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Shakespeare Sonnet 30: "When to the sessions of sweet silent thought"
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.”
© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes