Sonnet 129

Th'expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjured, murd'rous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,
Enjoyed no sooner but despisèd straight,
Past reason hunted; and, no sooner had
Past reason hated as a swallowed bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad;
Mad in pursuit and in possession so,
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.
     All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
     To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

Footnotes

  1. In Shakespeare’s 1594 narrative poem The Rape of Lucrece, the Roman prince Tarquin rapes the noblewoman Lucretia. The poem explores the overlapping natures of sexuality and violence much in the way that Sonnet 129 does. The two poems also share the notion of sex as a fleeting “dream.” As Tarquin says, “What win I if I gain the thing I seek?/A dream, a breath, a froth of fleeting joy” (Lucrece 211-12).

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  2. “Proposed” is language that suggests marriage. However, the union suggested is “proposed” by lust: the union between the speaker and his lust. The passive construction of the verb conceals the identity of the proposer. It is thus not clear whether the “joy” of sex is proposed by the dark lady or by the speaker’s own instinctual nature. The syntax here mirrors that of line 8: “On purpose laid,” a phrase which places responsibility on the woman. The speaker externalizes the blame for his lustful actions.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  3. As scholar Stephen Booth notes, the word “woe” was often used in Elizabethan times as a pun on “woman,” as in “woman is a woe to man.” The speaker capitalizes on this idea of women as a source of shame and sorrow.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  4. This line could be read in one of two ways. “Heaven” can be a reference to the woman’s physical beauty in which case “hell” is the female sex organ. “Heaven” can also be read as sexual fulfillment in which case “hell” is the speaker’s post coital shame. If read in the second way, the final line of this couplet reflects the exact sentiment of the first line: the speaker has not learned his lesson, he still views sex as paradise.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  5. The shift from “proof” to “proved” marks the transition from “bliss” to “woe.” This is one of the poem’s central themes: that the sexual act is a momentary bliss that leads to unnecessary anguish. The line’s construction prefigures the poem’s final line such that “bliss” parallels “heaven” while “woe” parallels “hell.”

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  6. This line is an example of a chiasmus, a literary device in which phrases are repeated in a reversed order or modified form. This inverted parallel shows that the world has not learned this lesson though the lesson is “well known.” All will continue to repeat this pattern.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  7. “Have” appears in past, present, and future tense, which conveys a cyclical nature to the speaker’s lust. Though he depicts his lust as a hunt in line 6, suggesting a goal-centered nature, here the speaker admits that the hunt never ends.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  8. The repetition of “have’ suggests that this action is similarly repetitive. It has happened in the past and will continue to happen. Repetition functions throughout this poem to signify the cyclical nature of lust, fulfillment, and shame.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  9. In a typical sonnet, line 9 would mark the volta, a thematic and tonal shift to begin the third quatrain. There is, however, no meaningful volta in Sonnet 129, nor are there meaningful separations between the quatrains. Lines 3 through 12 all serve as adjectival descriptions of the word “lust” at the end of line 2. The structural chaos of the poem imitates the speaker’s chaotic state of mind.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  10. In sonnets, a speaker irrationally pursues an ideal woman who does not return his love. Thus, love poetry is about the distance between the poet and lover; the poet must gaze upon the love object from afar and never fulfill his desire. However, in this poem the poet’s “mad pursuit” is not obsessive gazing from afar but the fulfillment of desire. In this way the poem stands as an exploration of what happens when desire that should be unrequited is fulfilled.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  11. “On purpose” suggests that the woman intentionally seduced and trapped the speaker with her appearance. This sentiment echoes the traditional love poem in which the male gaze is trapped by, or fixed by, the woman’s beauty. Here, the woman’s beauty is blamed for spurring the man to indulge in his desire.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  12. The hunting metaphor in line 6 is picked up again in loose form in this line. The lustful speaker, once the hunter, now portrays himself as a caught fish who has “swallowed [the] bait.” To borrow an old adage, the hunter has become the hunted.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  13. This is the only moment in the poem in which the woman actually enters the narrative. Throughout the first two quatrains, the speaker focuses on his lust rather than the object of that lust. Notice that the woman enters the poem in a passive way, “lust is laid” rather than actively entrapping him by laying the lust. While she does enter the poem, the woman is still an object and a tool, first for his lust then for his shame.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  14. “Taker,” someone who seizes or takes possession of by force, could suggest undertones of rape. These violent undertones continue to suggest the negative associations that the speaker has with sex.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  15. “Past reason” takes on a different meaning here: it is not the reason that he ignored initially, but the reasoning that allowed him to fulfill his desire and ignore his internal inhibitions. The repetition of the phrase “past reason” in these two lines signifies his internal struggle: both the reason to abstain and the reason to indulge exist within him.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  16. The metaphor of amorous pursuit as a hunt is an old poetic conceit that Shakespeare repurposes here. In older sonnets such as Thomas Wyatt’s “Whoso List to Hunt,” the love object is depicted as a deer that the speaker tracks down. In Sonnet 129, the aristocratic elegance of the hunt is gone, replaced by a shameful hunt “past reason.”

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  17. In this line, the speaker leads with the idea of “enjoyment” rather than shame. Like the last line of the poem, the feelings presented follow the emotional arc of the speaker rather than constructing a logical argument. This sequence of words represents the speaker’s lack of logic and loss of control.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  18. In its first iteration, the word “past” operates as a spatial preposition. In his hunt, the speaker passes by his reasoning faculties. In the next line, the identical phrase is used as a temporal metaphor, pointing back in time to the flawed reasoning of the speaker’s lustful pursuit.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  19. The litany of violent words in these two lines is connected only by the commas that separate them; the words pour out into the line without logic or control. This catalog reflects the intense build-up that the speaker alludes to in line two that the “action” will dispel.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  20. Like line 3, line 4 consists of a series of violent adjectives describing the speaker’s lust. While line 3 contains consonant sounds that convey his lustfulness, the meter in line 4 falls apart in a thematically appropriate way. The normal iambic pentameter becomes derailed, and is replaced by an erratic meter with six beats. This meter effectively imitates the loss of control the speaker feels in his fit of lust.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  21. “Lust” is defined in the following lines as “murderous, bloody, cruel,” etc. to suggest that there is inherent violence in lust. Claiming that lust is violent in myriad ways “till action” suggests that the fulfillment of lust robs it of its violent power. Essentially, the speaker describes an intense build up to an action that amounts to nothing more than shame.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  22. “Spirit” was a common euphemism for an erection that came from the phrase “to raise a spirit.” “Spirit” can also mean one’s soul, figuratively meaning he has wasted his soul by enacting this sin. Here, the speaker introduces the spiritual crisis that he will explore throughout the poem using sexual metaphors.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  23. This line is largely composed of syllables heavily weighted with consonant sounds, often on both ends of a vowel. This approach to sound gives the line a swollen, full feeling, which conveys the speaker’s lustful state.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  24. As the scholar Stephen Booth points out, “bloody” works as a pun here. Figuratively, it connotes violence and lack of reason. Literally, it refers to the speaker’s erection.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  25. By describing lust as “murd’rous” and “bloody,” this line establishes a conflation between lust and violence that the speaker refers to again throughout the poem.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  26. The notion of lust as “perjured” suggests that lust causes one to commit perjury—to lie and be unfaithful. Some scholars believe that the woman in Sonnet 129 is a prostitute, which reinforces the idea of the speaker being unfaithful.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff