Poet's Pick April 13
William Shakespeare: Sonnet 129
("Th’expense of spirit in a waste of shame")

Selected by Amit Majmudar
National Poetry Month 2017

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Amit Majmudar's Poetry Month Pick, April 13, 2017

Sonnet 129 ("Th’expense of spirit in a waste of shame")
by William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

Th’expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjur’d, 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 propos’d; behind, a dream.
    All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
    To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell. 


* Amit Majmudar Comments:
I’ve always felt the Sonnets, even at their darkest, were written by the honey-tongued Shakespeare of the Comedies. In Sonnet 129, though, the fire-breathing Shakespeare of the tragedies shows up unannounced. 129 is kinetic Shakespeare, mysterium tremendum Shakespeare, the Shakespeare who could shout hurricanes back out to sea, the Shakespeare who would have had answers for the whirlwind that cowed Job. 129 hides among the Sonnets like a landmine among cobblestones.

The subject is coupling, so twos proliferate. The first two words are collapsed into one. 129’s rhetorical scaffolding erects itself in twos, too. Consider the double-helical chiasmus braiding through 129, a structure named for the Greek letter Chi — ‘X,’ like the chromosome. The anaphora uses ‘past reason’ twice.

And the puns! Knowing Shakespeare, all of them are intentional. ‘Waste’ was in Elizabethan times a pun read as well as a pun heard, as waste was the contemporary spelling for waist as well. ‘Hunted,’ as in venery, as in the root of the modern word ‘venereal’: chasing tail in more ways than one. ‘Swallowed’ indeed. They keep coming; he is really a master...‘bait.’ ‘Laid.’ ‘Knows,’ as in Biblical knowledge, which dovetails with ‘spirit’ in the first line. Lines 9 through 13 moan out sexual ‘Oh’s with ever-increasing frequency--the first ‘oh’ comes in 9, another in 11, another hard by it in 12, then two more in 13. And the climactic line pulls into 129 a then-current idiomatic expression for intercourse, ‘to put the devil in hell,’ to thrust him into the heat where he belongs.

Yet 129 rails against lust without railing against women. Disgust like this a smaller mind would have directed outward. The thrust of 129 is against lust itself, not its object. Shakespeare understands it as the Beast within, and he stops short of misogyny.

129 is perfect in its uniqueness among the sonnets, too. Disgust like this swells up suddenly and goes down again. A whole set of 129’s would have been untrue. Accordingly, 128 gives no warning; the poet envieth a musical instrument his lover playeth, 'How oft when thou, my music, music play'st....' Then — like a bomb — 129. Everyone in the room stops talking. Open-mouthed stares. Wineglasses paused in midair.... And on we go to silly, witty 130, the one that makes fun of conventional love poetry, ‘My mistress’s eyes are nothing like the sun,’ the familiar wink, the familiar smile, and just like that he’s charming Will again, aiming to please.

Amit Majmudar:
Amit Majmudar is the Poet Laureate of Ohio, and his latest collection is Dothead (Knopf, 2016). He has edited and introduced the anthology Resistance, Rebellion, Life: 50 Poems Now, forthcoming from Knopf in May 2017. His next book is a verse translation with commentaries of the Bhagavad-Gita, entited Godsong, forthcoming from Knopf in February 2018.

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