Thursday, September 15, 2016

Antitheses and Inevitable Appetite in Sonnet 129

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Sonnet 129 is thrown into the collection seemingly out of nowhere.  In a first reading of it, the words may come across as abrasive.  The poem’s brutal scrutiny of the lustful might also be a shock to readers who are familiar with Shakespeare’s references to the “Dark Lady.”  The reader may wonder at first if it is at all like any of Shakespeare's other sonnets.  However, after looking closer at this poem, it can be seen as less of a condemnation of lust than a collage of antithetical statements or feelings. The poet here expresses both the problems and virtues of lust – ultimately deciding on its inevitability.  Similar themes of desires that are eagerly sought, but turn out to be unfulfilling is actually common in Shakespeare’s poetry. 

There are many uses of form in the sonnet that might cause it to seem unique and perhaps more forward or abrupt than other sonnets.  Nearer the beginning of the poem, a number of lines start with more stressed syllables than is usual for iambic pentameter.  This is accompanied in some places with a use of lists that create stark images.  Line 4 is a good example of this. 
“Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,” 
At first, this jarring use of short terms gives the reader a sense of distaste, as though the author wants us to abhor lustfulness and its effects.  However, the writer slowly goes from describing the terrible state of the lustful to contrasting the ideals of lust to the reality of it.  The poet uses words such as “heaven,” “bliss,” and “joy” in direct opposition to words such as “hell,” “mad,” and “woe.”  As this progression takes place, the stresses in the poem become more uniform in a way that might accompany the feeling of giving in.  James Harrison observed that “the words used to characterize the negative effects of lust become perceptibly weaker towards the end of the poem.”  This idea is interesting to note because in the final couplet, the poet turns on his assumed abhorrence and paints lust as inevitable - a conclusion the poem falls into naturally.


As the form and content of the poem establish, the poem is not just meant to condemn lust, but to contrast feelings against themselves - particularly those of expectation against reality and the idea that appetites will can truly be fulfilled nor avoided.  This is present in a number of his other sonnets, particularly Sonnet 118.  This sonnet, in line with others, is tinged with regret that is followed by an inability to escape the problem causing this regret.  It deals with ills or negative consequences that come from giving or chasing after appetite, whether concerning the stomach or sexual impulses.  Similarly,  Sonnet 129 may express regret about the “waste of shame” that is lust, but the narrator determines that no one seems to be able to escape this. Other poems that have similar themes or tones of regret or failure to control appetites might include 119, 121, 147, and 152.

This sonnet, although regretful, is not a repentant poem.  The narrator believes that the fault of falling into appetite is nearly impossible to avoid.  The writer is more inclined to mourn that heaven must be hell than to really try to change actions or behavior.  This is more clearly evident when comparing this poem to other poems and through analyzing the change in form over the course of the poem as well as the contrasts created in it.  In such a study, it is also better understood that this sonnet is not utterly unique in theme or form, but deals with ideas that are common in Shakespeare's works.

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