Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30 is a beloved, often-remembered, often-quoted poem simply because it is an exquisite description of the pain of nostalgia, an experience which is common to most of humankind. The human psyche does not want to let go of the experiences of its past, even when that experience was exceedingly painful, or perhaps especially because it was painful, since somehow the hurt has increased the meaning of the moment. It certainly has increased its intensity. The release which dissipates such remembered pain is also a welcome experience, and the reader of Shakespeare’s sonnet experiences that release as the tension built up in the first twelve lines of the poem disappears in the recollection of a current, fulfilling friendship.

The poem is meaningful also because of its inclusion in the most famous collection of sonnets in the English language, if not in any language. Though almost no scholars believe that Shakespeare himself was responsible for the order in which the sonnets were printed, this poem does belong to the early group which were addressed to a young man. It also has a close relationship with the sonnet immediately preceding it and the one that follows, pointing to the probability that these were written together. Sonnet 29 has the same thought progression as 30, as the poet laments the fact that Fortune has not been kind to him and wishes that he might change places with anyone a bit higher on her wheel. When the thought of his friend intrudes on this meditation, however, all is made right: The lark announces day, the earth sings, and he would change places with no one. Sonnet 31 is largely an explanation of the thirtieth. “Losses are restored” because those whom the author “supposed dead,” whom he “thought buried,” are alive in his friend, who contains all of their virtues. The friend is the grave containing all of their lives, “Hung with the trophies of my lovers gone,/ Who all their parts of me to thee did give.” In this realization, the poet discovers a new, integrated personality, for what he used to find by dividing his love among many, he now finds in only one person who contains in himself all of those who have gone before. Though Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30 stands alone, perfect in its own merits, that unity is more fully appreciated in the context of its neighbors.