The nature of Renaissance poetry, certainly as seen in the sonnets of Shakespeare, is both complex and rich in meaning. The poet uses elegant language, strict iambic pentameter structure, metaphors, and other devices to “paint a picture,” and one usually expressing a deeply personal concern. The devices then add to the meaning as they bring the reader more fully into the narrator’s experience and perceptions, and this is evident in the sonnets discussed.
Main Idea: Sonnet 29 actually exists on two levels, in order to emphasize the main point that a single love makes even the most painful life worthwhile.
Key Points: To achieve this, Shakespeare begins by discussing the narrator’s unhappiness. In the first eight lines, bitterness and envy are presented. The narrator describes misery that overtakes him at times, when he is rejected by the world and even heaven, personified here as a living presence, does not hear his cries. In this state the narrator is then gripped by jealousy, wanting the success and esteem he sees other men as having. However, the most powerful device in the sonnet is not the imagery, but how it is in fact a single thought developing. Shakespeare relies on one, very complex sentence to form the poem, and this reinforces the contrast provided by the last six lines. This is foreshadowed by how it begins with a dependent clause; when everything is at its worst, it is then that the narrator remembers his love and is overtaken by a sense of joy so strong, the envy for others no longer exists.
Key Question: The reader may be left unsure of the narrator’s actual life, because so great a love should eliminate all the misery that is clearly felt from time to time.
Main Idea: Sonnet 116 has a lesson to teach and it consistently praises the power of love at its most true.
Key Points: Such a love never allows for human changes of heart because, in several lines relying on metaphor, Shakespeare describes it as a star that always guides lovers to the truth of the power. Not even age or death can change this, and the poet concludes the sonnet with a kind of dare: if anyone can prove otherwise, then no one ever truly loved and the poet never even set down this thought.
Key Question: The poet never reveals exactly how he knows this reality. It is a firm statement but it is based on no experience provided, so the reader must assume that the poet has reason to be so certain.
Main Idea: In Sonnet 130, the imagery is both consistent and used to specific effect. The narrator is defiantly describing his love and in ways almost proudly pointing out how she conforms to classic ideas of beauty in no way at all, but his love renders that meaningless.
Key Points: Cliches are exploded; her eyes are not brilliant like the sun, her lips are not beautifully red like coral, and even her breath “reeks.” She is no goddess and her feet walk the earth like any ordinary person’s do. Contrast is then reinforced by the closing lines, in which the poet insists that his love for her elevates her beyond any standard type of beauty. She even makes a mockery of classic beauty because she is so loved, and consequently more beautiful.
Key Question: There are in fact two: the nature of the relationship as either mainly physical or more than this is not revealed, and the poet never refers to the lady’s actually loving him herself, so the reader cannot know if the love is returned.
Summary of Notes: The three sonnets all express perfect form and formal language, and all rely on imagery and metaphor. Sonnet 116 is different, in that it expresses a single conviction and focuses on a broad reality regarding the nature of love. Sonnets 29 and 130 go to extremely personal perspectives on love. Both these poems also depend on contrast, in that each “reverses” the initial idea; misery is not the main reality when one is loved, and love makes classic ideas of female beauty irrelevant.