Analysis of Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 30”- “When to the Sessions of Sweet Silent Thought”

Shakespeare’s Sonnets were originally written around 1594, but they weren’t published until 1609 when Thomas Thorpe published them without Shakespeare’s authorization or advisement. It is uncertain if the sonnets are in their intended order, or who Shakespeare is talking is eulogizing; however, most critics believe that the young man is Henry Wriothesley, the third Earl of Southampton, who is one of Shakespeare’s chief patrons. William Shakespeare’s Sonnets 30 appears to be about a day when the speaker is so overwhelmed with emotion that writing about it is the only way he can release it, and move on; it seems as though he left his grief build up over time, and now it is bursting out of him. The theme of this sonnet would have to be renewed sadness. The speaker uses various judicial metaphors to describe his grief. It was common during Elizabethan England that sonneteers wrote as if they were older than they actually were which is why this sonnet appears to be written by someone advanced in years. In this sonnet, the speaker explores the fleeting and destructive power of Time, which can only be contradicted by the power of love.

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought

I summon up remembrance of things past,

I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,

And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste: (lines 1-4)

The speaker ponders his past and the changes that have occurred. “Sessions” is a court metaphor for sittings of court or period of time. “Sweet silent thought” is probably referring to the good memories from the speaker’s past. A summons is a legal document that calls a person to appear in court as a witness. Summon also means to call upon something, in this case, the speaker is recalling past memories. The “sigh” connotes a feeling of sorrow, grief, or yearning. The speaker is sad that he has not gotten all of the things, physical or emotional, that he has wanted out of life. A “woe” is something that causes deep suffering from misfortune, affliction, or grief. “New wail” means bewail anew. The speaker is mourning past events, and lamenting over wasting his “dear time.” Dear can either mean something that is highly valued, and also a loved one; so he is either sorry for wasting the short amount of time he has on things that don’t matter or he is upset for wasting time on someone that he thought was worth his time. Time is unyielding, it passes whether you want it to or not.

Then can I drown an eye (unused to flow)

For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,

And weep afresh love’s long since canceled woe,

And moan th’ expense of many a vanished sight: (5-8)

The speaker sees himself as an unemotional person, which is indicated by the fact that he is not used to crying. Crying makes a person especially vulnerable, which is something that he is clearly not comfortable showing. “Precious friends” can mean either a friendship that he cherishes greatly or he is referring to some past love affairs. These memories are bittersweet; on the one hand he is thinking of people used to mean a great deal to him, but they have since passed away or left him. These “precious friends” are hiding in death’s endless night; which visually must be a dark, unhappy place, perhaps he is saying that they were trapped in hell. Part of his unhappiness could be due to the fact that Time has taken away all of those that have mattered to him, and now he has no one mourn or remember him when he dies. “Long since canceled” is another legal phrase indicating that the love affairs are completely over; much like when a bill or loan has been ‘˜paid in full,’ and therefore the account is canceled. The speaker is saying that even though this relationship ended a long time ago, it still makes him sad to think about it. “Expense” is another legal term meaning loss on the part of the person who sought the services of a lawyer. He moans (a low prolonged sound indicative of pain or grief) over the loss of his “precious friends,” and subsequently everything that he had hoped to get out of life.

Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,

And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er

The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,

Which I new pay as if not paid before. (9-12)

The speaker continues, in the third stanza, to grieve his past, and use legal metaphors. A “grievance” is a cause of distress affording reason for complaint or resistance, and is commonly used when filing some sort of petition in court. In the last stanza, the speaker seemed to be reliving his grief, but now he grieving his grief (if that makes sense). “Tell o’er” means that he is counting up his grievances, perhaps so that he can write up a summation, which is a speech in court summing up the arguments in the case. The “account” is a metaphor for his life, which has been sad one. Remembering all of his past grievances is like he is getting charged monetarily (metaphorically, but he is really having to pay in tears and grief) all over again for the same sorrow. He has lost so many things over his lifetime that have meant so much to him that he is now bankrupt; he has nothing left to lose, which is why is able to become vulnerable.

But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,

All losses are restored and sorrows end. (13-4)

The couplet serves as the speaker’s compensation for all of his past grief, and his ability to finally be vulnerable. In these last two lines, the speaker is finally happy and free of his grief. Everything that he has lost has been given back to him (i.e. he won his case, and got his money back). His compensation is happiness. This shift reminds me of the clich©: every dark cloud has a silver lining. The speaker was so bogged down by all of these painful memories, but when he happened upon this one memory all of those bad memories faded away and he was left happy.