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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

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...

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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 image of “the marigold at the sun’s eye.” Now the lines move to a simile, comparing the fate of those favored by great princes to that of a marigold, which the Elizabethans considered a heliotrope like the sunflower. Just as the marigold withers in the sun’s absence, the fame of the favorites dies with one “frown” or hint of displeasure in their sun—the prince’s—aspect.

In the sonnet’s last quatrain, Shakespeare uses a powerful metaphor to denote the fickle nature of glory. All it takes is one defeat after a thousand victories for a warrior to have his name erased from the “book of honour.” The book represents fickle public memory, as well as time’s merciless passing. Both erase the toil of the winner and the lassitude of the vanquished alike.

Then happy I, that love and am beloved
Where I may not remove nor be removed.

The final couplet solves the riddle of the preceding quatrains: what is the honor in which the poet rejoices, and how is it superior to more worldly glory? The answer is love. The mostly hard sounds of the poem now make sense in light of the certitude of the poet's views. Fittingly, the couplet sees a proliferation of binding assonance, as if to tie the sonnet together—as in, for example, the v sound repeated in “love,” “beloved,” “remove,” and “removed.” The convergence of sounds is suggestive of the completeness of the poet’s love.

As in many other sonnets of the cycle, this sonnet speaks of Shakespeare’s love for the “fair youth,” the unknown young man who is the subject of his affections. However, while in some other sonnets it is not clear if the youth returns Shakespeare’s love, in Sonnet 25, the love is presented as reciprocal. The poet loves and is loved in return, and no one can take from him this all-encompassing “honour.” Because constant, faithful love is the source of the poet’s pride and glory, it is more lasting than fame, which depends on fickle public validation. Thus, love grants to the poet a status that fortune could not.