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Sonnet 128: A Study in Unity
– Jan 28, 2015
– originally posted to the PDC Jun. 7, 2014

A 'Best Of' post from the Best of the Poetry Daily Critique page.

Sonnet 128 by William Shakespeare


First lines:
How oft, when thou my music music play'st
Upon that blessèd wood whose motion sounds



structure and organic unity


A couple of days ago I came upon one of Shakespeare's sonnets, number 128, wholly by happenstance (I had opened the book for a different reason, which I may come back to in a near-future post). Reading the sonnet and its accompanying notes I saw an opportunity for me to talk about the structure of a well-crafted, sophisticated, and most of all interesting poem, especially in a way that might reveal the unity of the poem, how all of the poem works in concert with the rest of the poem, and how the energies of the poem do not merely flow from word first to word last, one to the next, but in every direction, between the phrasing, the grammar, the structure. Ergo this post.

I originally had the thought to oppose the sonnet to a more commonplace, contemporary poem, as most contemporary poems are rather devoid of structural depth, if not of any attention to structure beyond the most simple. (In truth, most contemporary poetry is quite linear in nature – there is one thing, then the next, then the next – and speak of a linearity in their construction.) But I think I will leave off of that part of the post, and leave it to you to compare this sonnet – and my discussion of the sonnet – to other poems as you find them. Namely, I leave it to you to ask yourself about other poems, "Does this offer for exploration what is offered by Sonnet 128?" and, perhaps more importantly, "Can I even talk about this poem in the way someone can talk about Sonnet 128?" For it is a test of a poem: what is there about it to talk about? If there is not that much, was the poem really something worth talking about in the first place? [Editing note: to be honest, I am unhappy with the wording of those questions. But will leaving them for now.]

Of course, from a writer's perspective this extra resonance, for I would think that the aim of a writer would be to write poems that have much in them to talk about. There is here a point of technique, which is found in the second of the three Imagist principles, of which I have never heard, read, or found refutation of the idea that that principle is not in fact a core tenet of aesthetic writing across the board: "To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation." (Although, I might change "presentation" to "engagement.")

Simply put, if some part of your poem offers little or nothing of poetic energy to the rest of the poem or to the reader, what is it doing in the poem? From the other side, what is it to write poems that generates all kinds of energies from and to all points of the poem?


Here is Sonnet 128. I am using for my source Stephen Booth's Shakespeare's Sonnets (Yale UP, 1977), which was from its printing the go-to book on the sonnets. (It was still the go-to book last I heard. If there is something newer on the shelves that would stand as equal beside it, please let me know.)

The text:

How oft, when thou my music music play'st
Upon that blessèd wood whose motion sounds
With thy sweet fingers when thou gently sway'st
The wiry concord that mine ear confounds,
Do I envý those jacks that nimble leap
To kiss the tender inward of thy hand,
Whilst my poor lips, which should that harvest reap,
At the wood's boldness by thee blushing stand.
To be so tickled they would change their state
And situation with those dancing chips,
O'er whom thy fingers walk with gentle gait,
Making dead wood more blest than living lips.
    Since saucy jacks so happy are in this,
    Give them thy fingers, me thy lips to kiss.

First, I will go through the basic semantics and structures of the poem, saving all discussion on the points until after. This is straight description meant to put us all on the same page. I am relying on Booth's notes here for the meanings of the words. (I will not give every note and explanation of Booth's; only those that fill out the general idea of the poem.)

Of course, it is a sonnet, Shakespearean style, which means twelve lines in three groups of four (rhymed abab cdcd efef) with two lines at the end (rhymed gg), all syllable-stress iambic pentameter. The poem is divided into four elements not only by the rhyming structure but also ideationally: the three quatrains present three ideas which unify into a whole which, in turn, is 'opposed' or somehow turned about by the volta at the end.

The poem begins "How oft"; but that thought is immediately suspended until line 5. The first quatrain is a digression that establishes the scene and the conceit, which is the common conceit of the speaker wishing they were some object associated with or used by the beloved. The scene here is the speaker watching his beloved playing on some keyboard instrument, which Booth identifies as a virginal, a type of harpsichord.

The first quatrain requires the most attention as to the meaning of the text. The first line might create a little difficulty in reading because of the use of antistasis: using the same word consecutively but with two different meanings. The first "music," which is really "my music," is a description of the beloved; the second "music" is the actual music she is playing. The phrase "whose motion sounds / with thy sweet fingers" is describing the cause-effect of playing the music: the instrument makes sound because of her[FN] fingers. "Sway'st" means here "control" or "manipulate." As for "confounds," the action here is upon the ears, not the upon the music; and the word in this context means, in Booth's phrase, "overwhelms with delight."

[FN] I recognize sex of the people in the sonnet are not identified within the sonnet (which is all that matters). After a moment's editing (and its subsequent undoing) I have decided to let the beloved be female to help with the grace of my sentences.

So the first section reads, loosely:

How often, when you who are my music plays music
Upon that happy [or fortunate] instrument whose operating makes sound
Because of the action of your sweet fingers, when you gently control the wiry concord that overwhelms my ear,

"Wiry" obviously refers to the wires of the instrument.

Though the second section begins with "Do I," it is not a question but the return to the opening phrase:

[How oft] do I envý those jacks [FN]

The "jacks" are the part of the instrument that holds the plectrum, moving up and down with the striking of the keys so as to pluck the strings. The rest of the section is fairly straight forward. "The wood" refers again to the instrument.

[FN] Booth points out that at the time the word envy would be pronounced with the accent on either syllable.

Don't miss the period at the end of line 8: the thought of the second section closes completely. The period permits the subject of the poem to shift to the speaker's lips, which first appears in line 7. In the third stanza, the conceit of the sonnet comes to fulfillment: the speaker would have it that his lips could exchange place with the jacks so as to be able to kiss the woman's palms. It might be noticed that Shakespeare has here conflated the jacks and the keys – and even the instrument as a whole – into one loosely defined thing, and likewise his lips are synecdochic for himself as a whole.

But the conceit is discarded at the volta of the poem. The instrument is having such fun at her hands, the speaker says, he would let it and its jacks be. Instead, he would rather his lips – would rather he himself – had her own lips to play upon. "Saucy jacks" there brings into the poem a second meaning of "jacks": says Booth, it was "a standard term of abuse for any worthless fellow and for impudent upstarts in particular."


Now, for exploring the poem.

There is a degree that it is false to ask of a work, "Why did the author do X?" That question cannot always be answered. Aesthetic writing is halfly an intuitive act; and, the more sophisticated the writer, the more intuitive the writing can become. We speak of a sports athlete of how they "make it look so easy." Well, it is easy for them; but, only because of the years upon years of study and practice that made the on-the-field creativity intuitively possible. What hockey players can do on skates is amazing for those of us who can count the number of times they have worn skates on one hand. Yet, do they stop and think about their actions? They just do it. With a writer the answer to "Why did the author do X?" is often, similarly, "The idea just showed itself in the drafting. Once I saw it, I merely cleaned it up." At which, the more appropriate question becomes "Why did the author leave it that way."

Of course, the whole of that issue of intention can be sidestepped by asking not the whys but the whats: "What happens because the text is written this way?" Though, perhaps intention is there only belayed, as far too often in contemporary poetry the answer to that question is "Nothing"; or, "Nothing particularly interesting." Which to me is a negative critique of the moment in the text. It is that critique that pulls us into intention: "If there is nothing created out of your choices in writing, why did you make those choices? Why did you leave the text that way?"

So, leaving aside the question of whether Shakespeare sat down to write this sonnet intending to begin and then delay the opening thought, let's simply ask: "What happens because he did?"

First – and for me foremost – it pulls the first two quatrains together into a unit. You need only put the "How oft" at the start of line five to see the difference in semantic organization. Yet, in unifying the first two quatrains, the result is that the structure emphasizes – through the created aural effect – the separate purposes of the quatrains. With that leading "How oft," (with the comma) and the immediate move to a scene-setting digression, the voice drops down in tone until the digression ends, then jumps back up to its starting tone at the return to the original phrase at the fifth line. That aural contrast is itself emphasized by the words of the stanzas: the lowing of "sounds"/"confounds" immediately set against the bright, quick phrase of "those jacks that nimble leap." It is difficult not to over-emphasize that "leap" into something vocally performative.

After that "leap" the action calms back down: the rhythm tempered by the inserted "which" phrase, the sound dampened by the more mellow "hand"/"stand" rhyme. It is worth noting that the only internal punctuation of the first stanza is the start of the digression. There is no break within it from that point on. Doing such keeps the structure from becoming overly complicated aurally: once the reading voice drops for the digression it can cruise right through the whole of it. It also keeps the reader from losing sight of the return to that quickly forestalled, first thought, which sets up the reading energy that will "leap" into and elevate line 5.

As was just pointed out, from the consideration of writing, it is a false approach to think that Shakespeare, in crafting this sonnet, had plotted out or decided upon a structure of no punctuation in the first stanza; likewise, a false approach to think that in your own writing you need to equally plot out the structure of the work before beginning. To think organically, to explore organic process, we need only imagine Shakespeare realizing, during the writing process, "if I were to leave out punctuation, write this in a flow, then look what goodness happens." That realization is obtained through the creative engagement of the work in the process of writing. That is, in what is a for more important idea than you might realize, it is reading while writing. Or, to say it perhaps an even better way, Shakespeare's writing was also reading, and vice versa.

An important shift has been made here in accepting this approach to the poet and to the writing process: Shakespeare is able to write 128 not because he deduced or conceptualized a form and mechanically set it into operation but because, like the athlete, he had developed his own sophistication to the degree that he could recognize the possibility and potentiality of such form emerging out of his own playing with words. Like the athlete above, the more sophisticated the poet, the more competent the poet in their creativity, the more that exploration of and recognition of possibility and potentiality occurs within the mind, even before words are drafted onto paper.

Of course, much of that sophistication, of awareness of possibilities and potentialities, comes from exploring the creative works (and critical and theoretic works) of others: developing a poetic ear is also developing a poetic mind. This is one of the reasons why merely "reading a lot of poetry" is an insufficient effort to developing sophistication. In two ways the idea of true exploration into the unknown is thwarted. First in that merely reading can be – and by my observation usually is – a quite passive endeavor. Not much thought is necessary – especially with poetry endemic to the contemporary culture of poetry (whatever the culture of poetry), which will always be more generic than not. Second in that to explore potentiality and possibility is also to join in on the explorations of other persons making similar expeditions. As such, it behooves the explorer to choose works by writers who are themselves true explorers. Not 'walk a path through the hills, isn't it a lovely day?' explorers, which is again mostly a passive endeavor; but 'shelf full of guide books, off the path into the woods, and sometimes a mile takes three hours for the stopping' explorers. Which are are far less in number.

(As an aside: It is impossible not to notice the communal circularity to the above: that exploration involves joining the explorations of other explorers who have joined the explorations of explorers themselves. Keep that idea in mind when next you read Eliot's description of artists entering the timeless – timeless as in concurrent – conversations of art in "Tradition and the Individual Talent.")

(As another aside, how is this not overwhelming demonstration of the importance of a working and workable understanding of grammar and syntax in their complexities?)


In his discussion of the poem, Booth takes odds with the logic of the conceit. Since it would take me equally as long to paraphrase, permit me quotation.

In this sonnet Shakespeare takes the conceit by which the lover envies an object and combines it with the conceit of the affectionate strings. However, the poem comes to grief because the loved and loving object he chooses is a keyboard instrument; the physics of keyboard instruments do not lend themselves to the hand-kissing conceit. Although keys rise when released and can be said to kiss the fingers (line 14) of the musician, the tender inward of the hand (line 6) best describes the palm. Moreover, since a "jack" in harpsichord like instruments is "an upright piece of wood fixed to the key-lever and fitted with a quill that plucked the string as the jack rose when the key was pressed down" (Onions), jacks do not touch the player's fingers at all. [. . .] One might conclude that Shakespeare merely uses jacks as a misnomer for "keys" or that he considers the whole key-and-jack mechanism as a single entity and calls it a "jack," but jacks that nimble leap clearly describes the frantic action one sees when one looks inside a keyboard instrument while it is being played.

(Booth is quoting C.T. Onions, A Shakespeare Glossary (Oxford, 1911).) Booth errs here, and greatly, in demanding of the poem physical literalness. Because of his want that the object of the conceit should exactly perform the act desired by the speaker of the conceit, Booth is pulled astray in two ways. First, the reading need not be as he speaks it. The jacks of the harpsichord are in the poem metaphorically tied to human "jacks" (line 13). As such, "leap to kiss" need not mean, literally, leap upward toward the palm so as to kiss it. The lines can easily be read as describing men, "jacks," who nimbly leap up in effort that will result in their being able to kiss the palms of whatever girls tickle their fancy (that is, play their music). Line 6 could refer to the social act of kissing a hand rather than to a literal contact between the jacks and the woman's palm.

Secondly, giving that explanation context, Booth errs by demanding literality, by speaking an expectation of a poem of versimilitudinal truth. It is a not at all difficult thing to imagine a person looking into a harpsichord and seeing the leaping jacks as little people, jumping up and down in response to the actions of the woman playing the keys. Equally easy to then imagine the jacks as leaping up to call themselves to the attention of the woman so as to gain the pleasure of kissing her hand. Indeed, with so many jacks leaping, they become, very much, but human jacks: there for the play only. The metaphoric leap is not a terribly far one. To want for physical literality is concomitant with the elimination of the unification of the two types of jacks into one idea. It collapses the complex, unified symbol "jack" into two, independent meanings. It is, to be blunt, a naïve reading expecting a naïve poem.

Verisimilitude – the want to write in "truths" – always works opposite to organic, aesthetic development. With a verisimilitudinal text there is nothing to do with the text but to accept it at face value as a reportage of fact followed by fact. The energies of organic unity are thwarted from the stop: the first use of "jack" refers to the part of the harpsichord. The second refers to human jacks. They may be said to link to each other, but their functioning is definitional, is referential, is energetically limited. The very potency of a conceit such as that of this poem lies in the metaphoricity – in the organic unity of ideas – within the conceit. Nearly invariably, if the ideas of such a poem are taken literally the poem becomes absurd. This is, after all, a poem, and an aesthetic one at that. The ideas of the poem – like that of the jacks of the harpsichord – are being created within the poem to be used by the poem to the greater end of the poem as a whole, and as such can not be limited in their function within the poem to the moment of their appearance. Sonnet 128 works because of the ideational union of the two types of jacks. All that is needed materially is the ability to connect the two: the ability to look within an harpsichord and see little men leaping for attention. For Booth to seek an understanding by moving away from the symbolic and into the literal is rather to miss the point.

Yes, they are the mechanical jacks of the harpsichord. But they are also the saucy jacks (even, the silly jacks) – the imagined persons – plying for the woman's hand. You can not hold those two ideas simultaneously while demanding literal contact between the harpsichord jacks and the woman's palms. Or, in the least, focusing on literal contact – even if such contact were materially true – is collapsing the ideation of the poem out of the energies of the symbolic and into the banalities of truths.


Line 9, opening the third quatrain, starts a new sentence. The set up is over; the poem moves to the primary action of the conceit, the "oh, if I could only be" of the romantic complaint. Reading the lines, there is a sense that they are rather mechanical in their execution, as though they are but the requisite next part of the poem, the conclusion of the form generic to the conceit, which Shakespeare there dutifully writes. And, honestly, what happens with the four lines outside the "oh, if I could only be" part of the argument? Within the lines, there is only the added contrast between the "dead" of the instrument and the "living" of the the speaker's lips.

But within the context of the poem as a whole, the final quatrain does the work of setting the stage for the final volta.

When it comes to it, the volta in 128 does not so much as "turn" the argument as discard the whole thing. What with the opening phrase of "Since saucy jacks so happy are," the volta reads to me as comedic, as though the speaker-poet had come to the end of his conceit and realized, after all, "Let's not go to Camelot. It's a silly place" – so then, to his girl, "Eh, forget the silly, poetic conceit. Kiss me already."

While the volta as much as discards the previous twelve lines, it nonetheless stems from them and works in engagement with them. The described – if not evoked – sauciness of the jacks is, of course, already set up by "the wood's boldness." The woman may be playing the keyboard, but in the eyes of the speaker the harpsichord is also playing her, and boldly. Thus how the speaker stands by unable to act.

Indeed, the true "turn" of the sonnet lies within this moment: in the shift from "by thee blushing stand" to "Give [. . .] me thy lips to kiss." It is now the jacks who are the meeker, having been seeking only the cordial pleasures of kissing her hand. The speaker has moved on to greater desires – and, implied in the waving off of the jacks and the conceit – action. After all, the "tickling" being done by the jacks is only metaphoric. The visual suggestion of upraised fingers created by the moving jacks never really touch the woman's hands. Poetry is poetry, yes: but let's get to the kissing. And yet, at the same time, poetry is poetry, and the point the poetry, and the working of poetry, is the getting to the kissing.

Returning to the third quatrain we can now see how it functions within the poem as a whole. The two poetic events within that quatrain – the mechanical putting forth of the "oh, if I could be" part of the poem and the opposition of "dead" with "living" – both set up the humor of the final couplet. There is no where to go with the conceit except to finish it off, which is done in mostly plain if not expected phrasing, setting up the first twelve lines of the poem as something which the speaker – and the poet – is quite ready to discard. The conceit did not really work, anyway, except to establish the desired sensual pleasure of playing with the woman's hands. The speaker's aim was never, really, to swap places with the harpsichord and content himself with her palms. There are far better pursuits.

And the quest for palm-kissing is indeed wholly cast aside in line 12 when the conceit comes to a close and the instrument is called out for what it really is: nothing but a harpsichord. "Dead wood." And what is dead wood to living lips? The fingers playing on the keyboard (and the music that comes from it) is nice enough, yes. And the harpsichord sounds happy for it, so let it have that pleasure that is, after all, its purpose (its being what it is meant to be). In the end, it is only wood. With the closing of the conceit the conceit itself is called out: why would the speaker want to be dead wood when he has living lips?

I remind you here, in close, going back to line one, the harpsichord is not the only source of music in the poem.