Shakespeare Sonnet 50: "How heavy do I journey on the way"
Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford
Introduction: Gloomy Dualism
In Shakespeare Sonnet 50, the speaker is bemoaning the struggle between body and soul, in which every human being must engage.
Even the artist's creations cannot alleviate the suffering that dualism causes. The trials and tribulations that result on the material plane of being will continue to engender woe in many a circumstance.
The speaker speculates as he attempts to look ahead to the end of his current incarnation. He tries to console himself, but the beast of burden becomes to strong, and he remains in a funk as he allows himself the luxury of mourning his state of being.
The reader sees that this speaker is usually able to overcome all sorrow as he contemplates his unique talent, but there are times when nothing avails to drive away the facts of biology and it relationship to metaphysics.
Reading of Sonnet 50
First Quatrain: "How heavy do I journey on the way"
The speaker is addressing his own soul through his creativity. He reports that as he travels through his life the burden of merely living causes him great consternation.
The speaker speculates about what might meet him at the end of his life's journey. He fears that instead of "repose" and "ease," he might experience nothing but a giant nihilistic nothingness.
However, the speaker knows he must continue the journey, regardless of how far from his vaunted expectations the miles may lead him.
All of the speaker's activities have become life habits, which he will perceive to have receded as he ages into decrepitude. He labels the journey "heavy," because peering into the future brings doubt and worry.
Second Quatrain: "The beast that bears me, tired with my woe"
The speaker then metaphorically likens his physical body to a draft animal, "the beast that bears me." The body "plods dully on," afflicted by the burdensome weight of his talent.
The "wretch" or his animal-like body seems to intuit that the soul is not interested in speed, but in celestial food gathered in part through the act of creativity.
Yet the body and soul contrast even as they attempt to work together.
The artist/poet must still acknowledge that his body or animal carries that burden that results from the soul’s duty to itself.
While the body becomes "tired with [ ] woe," the soul spurs it on, and the individual who is the result of this composite soul and body must balance the weight of each: the physical weight that weakens and ages and the spiritual weight (more accurately "presence") that does neither.
The speaker/poet realizes that he is "made from thee," as he addresses the soul, or the creator of his art.
Third Quatrain: "The bloody spur cannot provoke him on"
In the third quatrain, the speaker recognizes his emotional self that becomes angry when he finds himself thrown off balance in his attempt to appease body and soul.
The "bloody spur" that attempts to prod the body may cause a "groan," but it is impotent in spurring on the soul.
The speaker suffers more mentally than physically when his talent is under attack from worries and woes.
The Couplet: "For that same groan doth put this in my mind"
The "groan" that transpires from the soul’s spurring on the body motivates the speaker/poet to think that his past has been more joyful than his future.
The speaker falls into the funk of distorted reality, when too much identification with physical reality overtakes the ultimate authenticity of spiritual reality.
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