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Shakespeare Sonnet 43: "When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see"

Updated on April 29, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

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

Source

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 43

In the Shakespearean sonnet 43, the creative speaker asserts that his dreaming vision which includes his poetic muse is always brighter than daylight. Even though he sees ordinary objects in daylight, they cannot hearten him as does his muse in dreams or darkness.

The speaker's muse who leads him to his poetry creation remains the brightest star in his life. A nighttime of bright muse is worth much more any daytime of ordinary light.

Sonnet 43

When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see
For all the day they view things unrespected;
But when I sleep, in dreams they look on thee,
And darkly bright, are bright in dark directed.
Then thou, whose shadow shadows doth make bright,
How would thy shadow’s form form happy show
To the clear day with thy much clearer light,
When to unseeing eyes thy shade shines so!
How would, I say, mine eyes be blessed made
By looking on thee in the living day,
When in dead night thy fair imperfect shade
Through heavy sleep on sightless eyes doth stay!
All days are nights to see till I see thee,
And nights bright days when dreams do show thee me.

Reading of Shakespeare Sonnet 43

Commentary

In sonnet 43, the speaker is musing on the transformative powers of his poetic muse. She can turn night into day, while ordinary vision fails to inspire.

First Quatrain: Seeing While Sleeping

When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see
For all the day they view things unrespected;
But when I sleep, in dreams they look on thee,
And darkly bright, are bright in dark directed.

The speaker in Shakespeare Sonnet 43, "When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see," claims that he sees best when he "sleeps," or visits the astral, mental world because it is then that he experiences his belovèd—the poetry muse. The dark behind the closed eyes of sleep, whether day or night dreaming, reveal to the speaker all the love and beauty he desires.

The speaker then muses on his belovèd with a concentration directed toward fashioning his thoughts and feelings into a sonnet. The darkness is figuratively lit up with the brilliance of creativity. He sees many objects during the day that are ordinary to which he seldom gives a second glance.

Second Quatrain: Bright Shadow

Then thou, whose shadow shadows doth make bright,
How would thy shadow’s form form happy show
To the clear day with thy much clearer light,
When to unseeing eyes thy shade shines so!

Even the shadow of the speaker's muse is bright, filled with light that makes a "happy show." The speaker plays with incremental repetition here in such lines as "whose shadow shadows doth make bright" and "How would thy shadow’s form form happy show."

And the speaker also uses the alliteration of sibilant sounds: "to unseeing eyes thy shade shines so!" The skillful speaker is practicing his skill with words as he celebrates and praises his poetic muse.

Again, this talented poet/speaker insists that even the darkness or the shadow of his muse is "clearer" than the ordinary light of day. This speaker's mental world is brighter and more amazing to him than the physical world he perceives with his physical eyes.

Third Quatrain: A Question of Rhetorical Importance

How would, I say, mine eyes be blessed made
By looking on thee in the living day,
When in dead night thy fair imperfect shade
Through heavy sleep on sightless eyes doth stay!

The third quatrain is an exclamatory rhetorical question: how could I fancy seeing you in the ordinary light of day when the shadow of your presence lights my sleep, and unlike the flitting glances of daylight vision your "imperfect shade" remains with me in my mental world!?

The rhetorical question answers itself by asserting that the speaker’s mental vision is superior to his physical vision because it is permanent when the speaker deems it so.

The Couplet: Reversing Day and Night

All days are nights to see till I see thee,
And nights bright days when dreams do show thee me.

Day and night reverse themselves in the musings of the speaker. If he does not encounter his muse in ordinary light, then it might as well be night for him. But when the speaker's muse appears to him, even if it is night, even if he is merely dreaming, then nighttime transforms into a "bright day[]."

Incremental Repetition

This sonnet employs the rhetorical device known as incremental repetition in classical rhetoric. This type of repetition places emphasis on a word or thought as it adds texture and specificity to the line or phrase. The repeated term appears often but not always in a slightly altered form, for example, "darkly" and "dark," "shadow" and "shadows." In sonnet 43, the following lines employ incremental repetition:

Line 4: "And DARKLY bright, are bright in DARK directed."
Line 5: "Then thou, whose SHADOW SHADOWS doth make bright"
Line 6: "How would thy shadow’s FORM FORM happy show"
Line 7: "To the CLEAR day with thy much CLEARER light"
Line 13: "All days are nights to SEE till I SEE thee"

One might imagine that he poet in this piece had decided to practice the use of this device, but if so, his practice because of his skill resulted in a rich texture of verse. His voice sounds as natural as if he had been speaking right off the to of his head. Of course, that skill remains the reason that this speaker can be so assured of the value of his creations. He was a true bard and he knew it.

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 poet's 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.

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.

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

Comments

Submit a Comment

  • Maya Shedd Temple profile imageAUTHOR

    Linda Sue Grimes 

    18 months ago from U.S.A.

    Thanks, Louise! I appreciate your feedback. Have a blessed day!

  • Coffeequeeen profile image

    Louise Powles 

    18 months ago from Norfolk, England

    That's beautiful Linda. Thankyou. =)

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