Sonnet 129 is an abnormal poem amongst Shakespeare’s collection; it deals with the complex emotion that is referred to as lust. It is part of the mysterious “dark lady” sonnets, which speak of a mysterious mistress. Sonnet 129 reads like one of Shakespeare’s traditional sonnets, but an in-depth reading shows that it is much unlike the others. Instead of themes of romanticism and love, Sonnet 129 is full of frustration, exasperation, and contrition over the effect of a woman on his character. Lust is a wicked fore that can cause its victims misery, and Shakespeare illustrates this fact in this poem through the use of tone, language, and metaphor.
Sonnet 129 appears to be like many of Shakespeare’s other sonnets, it follows the traditional rhyme scheme (ABAB CDCD EFEF GG), and its use of alliteration and syntax make for a melodic and mellow tone. However, this sonnet is unlike Shakespeare’s other for many reasons. Sonnet 129 contains no personal pronouns such as I, you, your, etc. Brian Vickers, the author of “Returning to Shakespeare,” estimated that “the sonnets contain 960 instances of the first-person form, 890 instances of the second person, and 115 instances of the third person” (Vickers, 292). The only other sonnet that Shakespeare wrote that does not include personal pronouns is Sonnet 5. It could be speculated that this sonnet does not contain these pronouns because of its nature; it personifies the feeling of lust in quite an impersonal way, using harsh tones and intense language.
Shakespeare opens up Sonnet 129 with a strong first line, “Th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame…” (Oxford Shakespeare). illustrating the climax of a sexual act, but the rest of the poem follows with the time leading up to it. He describes this moment as “lust in action,” with qualities such as perjured, murd’rous, bloody, full of blame, savage, extreme, rude, and cruel assigned to it. Lust has become this unshakable force that makes the speaker commit acts that he will later find shameful. The act of climax is closely related to the sense of shame in the first quatrain of this poem, with lust being the outside force that drives one mad in the pursuit of sex.
The second quatrain of this poem introduces the reader to new ideas of lust, and feelings that linger before and after acting upon the feeling of lust. Shakespeare describes the feeling of regret in the fifth and sixth lines, “Enjoyed no sooner but despisèd straight, / Past reason hunted, and no sooner had” (Oxford Shakespeare). Acting on lingering feelings of lust, or past reason hunted, will soon lead to regret as, “…past reason hated” (Oxford Shakespeare). Although one may not want to act on feelings that they will soon regret, lust baits them in with its shameful deceit and lies, “…as a swallowed bait / On purpose laid to make the taker mad” (Oxford Shakespeare). While many poems touch on the subject of being perplexed by love or sense of lust, Shakespeare takes this poem to the extreme with descriptions of lust’s victims going mad. This mental insanity is illustrated throughout lines 8-10, “On purpose laid to make the taker mad; / Mad in pursuit, and in possession so, / Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;” The pattern of which Shakespeare describes lust in this poem shifts around the third quatrain.
Lust being a cruel and deceitful force that makes the speaker commit shameful acts, it becomes more blissful and serene. Shakespeare is now accentuating the better side of lust; instead of referring to it as murderous, the act is now, “…a joy proposed; behind, a dream.” This gives the feeling of lust ambiguity, and this dualism of cruelness and joy is similar to what one would feel when experiencing lust. The victim is taunted by the positive aspects of lust that make one feel as though they are in heaven, only to be tricked by its wicked and shameful outcomes. This outcome is inevitable as Shakespeare describes it in the last couplet, “All this the world well knows, yet none knows well / To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell” (Oxford Shakespeare). The two last lines of this sonnet are powerful, as Shakespeare claims that even though everyone knows what lust will lead them too, they will still act upon their lust to achieve the few seconds of bliss that are inevitably followed by regret.
With an in-depth understanding of the quatrains and meaning behind the sonnet, one still questions why Shakespeare wrote this poem in such an impersonal way, avoiding first-person pronouns such as I, you, or thou. “It has been speculated that Shakespeare’s sonnets 127-152 are all about the same mysterious “dark lady,” meaning that most of these sonnets are autobiographical” (Neely, 83). The tone of this poem is very dark; the reader gets a sense of shame, regret, and hate while reading this poem, and it’s safe to say that Shakespeare wanted to distance himself from those emotions. The harsh tone, striking metaphors and strong emotion of this sonnet draw the reader in, and not using personal pronouns gives the reader a sense of feeling these emotions for themselves. While some say that Shakespeare is hiding behind his words in this sonnet, one could also argue that he writes it in this way to make the reader feel more involved in the strong negative emotion.
The way in which Shakespeare writes this sonnet can also be dissected, as his use of language and alliteration creates an extremely sexual tone. This poem is undeniably about sexual intercourse, and the language used makes this very evident. He starts out with a sexual climax in line one, saying, “Th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame.” As one is releasing their spirit, or energy, only to have feelings of shame after pursuing sex. Another line that stands out in this poem as being obviously sexual is line ten, which reads, “Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;” (Oxford Shakespeare). as Shakespeare’s use of concise words and alliteration form a type of quick, choppy sound which immolate thrusts in intercourse. The line ends with the word extreme – another insinuation of sexual climax. Shakespeare was outstanding at being able to write poetry that conveys a situation or has a certain meaning without using any words that straight out indicate what he means, and Sonnet 129 was one of the best poems in that respect.
Sonnet 129 is an unusual sonnet in Shakespeare’s collection; its dark emotion, strong negative tones, and impersonal language make it stand out among the rest. It persuades the reader to become involved with these emotions and is an easy poem to become wrapped up in. The ambiguity of lust as something that will cause shame and regret, but also blissfulness and joy is an interesting concept, and Shakespeare conveys it with an enormous amount of passion with his use of language in this sonnet.