How can I then return in happy plight,
Sonnet 28 is one of 154 sonnets written by the English playwright and poet William Shakespeare. It's a member of the Fair Youth sequence, in which the poet expresses his love towards a young man. The man is usually referred to as “the young man” or the “friend”. While the word "friend" does not exclude a sexual relationship, it also encompasses a popular Renaissance ideal of male fidelity and equality. The sonnets from 18 to 126 turn to Shakespeare’s own relationship to the young man.
Sonnet 28 is the second of a series of five sonnets in which the solitary poet meditates on his friend, night and sleeplessness, a traditional motif in Petrarchan sonnet sequences. Most famously, Shakespeare in these sonnets declares the faithfulness of his love for the young man, and celebrates the power of his poetry to preserve the young man’s memory.
The original text from 1609 Quarto:
- How can I then returne in happy plight
- That am debard the benefit of reſt?
- When daies oppreſſion is not eazd by night,
- But day by night and night by day opreſt.
- And each (though enimes to ethers raigne)
- Doe in conſent ſhake hands to torture me,
- The one by toyle, the other to complaine
- How far I toyle, ſtill farther off from thee.
- I tell the Day to pleaſe him thou art bright,
- And do'ſt him grace when clouds doe blot the heauen:
- So flatter I the ſwart complexiond night,
- When ſparkling ſtars twire not thou guil'ſt th' eauen.
- But day doth daily draw my ſorrowes longer,(ſtronger
- And night doth nightly make greefes length ſeeme
Sonnet Structure and Glossary of Terms
Sonnet 28 follows the typical Shakespearean sonnet. It consists of three quatrains (lines 1-12) and a couplet (lines 13-14). Shakespeare also uses an Italian form called volta, which separates the sonnet into an octave (8 lines) and a sestet (6 lines). Line 8 completes the first thought of the sonnet and a new direction is brought upon line 9. The rhythm scheme for all Shakespearean sonnets, including Sonnet 28 is: ABAB, CDCD, EFEF, GG.
Additionally, there are besides the poems that seem obviously grouped by subject matter, pairs of logically linked poems like 27 and 28 in which the syntax gives a sense of forward progress. In nearly two-thirds of Shakespeare’s sonnets there are vestigial remains of the octave in a Shakespearean sonnet can, of course, never be as distinctly a unit as it is in sonnets where its unity is supported by rhyme, but Shakespeare can counter the pattern of his rhyme scheme to achieve a sense of greater division between the second quatrain and the third than between the first two. One of the most commonest patterns of pulsating alliteration is in b or p (the voiced and unvoiced forms of the same sound), in combination with a variety of r sounds…there are excellent examples in 28.2-3 (debarred, benefit of rest, oppression).
Shakespeare’s poetic line is based less upon rigid syllable counts than on a careful arrangement of stresses within an understood metrical norm, as one might expect from a poet who had written both for the theater and for the page. It aspires to set up expectations that it deliberately either fulfills or frustrates.
1. How can I then return in happy plight, A
2. That am debarred the benefit of rest? B
3. When day's oppression is not eas'd by night, A
4. But day by night and night by day oppress'd, B
5. And each, though enemies to either's reign, C
6. Do in consent shake hands to torture me, D
7. The one by toil, the other to complain C
8. How far I toil, still farther off from thee. D
9. I tell the day, to please him thou art bright, E
10. And dost him grace when clouds do blot the heaven: F
11. So flatter I the swart-complexion'd night, E
12. When sparkling stars twire not thou gild'st the even. F
13. But day doth daily draw my sorrows longer, G
14. And night doth nightly make grief's length seem stronger. G
|Happy Plight: Cheerful condition|
|Debarred: To exclude or shut out from a place or condition|
|Still … off: Always gettings farther|
|Twire: To twinkle|
|Gild’st: To make golden|
|The Even: The evening|
|Draw: To draw out, extend|
The agonies of separation from the addressee take their toll on the poet. There is a narrative and structural continuity between this sonnet and the preceding one, which again addresses the torment of insomnia, a theme Shakespeare took up at length in Macbeth. Here, however, it is desire rather than guilt that induces sleeplessness. Exhausted by his work during the day and tortured again with sleeplessness at night, his turmoil is compounded and his grief at separation only intensifies.
The exact dates in which Shakespeare composed the Sonnets as a whole and Sonnet 28 remain unclear. It seems perfectly believable that Shakespeare may have prepared a collection of his sonnets late in 1599, provoked by William Jaggard’s piratical and mediocre The Passionate Pilgrim, and that at one time he planned to publish it. Furthermore, it is likely that at least some sonnets were circulating in manuscript before [the release of the 1609 Quarto, or, “Q”]. Some scholars have employed stylometric analysis using vocabulary and syntax from the plays (since their date of composition are better known) to determine when clusters of sonnets were written. These studies have proven suggestive, but unpersuasive and inconclusive.
The traditional twentieth-century view has been that Q was published in some surreptitious or piratical manner. This notion is sometimes reinforced by a further assertion that it was ‘suppressed’ soon after publication, though there is no evidence for either claim. The origins of the widespread belief that Q is unauthorized lie, probably, in deep anxieties felt by British scholars who worked in the aftermath of the infamous Labouchere Amendment of 1885, which criminalized homosexual acts between consenting adult males[.]
Much of the biographical speculation has focused on the identities of the young man, black mistress [dark lady], and rival poet, who are never identified by their proper names. For the young man, there have long been two leading contenders. Both are English Renaissance noblemen, since the young man of the sonnets appears to be of higher birth than Shakespeare. Moreover, poets in the English Renaissance often wrote or dedicated their poems to aristocratic men or women, because of the potential for prestige and literary patronage that writing for an aristocrat brought. The first of these two noblemen is Henry Wriothesley, who was the 3rd Earl of Southampton. Advocates for [Wriothesley] point to the fact that Shakespeare explicitly dedicated to the earl his poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. Details about [Wriothesley]'s personal life also fit the sonnets. Around the time Shakespeare may have been starting his sonnet sequence, the earl, like the man of the sonnets, was refusing to get married, and another poet had already composed a poem for the earl that implicitly counseled him to do so. Shakespeare might have followed suit. The second chief candidate for the young man is William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke. Shakespeare never dedicated any poetry to Pembroke as he did to [Wriothesley]. Nor is there direct evidence that he knew Herbert. However, the first compilation of Shakespeare’s plays published after Shakespeare’s death in 1623, was dedicated to William Herbert and his brother Philip. The two men who wrote the dedication, actors and friends of Shakespeare, might have known of a relationship between Shakespeare and Herbert.
The most controversial question to have haunted the history of the reception of the Sonnets has concerned the nature of the love expressed for their youthful subject. However, it is unknown whether the Sonnets offer a window on Shakespeare’s sexually identity, or are simply evidence of his remarkable ability to ventriloquize convincingly a range of erotic scenarios and desires. Certainly the emotions articulated in many of the poems feel authentic. But this may just be a measure of the poet’s art. Shakespeare sought to appropriate and redefine the [sonnet] genre, rejecting the stale conceits of mistress-worship, and to create a sonnet sequence so different from all its predecessors that the form could never be the same again. We cannot judge dates of composition by correspondence to events in the poet’s life because the sonnets may not be autobiographical and because we do not know any of the intimate details of Shakespeare’s life. Nor can we place the poems by public events, for there is no clear and undisputed reference to any such event. We cannot be sure whether Pembroke or [Wriothesley] was the patron of the moment.
Like Sonnet 27, this poem, with its comparably unhappy ending, turns on the indistinguishability of day and night; they were both occasions of work in the former poem, but here they are both occasions of torture. Day and night are surely natural enemies. How can it be that they have now become allies so that they do in consent shake hands to torture me? It is because of their absence from the beloved that the speaker’s personified days and nights are enraged, and wreak their vengeance upon him; he attempts to pacify his torturers by assuring them that they, unlike himself, are in effect in the presence of the beloved. They refuse to believe such sophistry, and their torture goes on.
This exaggerated projection onto cosmic powers (Day and Night) of the tortures of absence suggests that the young man himself is a fellow god of theirs, and that when the sovereigns Dies and Nox are deprived of his exalted company, they torment the oppress[ed] speaker because of their deprivation. The day tortures the speaker by toil, the night by making him complain of distance from the beloved.
The abject position of the tortured servant-speaker is manifest in his cringing flattery. To the day (to please him and make him stop the torture) the speaker says, “The young man is really with you; when clouds blot the heaven, he shines and does you grace.” To the night, the speaker says, “The young man is really with you; when the stars are not visible, he gilds the evening.”
The little story of 28 is not told by the speaker about himself in a narration, but rather in a second-person address to the beloved; and so the compelled lies to the torturers are told to the young man as if he were a sympathetic auditor of the speaker’s stratagems:
I tell the day, to please him, that you [the object of the day’s love and the absent cause of his rage] are bright and do him grace on cloudy days; [In the same way] I flatter the swart-complexioned night, saying to him that when the stars are invisible to you [the object of the night’s love and the absent cause of his rage] gild the evening. We are to infer that the days are cloudy and the nights starless because sun and stars alike are sulking in their tents, hating their separation from the beloved youth. But all the abjectness does the speaker no good; the torturers resume and intensify their torture, and sorrow and grief expand in suffering.
In its fiction, the poem suggests that the speaker has received a letter from the beloved, saying, “I hope you will return in happy plight.” The speaker then bursts out in grievance with his opening reply, which contains an indirect quotation from the beloved’s letter:
The double emphasis on feeling oppressed suggests that the speaker in truth feels oppressed by the beloved who has sent him away, perhaps, on this errand. But the complaint is deflected (as so often in the Sonnets) onto agents who are in fact innocent (here, day and night), and the words directed at the beloved must be, can only be, words of praise: thou art bright, and dost sun-like grace to a cloudy day; thou gild’st the even in lieu of the stars.
It is a mark of the impossibility of his speaking candidly to the beloved that the speaker has to invent his improbable and contrived fable of placating his torturing oppressors. The degree of contortedness in any given invention always measures its departure from the right angle of truth. Those who object to sonnets like this as “contrived” or “artificial” cannot see that a “contrived” and “artificial” repression of mutual candid speech is what has engendered such oblique fables, and that what is being enacted is the torment of deflected complaint.
It probably goes without saying that the sonnet first distinguishes Night and Day, the two opposite sovereigns (enemies to either’s reign), and then joins them in a plural verb (shake hands), to represent their joint savaging of the speaker. At the end, they are acting once again separately-but-in-conjunction. The last sentence, though distributive (Day doth; Night doth) make its two coordinate statements so resemble each other in vocabulary, parallel syntax, and effect that the shak[ing] hands to torture is once more enacted in spite of the return from a joint verb (shake hands) to separate verbs (doth draw; doth make).
Such rather formulaic ways of enacting content by form are more typical of the earlier sonnets in the sequence; and though nobody would choose this sonnet (or other such sonnets) as among the best, they are interesting as proving-grounds for Shakespearean convictions about the necessity of poetic enactment. And even the most formulaic sonnets do not lack an imaginative thrust; one does not forget the tortured vassal uttering desperate flattery against the cruelty of overcast days and sullen nights.
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