The Poem (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
The opening lines of William Shakespeare’s thirtieth sonnet (“When to the sessions of sweet silent thought”) evoke the picture of a man sweetly and silently reminiscing, living once again the pleasant (or “sweet”) experiences of his past. The situation, however, soon shifts from silence to a sigh and from pleasantries to a lament for projects never completed, desires never fulfilled. The angst of this cannot be confined to the past but bursts into the poet’s present consciousness. He suffers intense nostalgic pain for the wasted time that can no longer be reclaimed. Old woes are reborn, exacerbating a fresh hurt.
The second quatrain of the sonnet expands this idea, but the pain is heightened as the author thinks of the people who will never again come into his life. This brings tears into the eyes, as once again the pain of loss is relived. The vanished sights lamented are the faces of friends who have disappeared into death and the emptiness of love that is no more, but also suggested are places, possessions, and events that can never be re-experienced.
The third quatrain adds little new content, but increases the weight and significance of the poem’s central idea: The act of remembrance recalls old griefs into the present where they become as painful in their rebirth as they were the first time they were experienced. It is as if the persona of the poem were caught in a psychological trap from which there is no escape and in which his mind, as if dragging chains, moves “heavily from woe to woe,” unable to escape from the images that repeat “the sad account of fore-bemoaned moan.” Though the account has been paid up in the past, the debt of pain is reopened and he must pay the entire amount again.
After twelve lines of bewailing the symptoms of the persona’s condition, the final couplet of the sonnet moves abruptly to the solution. The cure is carefully coordinated with the disease, for just as the patient’s woes were initiated by remembering the past, so are they dissipated by the thought of his current “dear friend,” which restores all the lamented losses and ends all the reborn sorrows.