Sonnet 129

Once again Shakespeare turns the Romantic ideal of a love sonnet on its head, bitterly attacking romantic love in Sonnet 129: a visceral attack against sensual love–an attack, really, against his sensual beloved, The Dark Lady.


The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,
Enjoy’d no sooner but despised straight,
Past reason hunted, and no sooner had
Past reason hated, as a swallow’d 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.

No, the Dark Lady isn’t mentioned by name or gender in this verse. But 129’s placement in the Dark Lady sequence, between a lovely sonnet where the Poet watches her play on a virginal (#128) and the delightful parody homage to her physically repellent nature (#130), this verse leaves no doubt as to whom it’s about.  

Or, better put, it leaves no doubt as to what it’s about: the luxury of sinful lovemaking. How extreme and crazed human behavior is before sex; how uncontrolled, yet delightful, it is during sex; how regretful it is after.

And please, read this sonnet aloud: its use of repetition, its deliciously ferocious language, the way it skips back and forth in time, all evoke the uncontrolled actions of lovers in the act.   Yet, strangely so, the sonnet remains so impersonal. In the end, the Poet regards what he and she did as only that: an impersonal act.

The image is an anonymous woodcut of an Elizabethan couple getting it on in a very unapproved manner: purchased sex in a brothel.

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