Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 737
This sonnet is an “English,” or “Shakespearean” sonnet—that is, it is composed of three quatrains and a couplet of iambic pentameter, rhymed abab, cdcd, efef, gg. What is different about the structure of this sonnet is that there is far less development from quatrain to quatrain than is usual for the overall collection. Shakespeare most often develops his sonnets by moving his argument in three quite distinct steps to its concluding couplet, or by developing three quite different images to be tied neatly together in the closing lines. This sonnet, however, has far more repetition than differentiation from quatrain to quatrain. The differences are subtle: The quatrains quietly move from wailing to weeping to grieving, a progression that is hardly noticed.
What makes this one of Shakespeare’s most loved sonnets is not its structure but its music, achieved in part through the rhymes, but even more distinctively through the repetition of consonant sounds. In the first quatrain of the sonnet there are no less than twelve sibilant sounds, which, rather than hissing, evoke the music of the wind. The sound is repeated in the last line of the sonnet, surely an intended recapitulation to increase the feeling of completion. The fourth line of the poem introduces a series of alliterated w sounds: “And with old woes new wail my dear Time’s waste.” These sounds introduce the rhythm of wailing, which is repeated in line 7, “And weep afresh love’swoe,” and again in line 10, “from woe to woe.” Repeated liquid sounds in line 7 add a languid sound to the line—“love’s long since canceled woe”—and repeated m’s add both softness and length to lines 8 and 11: “And moan th’ expense of many,” and “fore-bemoaned moan.” A lengthening of sound comes in the repetition of fr’s in “friends” and “afresh” in lines 6 and 7. The poem’s alliteration enhances the meaning of the text and emphasizes both the standard iambic pulse and the variations from this standard in lines 1, 6, and 7.
Another device evident in this poem is what seems to be a calculated use of ambiguity. In the first line, the word “sessions” denotes a meeting of a legal court, but in context it also suggests a mere period of time. Thus “thought” could represent the judge presiding over the session or merely describe the activity of a designated period of time. Again the persona, the “I” of the poem, could be the judge, summoning his remembrances to stand trial. In the fourth line, the word “new” could be an adjective modifying “woes,” which were once old and have now become new, or it could act as an adverb modifying “wail.” It is not beyond possibility that “my dear” could be a noun of address, since the final couplet makes it clear that the sonnet was addressed to a “dear friend,” though it seems more probable that “dear” is an adjective modifying either “time” or “waste.”
“Time’s waste” could be read as either the person having wasted his time or (more likely) as time, the destroyer, having laid waste to items and qualities of ultimate value to him. “Expense” in line 8 could be read in its most usual modern sense as cost, the money spent, or simply as loss: something that is spent is gone. “Fore-gone” in the ninth line probably means simply past, as having gone before, but could also carry the connotation of “given up,” or “taken for granted.” In the tenth line, “tell” could mean to relate, but more likely has the older meaning of “count” or “tally.” “Account” could mean a mere story, a financial account, or the final accounting at the last judgment. This accumulation of ambiguity engages the reader’s mind, focusing it on the form and keeping it from wandering; it also enriches the poem by suggesting alternative readings.
The dominant metaphor of the poem is the comparison of a period of reminiscing to the session of a court of law, but even so it is not meticulously carried out in the nature of an Elizabethan conceit. Words such as “canceled,” “expense,” “grievances,” “account,” and “lossesrestored” may suggest court language, but the idea is not worked into the syntax. Other uses of figurative language enriching the poem are an eye “drowned” in tears, friends “hidden” in night, a woe “canceled” as if it were a debt, and an “account” of moans that needs to be settled.