregone”
The speaker's past grief becomes so heavy that he has the ability to take account of it as if the grief were newly minted. He has the ability to shape in it a poem to “tell o’er / The sad account.”
The speaker can retell it to make it so real that others can experience it in his poems.
The speaker has a great confidence in his knowledge of his own heart and his ability to create art with his grief.
This talented speaker's memories provide the material, and his mind and genius for writing allow him to capture his emotion in sturdy poems.
The Couplet: “But if the while I think on thee, dear friend”
Despite the fact that the speaker's sorrows are deep and wield his strength to tears, and the lack he has suffered makes him doubt some of his past choices, all he has to do to recover is remember that his God-given gift of poetic genius is enough to remove all pain and sorrow.
The speaker thinks of his ability to compose as a “dear friend.”
A Brief Overview: The 154-Sonnet Sequence
Scholars and critics of Elizabethan literature have determined that the sequence of 154 Shakespeare sonnets may be classified into three thematic categories: (1) Marriage Sonnets 1-17; (2) Muse Sonnets 18-126, traditionally identified as the "Fair Youth"; and (3) Dark Lady Sonnets 127-154.
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 example, Walt Whitman, one of America's greatest poets has opined:
Conceiv'd out of the fullest heat and pulse of European feudalism — personifying in unparalleled ways the medieval aristocracy, its towering spirit of ruthless and gigantic caste, with its own peculiar air and arrogance (no mere imitation) — only one of the "wolfish earls" so plenteous in the plays themselves, or some born descendant and knower, might seem to be the true author of those amazing works — works in some respects greater than anything else in recorded literature.
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 (Traditionally classified as "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.
Three Problematic Sonnets: 108, 126, 99
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.
Sonnet 99 might be considered somewhat problematic: it features 15 lines instead of the traditional 14 sonnet lines. It accomplishes this task by converting the opening quatrain into a cinquain, with an altered rime scheme from ABAB to ABABA. The rest of the sonnet follows the regular rime, rhythm, and function of the traditional sonnet.
The Two Final Sonnets
Sonnets 153 and 154 are also somewhat problematic. They are classified with the Dark Lady Sonnets, but they function quite differently from the bulk of those poems.
Sonnet 154 is a paraphrase of Sonnet 153; thus, they carry the same message. The two final sonnets dramatize the same theme, a complaint of unrequited love, while outfitting the complaint with the dress of mythological allusion. The speaker employs the services of the Roman god Cupid and the goddess Diana. The speaker thus achieves a distance from his feelings, which he, no doubt, hopes will finally liberate him from the clutches of his lust/love and bring him equanimity of mind and heart.
In the bulk of the "dark lady" sonnets, the speaker has a been addressing the woman directly, or making it clear that what he is saying is intended for her ears. In the final two sonnets, the speaker is not directly addressing the mistress. He does mention her, but he is speaking now about her instead of directly to her. He is now making it quite clear that he is withdrawing from the drama with her.
Readers may sense that he has grown battle-weary from his struggle for the woman’s respect and affection, and now he has finally decided to make a philosophical drama that heralds the end of that disastrous relationship, announcing essentially, "I’m through."
© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes