What's the theme and the metaphorical purpose of Sonnet 129?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles
In "Sonnet 129," Shakespeare meditates on the destructive but irresistible nature of lust. I will divide the sonnet into a few smaller portions to discuss the metaphors that help create this theme in greater detail.
Shakespeare opens the sonnet by writing,
Th' expense of spirit in a waste...

See
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
In "Sonnet 129," Shakespeare meditates on the destructive but irresistible nature of lust. I will divide the sonnet into a few smaller portions to discuss the metaphors that help create this theme in greater detail.
Shakespeare opens the sonnet by writing,
Th' expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjured, murd'rous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,
Enjoyed no sooner but despisèd straight,
Past reason hunted; (lines 1–6)
These lines don't rely on metaphor as much as they do on strong word choice and imagery. The emotions referenced—"shame," "blame, "not to trust," "despised"—indicate the regret one will feel before and after giving into lust. The lines also figure lust as an active being that can hunt the speaker "Past reason" and even imagine the speaker as being "savage" and "murd'rous."
Beginning in the second half of line 6, the speaker continues,
and, no sooner had
Past reason hated as a swallowed bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad;
Mad in pursuit and in possession so,
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme; (6–10)
Line 7's simile indicates that giving into lust is akin to a person consuming a kind of poison. The "bait" is intended to capture the speaker, but once it is taken in, that bait "make[s] the taker mad." The "taker" becomes obsessed with "having" the object of desire. Their actions become "extreme" and the pursuit of their object of desire is compared to a "quest," which will be full of obstacles but with the promise of a prize at the end.
However, the pursuer of lust will find no reward, according to Shakespeare. In the final lines, he writes,
A bliss in proof and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.
All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell. (11–14)
Lust, which may be envisioned as "A bliss," is actually "a very woe." While the individual who lusts may feel that what they desire "propose[s]" nothing but "a joy," lust will only "lead men to . . . hell." While the desire that spurs lust on may seem like "heaven," the result will only be suffering. This metaphorical juxtaposition of pleasure and pain allows Shakespeare to end his sonnet with a powerful statement about the inevitable consequences of lust.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

"Sonnet 129" deals with the damaging consequences of lust as they manifest themselves temporally in past, present, and future. Sexual desire, of its very nature, anticipates the future; its satisfaction always takes place in the present; and once satisfied it forms the basis of a memory, something that recedes into the past. But it's not a happy memory; for as soon as the speaker has satisfied his lust he feels a sense of shame, and it's this feeling that haunts his memory.

The speaker appears to draw on his own experience to warn us of the dangers of sexual desire; how it constantly tempts us, drives us mad, only to leave us feeling full of self-loathing once we've taken possession of the object of that desire. The sonnet's remorselessly bitter tone leaves us in no doubt that the speaker has recently succumbed to temptation himself and hopes that others will avoid the same mistake.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The theme of Sonnet 129 is lust, and more specifically the remorse that comes with sexual longing. Shakespearetakes the reader through the stages of lust before the act, during, and after. Lust is described as all consuming and something that wraps the player in a shameful act. The luster immediately regrets his acts and is sent into a shameful state. Sonnet 129 is interesting because of the negativity Shaksepere associates with sexual desire which is in strong contrast to his more positive sonnets about love. 

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team