In Elizabethan England, professional writers were among those most highly revered. Writers all across England sought aristocratic patronage, and the few that achieved this coveted position were amply rewarded with money, protection, and prestige. Shakespeare was one of these lucky few, who enjoyed this advantage. Shakespeare pushed the boundaries of conventional poetry with his Sonnets. In William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29, the speaker is overwhelmed by feelings of unluckiness and self-loathing, and it only by a chance remembrance of his beloved that reminds him how lucky he truly is.
When, in disgrace with Fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate, (lines 1-4)
Fortune refers to the medieval and ancient philosophy of the Wheel of Fortune. It is said to be made of four stages: on top of the wheel (everything is going right for you), on the right side of the wheel (your luck is going downhill), on the bottom of the wheel (you are at your lowest, luck wise), and on the left side of the wheel (your luck is starting to get better). If the speaker is in disgrace (or disfavor) with Fortune then he is most likely at the bottom of the wheel with no hope of reaching the top. Also, if he is in disfavor with Fortune then he must be in disfavor with men, because those who are on top usually don’t like to associate or even look at those who are on the bottom for fear that their luck will change. The speaker feels that because his misfortune is so great that he is all alone, ostracized from society. He feels that no one, not even God cares about him. Heaven ignores his “bootless” (futile) cries; if God doesn’t seem care about someone it must mean that they are truly worthless. This first quatrain is full of self-loathing. He feels as though he has been rejected by everyone even Fate.
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least; (5-8)
In the second quatrain, the speaker begins to list the qualities that he wishes that he possessed. He wishes that he was more hopeful, meaning that he had better prospects, or that he was someone who believes that things will eventually work themselves out. He wants to be more “featured” (handsome) like this one man that he saw. He also wants to be like another guy, who have lots of friends and is well-liked. He wants this man’s “art” (skill), and another’s “scope” (ability). The speaker, presumably, once liked himself but changed his mind when he saw how good other men were at various things, and out of envy he began to feel unsatisfied with himself.
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state
(Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven’s gate; (9-12)
In the third quatrain, the mood shifts and the speaker seems to become happy once again. The speaker says that when he is so deep in his self-loathing the only thing that makes him happy is the thought of his beloved. Haply means by chance, but is used has a pun here on the happily. This chance thought of his beloved makes him happy. The speaker gives an analogy between his current state of happiness to that of a lark. Larks are notorious for their habit of flying straight up in the air first thing in the morning and singing the whole time. It is a very happy bird. The bird flies up, which is both the direction of heaven, and represents his mood from going from dark (down on the ground) to light (high in the sky). The bird leaves the sullen (gloomy silent) earth, and sings at heaven’s gate. Heaven was previously deaf to him, but now it listens to his song of happiness. Therefore, the mere thought of the beloved’s love has the power to change the speaker’s mood.
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings. (13-4)
The speaker states great wealth and fortune accompany the mere thought of the beloved’s love. The speaker is so happy that he scorns (an emotion involving both anger and disgust) the notion of changing his state with that of a king. “State” is punned here; in this line state means throne, he doesn’t want to be a king, instead he is content with being himself.