The State of Mind and Paradoxes in Sonnet 27
Seen from the surface, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 27 is a lament for the absent beloved. However, when regarded from a more careful perspective, it rather implies a mental voyage that unveils the speaker’s inner reality and his state of mind. As in many of Shakespeare’s sonnets, this poem is erected on paradoxes that contribute to reveal the inner reality of the speaker. The axial paradox is the inspirational object illuminating the speaker’s nocturnal journey and making his existence unhappy at the same time, since the object cannot be grasped or possessed by the speaker. This central paradox is expressed in the form of codes in binary opposition that display the reality that the source of inspiration has helped to create in the speaker’s mind. The unraveling of these opposing images will lead us to the kernel or theme of the poem. The theme displays a reality in which the speaker cannot escape nor possess his source of inspiration, and is tied up to it both day and night, physically and mentally, in light and in darkness. This situation unchains his weariness and lack of internal peace as the prevailing mood throughout the whole poem.
The first opposing code in the poem appears in the first quatrain: “weary with toil I haste me to my bed”. The bed serves as the resting place where the speaker is going to briefly escape from the weariness of his physical environment. In the first two lines the bed appears as the place of “dear repose for limbs with travel tired”. However, this reposing place is nothing but the departure platform for another journey: the journey that the speaker’s mind, as motivated by his beloved, is going to begin throughout the night. So far, there is an interaction of two basic opposing elements in the speaker’s world: his physical reality and his mental reality. The ending of the physical voyage marks the beginning of a more imaginative and spiritual wandering. His mind begins to work “when body’s work’s expired”.
The second quatrain begins with elements in binary opposition as well. After being introduced to the separation and contrast of mind and body in the first quatrain, the second one defies some conventions of logical meaning. In his nightly journey, he “looks on darkness,” as “the blind do see. The significance of comparing himself with a blind person, and how a blind person: sees,” immediately establishes another contradiction: blind people cannot see; however, he can see as a blind man sees. He is blinded in shadows by the circumstances of his love, desire, and longing for his loved one. This contrasting element reinforces the mood the speaker succeeded to establish in the first quatrain. Up to this point, the prevailing images of his mind are of a gloomy mood. So far, the obscurity of the night prevails in his mental exercise.
The third quatrain, however, displays the most important opposing images that lead to the paradoxical climax of the sonnet. It begins with the contrasting image of the beloved against the total darkness of the night. According to the speaker’s perception, the beloved’s shadow disrupts the prevailing blackness and obscurity that his journey has presented him so far. There are three very important opposing images intermixed in this quatrain that reveal the essence of the significance of the beloved for the speaker, as well as the significance of his mental “pilgrimage” versus his physical reality. First, we have his “soul’s imaginary sight” and the objects and means of that imaginary sight, even though he claims to see something, that something he sees is a product of his “sightless view”. This would recall his blind man’s vision of the second quatrain.
The second great paradox is the thing he sees: “thy shadow”. A shadow he cannot touch nor possess, and that of course, logic conventions would prevent us from seeing in a dark night. The third paradox is represented by the simile that describes the image of the shadow “light a jewel hung in ghastly night. [that] Makes black night beauteous and her old face new”. This shadow image he sees transforms his night from horrible to beautiful, from frightful to enjoyable and pleasant. But the biggest problem is that the shadow he sees cannot be touched or possessed, it is ethereal and it hangs away from him. The presence of his beloved abides in his mind, not in his physical reality.
The final couplet, as in any other Shakespearean sonnet, displays the denouement of the conflict in the speaker’s mind. The contrasting images of body-mind, light-darkness, reality-imagination, ugliness-beauty, vision-blindness that appears throughout the poem are reinforced in the last two line: “Lo, thus, by day my limbs, by night my mind, For thee and for myself no quiet find”. In the end, he does not seem to find rest for his mind at night. The momentary joy produced by the image of the beloved results in the end as exhausting as the physical tiredness of his body. His mental pilgrimage becomes as winding as pointless as his daily journey. This sentimental of mental and physical anxiety that the speaker feels because of his daily toil and his nocturnal vision functions as a unifying device that conveys the final meaning of the poem. Such paradox and opposing codes reveal the contradictory situation in which the speaker finds himself.
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Seen from the surface, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 27 is a lament for the absent beloved. However, when regarded from a more careful perspective, it rather implies a mental voyage that unveils […]