Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 768
The opening word “when” qualifies the whole poem, and sets up “Sonnet 29” as an “if-then” statement. The speaker may not be out of luck or the public’s favor at the moment, at all. However, the strong emotions exhibited in the following lines suggest that these feelings of isolation and despair are not unfamiliar to him; indeed, by line 9, he seems to gain a certain satisfaction from wallowing in his self-pity.
The repetition of the word “state” in lines 2, 10, and 14 indicates its significance in the poem. But its many levels of meaning prevent the reader from understanding the cause of the speaker’s rejection: “state” may signify a condition, a state of mind, an estate or a person’s status. However, the adjective “outcast” does possess a religious connotation (as in “outcast from Eden”) that is evident again in the sonnet’s last three lines.
The speaker’s skyward wails receive no reply either from nature or from God. Angered and feeling abandoned, the speaker resorts to bitter sarcasm (when he facetiously remarks that he can “trouble” heaven) and swearing (“cursed my fate”).
The second quatrain serves as the speaker’s wish list for ways in which he might alter his “state.” Despite these lines, his condition remains almost as ambiguous as ever. For example, someone “rich in hope” might be a more hopeful person; alternately, it might be someone who has prospects of wealth.
The speaker continues to name the types of people he wishes to be like but proceeds to use descriptions with obscure or multiple meanings. Not only does “featured” have several definitions (“handsome” or “formed”, to name two), but it refers to three possible types: those who are “rich in hope”, those “with friends possessed,” and perhaps those indicated by the speaker’s pointed finger as he recites the first half of line 6. The speaker’s admiration of someone’s “art” may refer to his knowledge, abilities, or skills as a lover; a man’s “scope” may be his freedom or his range of understanding.
This paradox is Shakespeare’s version of the cliche “the grass is always greener on the other side”: whatever the speaker possesses or formerly took pleasure in is now no longer a source of pride or amusement.
After the speaker approaches his deepest depths of self-loathing in line 9, he experiences a moment of transcendence and a remarkable change of heart. By happy chance, his thoughts turn to his beloved; his spirits soar like a lark, a bird known to fly straight up in the air as it sings its morning song. The speaker’s comparison of his state to a lark’s ascending flight stands out as the only figure of speech in “Sonnet 29,” just as this solitary songbird is a noticeable silhouette in the morning sky—and as the speaker had been set apart from the rest of humanity. The bird’s rising motion represents the dawn of a new day, a revival of spirits, and perhaps even a step up in rank; its song fills the silence of the heavens and adds joy and life to what had been a dark, depressing poem. It seems appropriate that “lark” is also a verb, meaning “to play or frolic.”
Earth is described as “sullen” for several reasons: because of the dull color of its soil, the sluggishness of its motion, and the general melancholy of its inhabitants. The mood is very different for those who have risen above it—as the lark literally has and the speaker has figuratively. The bird singing praises to the heavens is equated with the speaker glorifying his own earthly divinity.
The “wealth” that is brought by memories of the speaker’s loved one has several possible meanings, supported by the language of the previous lines. Monetary wealth does not connect well with the idea of love, though it would help a person who had fallen out of luck with material “Fortune” (line 1). A wealth of friends, talents, or opportunities were wished for in lines 5 through 8 and are all valid interpretations. But a strong possibility also lies with the connection of wealth and religion. The speaker has been saved through his worship of a very different “King” (line 14) than Christ; perhaps his final state is so heavenly that he would rather be surrounded by memories of his beloved than in any heavenly kingdom.
The speaker’s “state” has moved dramatically from that of miserable hopelessness to pure elation. Though he still stands separate from humankind, he now does so by choice.
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