Considered one of Shakespeare’s more straightforward sonnets, Sonnet 25 radicalizes the concepts of glory and honor. Approaching these themes through the approach of a love poem, Shakespeare plays a surprising trick with the sonnet form.
All but one of Shakespeare’s sonnets (Sonnet 145) are written largely in iambic pentameter. An iamb is a metrical foot in which an unstressed syllable precedes a stressed one (daDUM). A line of iambic pentameter has five strong stresses within it, as can be seen in the opening line of Sonnet 25:
Let those who are in favour with their stars . . .
One of the slight variations to this pattern is line 10, which begins with an initial reversal: its first foot is a trochee (which follows a DAdum pattern, or a stressed and then an unstressed syllable):
After a thousand victories once foil'd . . .
Further, the sonnet is arranged in the classical abab cdcd efef gg rhyme scheme of the English sonnet. It should be noted that, in Shakespeare’s 1609 Quarto, lines 9 and 11 do not rhyme:
The painful warrior famoused for worth,
After a thousand victories once foil’d,
Is from the book of honour razed quite,
And all the rest forgot for which he toil’d . . .
However, commentators are unanimous that “worth” was a misprint, since Shakespeare’s sonnets rhyme perfectly; hence, “worth” has been replaced in reprinted versions by either “fight” or “might,” restoring the rhyme scheme.
Typical to the English sonnet form, the fourteen-line poem is arranged in three quatrains and a concluding couplet. Unlike Shakespeare’s contemporary Sir Edmund Spenser, who altered the English sonnet’s rhyme scheme to abab bcbc cdcd ee, and seventeenth-century poet John Donne, who expanded the sonnet’s subject matter beyond love, Shakespeare’s sonnets seem to stay the course of the sonnet, both in terms of form and subject (that is, love).
However, as Don Paterson notes in Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets: A New Commentary, Shakespeare made the sonnet a truly modern form “by the most astonishing subterfuge: he didn’t change it at all.” By staying within the conventions of the love sonnet to discuss themes as varied as fortune and class, as he does in Sonnet 25, Shakespeare radicalizes its very concept. Shakespeare’s innovation with the sonnet form is best illustrated by his rich, complex language and how he expands the circuit of love to include any theme under the sun.
Let those who are in favour with their stars
Of public honour and proud titles boast,
Whilst I, whom fortune of such triumph bars,
Unlook’d for joy in that I honour most.
The sonnet opens with a lofty declaration: may the lucky—those favoured by destiny and born in noble families—and the holders of titles keep their laurels for themselves, while the poet, free from such encumbrances, will rejoice in what is most dear to him. “Stars” are personified and made a metaphor for fate. The poet seems to be ironically questioning the role of fate or luck in determining a person’s “greatness.” Thus, Sonnet 25 prefigures the more prominently spelled-out theme of class in Sonnet 29, in which the speaker laments,
When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes
I all alone beweep my outcast state . . .
In the next quatrain, the poem’s argument is developed further with the help of literary devices:
Great princes’ favourites their fair leaves spread
But as the marigold at the sun’s eye,
And in themselves their pride lies buried,
For at a frown they in their glory die.
Line 5 begins with a complex fusion of metaphor and personification . The marigold flower is a metaphor for those men who enjoy the favors of great princes, while the sun is a metaphor for the princes themselves. In spreading its fair petals like welcoming arms for the princes, the marigold flower is personified. The reference here is to the common association of the marigold flower with glory, but the poet revitalizes the familiar association with the fresh, visually stunning...
(The entire section is 1,015 words.)