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Sonnet 40

Sonnet 40

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An explication of Shakespeare's sonnet #40.
An explication of Shakespeare's sonnet #40.

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Published by: andrewcul2698 on Feb 24, 2010
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09/15/2010

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1 Andrew Culver English 560 Dr.

Taufer Sonnet 40 Take all my loves, my love, yea take them all: What hast thou then more than thou hadst before? No love, my love, that thou mayst true love call; All mine was thine, before thou hadst this more. Then if for my love thou my love receivest, I cannot blame thee for my love thou usest; But yet be blamed, if thou thyself deceivest By wilful taste of what thyself refusest. I do forgive thy robb’ry, gentle thief, Although thou steal thee all my poverty; And yet love knows it is a greater grief To bear love’s wrong than hate’s known injury. Lascivious grace, in whom all ill well shows, Kill me with spites, yet we must not be foes. Sonnet 40 is an appeal to the beloved, as well as a warning and a plea for constancy. It also functions as a defense of the speaker’s own inconstancy on one level. If you reject me, the speaker says, you will be hurting yourself the most – but I forgive you. The speaker begins by asking the beloved to think about what he is doing by refusing the speaker’s love. He appeals to the beloved’s guilt and questions his need for more attention from other people. The speaker then asks why the beloved needs this extra attention, and carefully places blame and judgment upon him. While ostensibly forgiving the beloved, the speaker indulges in his self-righteous anger and sense of superiority. Then, in a sudden turn to martyrdom, the speaker states that if he is to be killed or ruined, he would rather it be from hate than from love. Love’s injuries would be too painful, because they involve betrayal and loss. The first quatrain consists of a cryptic statement to the beloved – take all my loves raises questions. Shakespeare is playing with the multiple meanings of love here. The plural form of love causes the reader to think about the suggestions of the opening statement. At first it seems as if the plural is a mistake, and the speaker is really telling his beloved to take all his love. But it

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2 can be no mistake when we get to the end of the line and see that the speaker is definitely referring to the plural – take them all. In this case the loves the speaker refers to may be close friends of both the speaker and the beloved. These loves could be possible lovers, former lovers, courtly flatterers or false rival poets. Loves may even refer to love poems written by rival poets. The line has another layer of meaning, as well: take all the love and attention away from me, and direct it to yourself. Just go ahead, the speaker says. You hog the glory, and enjoy yourself, because my love isn’t going to be here when you need it. The second love is the address to the beloved and is quite straightforward. The speaker addresses the beloved as my love and is literally daring the beloved to take the attention of all the other people (loves) who seek to flatter him. The love of line 3, when the speaker says “No love, my love, which thou mayst true love call”, refers to the love of the many flatterers that distract the beloved from the speaker. The speaker then says that all his love belonged to the beloved before, but if the beloved gives in to the flatterers then the speaker’s love may wither up and go away: All mine was thine, before thou hadst this more. This is a way of saying “you can have fake love from all these people, or you can have true love from me alone.” The speaker argues that more is less when it comes to lovers. The first quatrain has several interesting syntactical inversions that almost, but do not completely mirror each other. The first line flirts with antimetabole while never totally committing to it. The first statement, Take all my loves, is then reversed: my love, yea take them all. However, the sense of the line is not divided this way. The speaker is clearly addressing his love, and the line in reality is divided like this: Take all my loves, my love, followed by yea, take them all. This reversal of word order occurs in the second line, which cleverly takes the phrase hast thou then and mirrors it with than thou hadst. By slightly altering the words hast and then Shakespeare has created a feeling of being in a hall of mirrors. Taken together, the first two lines

3 set up a playful pattern of inversions that demand the reader’s constant attention to the smallest of details. These mirroring effects are not unlike the mirroring of the two lovers of the sonnets. This sonnet describes a small world governed by the actions of two people, and the speaker is constantly comparing the beloved to himself. Line 5 forces the reader to read the phrase “my love” in two different ways, each time emphasizing a different word. We focus on love as a possession as well as a thing given and received. The speaker does this by cleverly alternating stresses: in the first “my love” the my is stressed, while in the second “my love” the love is stressed. The two “my loves” are carefully juxtaposed against one another. This causes the reader to note the importance of the possessive pronoun “my” as well as the fact that “love” is the direct object of “receivest”. Line 5 is also cryptic because of the word “for”, which must be teased out to clarify meaning. One very possible meaning, which the OED finds elsewhere in Shakespeare himself, is for as a stand-in for before, or in front of (1a). Also possible is “In the presence or sight of” (1b.) This elucidates line 5: “Then if in the presence of, or in the sight of my declarations of love, you receive my love.” This elucidation hints at the falseness and inconstancy of the beloved. The speaker knows that the beloved may receive his love in his presence but abandon it when the speaker is absent. Line 6 hinges on the possibilities inherent in the word usest. The OED elucidates the word use: “to celebrate, keep, or observe” (1a). Also mentioned is the obsolete “To frequent (another’s company),” which is Shakespeare’s most likely intention. With this in mind, we can read the line as follows: “I cannot blame you if you celebrate my love and frequent my company.” But in a reversal, as lines seven and eight tell us, the beloved can be blamed if he deceives himself by refusing the speaker’s love. So we see that in the second quatrain the speaker negotiates blame for the beloved’s actions. If the beloved is kind and basks in the speaker’s love, he is not to be blamed, even if he does it greedily. However, if the beloved

4 belatedly desires the neglected love of the speaker, only he can be blamed for deceiving himself. Line eight’s “By wilful taste of what thyself refusest” refers to the beloved’s desire for what he has given up, which has a sexual connotation from the words “will” and “taste”. The third quatrain shifts from the thrust of the first two, and discusses the harm done to the speaker by the beloved. Here the speaker gives the beloved a series of statements, qualifications and reversals. The speaker forgives the beloved, although he has left him bereft; and although the speaker has forgiven the beloved, his grief is greater than if the beloved had merely hated him from the beginning. The forgiveness is nothing more than an excuse to drive the dagger deeper into the beloved. The speaker is essentially saying “I forgive you, although you cruelly left me, and the pain is worse than if we had never loved each other.” In a startlingly savage outburst, the speaker says that not only is he injured, but he wishes the injury had come from an enemy rather than a lover. The couplet completes the thought from the third quatrain. In an eloquent paradox, the speaker apostrophizes “Lascivious grace”, and tells it to kill him with “spites.” Definition 2a. from the OED shows the most probable gloss for “spite”: A strong feeling of (contempt,) hatred or ill-will; intense grudge or desire to injure; rancorous or envious malice”. By addressing the lascivious grace of the beloved, the speaker refers to the beloved’s dual qualities of inconstancy and beauty, which cannot be separated from one another. He addresses this lascivious grace (possibly because he is so angry at the beloved that he can no longer address him directly) and tells it to hurt him with hatred, malice, or ill-will, rather than love. As he has said in lines 11-12, it is worse to be a victim of love than of hate. In another reversal, the speaker says “yet we must not be foes.” This may be an admission that the speaker is no stranger to lascivious behavior, having practiced it himself. Or this could be another confusion of love and hate, which are so

5 intertwined in this sonnet. The speaker is unable to separate himself from the one who has harmed him, and so implicates himself in his downfall. Alliteration works throughout this poem to create an obsessive and sometimes claustrophobic effect. After all, we are perpetually trapped inside the speaker’s monodrama. Aside from line seven’s “but yet be blamed” and line eight’s “By wilful taste of what thyself refusest”, there is line eleven’s “greater grief”. But there is one glaring and overwhelming source of alliteration, and that is the constant repetition of “th” sounds throughout the sonnet. In line two we have thou then and than thou; in line three that thou; line four thine, thou and this; line five then and thou; line six thee and thou; line seven thou thyself; line eight thyself; line ten thou and thee, and line twelve the single than. The speaker uses repetition of this sound perhaps unconsciously, but it creates an effect nevertheless. When a reader perceives certain sounds over and over again, the poet or speaker gives the impression of being slightly obsessive. The preponderance of thees, thyselfs and thous, as well as then and than, alert us to the speaker’s obsession with the beloved as well as with comparisons between himself and the beloved. The repetition of feminine endings in the second quatrain echoes the sonnet’s uncommonly feminine tone. All four lines of the second quatrain end in amphibrachs: receivest, thou usest, deceivest, and refusest. The rest of the poem’s line endings are masculine. In this peculiar quatrain the speaker almost sounds like a woman addressing her male lover and asking him to be faithful. The main concern is with the beloved’s actions toward the speaker’s love: receive, use and refuse, with the exception of deceive, which is a self-inflicted action of the beloved. There are certain lines in which it seems as if the speaker is a woman. “And yet love knows it is a greater grief/ To bear love’s wrong than hate’s known injury.” To be abandoned by a man after being deflowered, without being married, would be worse for a reputation than being injured, abused or slandered by a known enemy.

6 Epizeuxis is a strong element in the poem, with the phrase “my love” and “my loves” in the first line and the repetition of “love” three times in the third line. In line five “my love” is repeated twice. These subtle repetitions reinforce the sonnet’s emphasis on the speaker’s differing meanings of “love”. There is the false love of the courtly flatterers, and there is the true love of the speaker. The interplay of the speaker and the beloved creates a world of echoes, mirrors and differences. Polyptoton serves this function as well. In lines six and seven the word “blame” is echoed: “I cannot blame thee for my love thou usest,/ But yet be blamed, if thou my love refusest”. In lines eleven and twelve this occurs again: “And yet love knows it is a greater grief/ To bear love’s wrong than hate’s known injury.” Working within the claustrophobic world of the fourteen-line sonnet, the speaker must be a master of reduction, somehow evoking the hugeness of his experiences in an absurdly small format. Exploiting the multiplicity of meanings of single words, like love, blame, know, hast, thou, and others, allows the speaker to capture something as big and complex as the human heart in the reduced, gemlike intricacies of a single sonnet.

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