The Poem

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Sonnet 129 is a typical Shakespearean sonnet in form, written in iambic pentameter with twelve lines rhymed abab, cdcd, efef, and a closing couplet rhymed gg. Unlike the majority of William Shakespeare’s sonnets, however, it is not addressed to a particular individual but is directed to an audience, as a sermon is.

The first line is the only one that presents any difficulty in interpretation. Shakespeare sometimes compressed a large meaning into few words, creating an impressionistic effect. Although this opening line appears a bit garbled, it is easy enough to understand and well suited to the mood of the poem. It creates the impression of a mind overwhelmed by a whirlwind of bitter reflections.

He is obviously talking about sexual lust. The first line states that lust is shameful and spiritually debilitating. The rest of the poem simply expands upon this idea. The torrent of adjectives and short descriptive phrases that follows suggests the different ways in which sexual lust can lead to tragic outcomes. The reader may evoke specific illustrations from personal experience or from the world’s literature which, from the Bible and Greek mythology to modern novels such as Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1955), is full of warnings against lust.

Each word or phrase in the opening lines suggests different scenarios. For example, the word “perjur’d” suggests the lies men tell women, the most common being “I love you” and “I want to marry you.” Lust drives people to say many things they do not mean. The word “perjur’d” also suggests the humiliating experience of having to lie to the fiancé or spouse of one’s lover, who might even be a personal friend.

The word “bloody” suggests even more serious outcomes of sexual lust. The outraged husband who discovers his wife in bed with another man may murder her, or him, or both. Lust also may lead to bloody abortions and suicides. “Full of blame” suggests the painful aftermath of many affairs based not on love but on lust. The woman blames the man for deceiving her; he blames her for leading him on, for allowing herself to become pregnant, or for confessing her adultery to her husband. “Full of blame” in Shakespeare’s time probably suggested the great danger of contracting syphilis or gonorrhea, and in recent times it suggests the modern plague of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS).

The closing couplet of the sonnet alights gracefully, with the juxtaposition of “well knows” and “knows well.” The tone is like the calm after a storm. It is not a happy conclusion but a truthful one. Humanity repeats the same mistakes generation after generation. Sexual passion is hard to control and leads to much of the tragedy that human beings experience.

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