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An Outline of the Contents of Shakespeare's Sonnets

From Sonnets and A Lover's Complaint. Ed. Raymond M. Alden.

Nos. 1-17 are clearly connected in a short series; they are addressed to a young man of beauty and distinction, who is urged by the poet to marry on the ground that he should perpetuate his charms through offspring.

Nos. 18-19 form a pair on the conventional theme of a friend or lover made immortal through the praise of poetry.

Nos. 20-25 seem to be individual compositions, whether addressed to the same or different friends, without significant arrangement. No. 20 is addressed to a young man whose beauty is such that the poet playfully regrets that he cannot be loved as a woman. No. 21 is a declaration that the poet will not praise his love in the exaggerated terms of the sonneteers, but with simple truth. No. 22 is a love-sonnet based on a familiar "conceit" of the period, -- the exchange of hearts; No. 24 on another familiar conceit, the conflict of eye and heart. Nos. 23 and 25 deal with love, again, in terms that suggest nothing as to the person addressed.

Nos. 26-28 seem to be connected, as written during a period of absence, and it has been thought that Nos. 29-32 belong to the same group. Sonnets 29 and 30, which are among the greatest of Shakespeare's lyrics, are parallel studies of the same theme; they may have been written at the same time, or perhaps are more naturally regarded as having been brought together because of similarity of subject.

Nos. 33-35 deal with something like an estrangement caused by a fault which appears to have been commited by the person addressed. Nos. 40-42 are similar in tone, but with the difference that here the fault is specifically described as the stealing of the affections of a woman beloved by the poet. The incident is treated rather playfully than tragically, and the friend's unfaithfulness is set at naught on the ground that "my friend and I are one." Oddly enough, these two groups of sonnets are interrupted by four (Nos. 36-39) which have nothing to do with the matter of the faithless friend, and one of which (36) has to do with some fault on the poet's own part; the other three are conventional sonnets of love and praise, No. 39 being again a sonnet in absence.

In Nos. 43-45, 48, and 50-52, the theme of absence recurs; these sonnets give an impression of continuity, and seem to have reference to a journey which the poet has made away from home. But the group is interrupted by Nos. 46-47, another pair on the conventional conceit of eye and heart, and by No. 49, on a new theme, the possibility that the friend addressed may some day turn against the poet.

No. 53 is a single sonnet on love and beauty; Nos. 54-55 form another pair on the "eternizing" power of poetry.

Nos. 56-58 form another absence group, but in this case it is the friend, not the poet, who has gone away; No. 61 appears to attach itself to the same group. It is separated from its fellows, however, by No. 59, a general sonnet of love and praise, and No. 60, another sonnet on the triumph of poetry over time.

No. 62 stands in no obvious connection with any other; it develops the conceit that "self-love" is really friend's-love.

Nos. 63-65 again take up the war of poetry against time and mortality.

Nos. 66-68 describe the present evil times, contrasting the friend's perfection as a kind of remnant of better days.

Nos. 69-70 seem to form a pair, dealing obscurely with some scandal from which the friend addressed has suffered.

Nos. 71-74 form a striking and unique group, anticipating the poet's death; they would form a magnificent close to a formal series, and some have thought that they were so intended.

Nos. 75-77 are individual; the first two renew the theme of personal praise, while the third appears to have been sent to the friend with the gift of an album or blank-book.

Nos. 78-80 and 82-87 introduce a new and interesting theme. The friend addressed is now not so much a friend as a patron, and rival poets, one in particular, are threatening to take the place of the writer in his affections. The series is interrupted by No. 81, another conventional sonnet of the "eternizing" type.

Nos. 88-93 again deal with estrangement, but now in terms of friendship rather than of the relation of patronage; and they seem to treat not so much of any actual rupture as of the hypothetical decay of loyalty, the possibility of which had been touched upon in Sonnet 49.

Nos. 94-96 treat obscurely, again, of a fault on the friend's part, and suggest a close connection with the matter of Nos. 69-70.

Nos. 97-99 may be read continuously, as on the common theme of absence at different seasons; or they may have been brought together because of this similarity.

Nos. 100-103 are continuous, forming a kind of letter of apology for a preceding silence.

Nos. 104-108 are individually distinct, but three or four of them are apparently addressed to the same beautiful youth who was conspicuous in the earlier portion of the collection. No. 106 is a new study of the conceit that the friend's beauty is an heirloom of better days. No. 107 is in part a conventional sonnet of "eternizing," but in part seems to have reference to a time when outside events had threatened the poet's friend or friendship.

Nos. 109-112 and 117-120 seem to treat of a common theme, an estrangement following absence, during which the poet has undergone bitter experience; he admits himself at fault, but professes his love to be indestructible. It may be that Nos. 113-116 are to be read in the order in which they stand, and in the same connection, but they are not of a character to be placed with definiteness. Nos. 113-114 form a fairly conventional pair of sonnets in absence. No. 115 celebrates the perpetual growth of which love is capable, and No. 116 reverts to the triumph of love over time.

Nos. 121-125 may form a continuation of the preceding group, the letter of penitence and devotion. No. 121 seems to allude to spying slanderers from whom the poet has suffered.

No. 122, perhaps wholly isolated, refers to a gift (a note-book) which the poet has received and in turn given away; its iteration of his "lasting memory" may perhaps connect it with its successor. Nos. 123-124 deal again with love overcoming time. No. 125 further celebrates the security of a love which is concerned with essentials, not externals.

No. 126 is not a true sonnet, but a poem in six couplets, and has frequently been called an "envoy" or conclusion to the whole collection up to this point. It is addressed to "my lovely boy," presumably the same person as the "lovely youth" of No. 54 and the "sweet boy" of 108, and tells him that, though for the present his beauty still escapes the hand of Time, Nature will in the end insist on her sovereignty and surrender him to age. In other words, it returns to a thought conspicuous in the sonnets standing near the beginning of the collection; but it is a very unfit envoy for those immediately preceding, and may well be thought of as inserted here by a puzzled editor who knew no better place for it.

No. 127 is the first of what has frequently been called the Second Series of the Sonnets, including all the remainder save the last two. For this "series" no other unity can be claimed than arises from the circumstance that one finds here all the sonnets certainly addressed to women. This first one is in praise of brunette beauty, rarely admired in Shakespeare's time.

No. 123 is conventional in tone, and is addressed to a lady playing the virginals; she is not clearly to be identified with the subject of any other sonnet.

No. 129 is a moral epigram on lust.

No. 130 treats ironically, in the mood of No. 21, of the usual hyperboles of sonneteers, and again refers to a dark-haired mistress.

Nos. 131-132 address the dark mistress directly, praising her charms, in the first instance with a cynical turn, in the second by means of various conceits.

Nos. 133-134 apparently refer to the incident of the lady and the unfaithful friend which formed the theme of Nos. 40-42, but are addressed to the lady.

Nos. 135-136 play on the poet's name of Will, and the first of them may be interpreted as a continuation of the theme of the two preceding.

Nos. 137-138, and again 141 and 142, are addressed to a false and guilty mistress; but they are interrupted by a pair of sonnets, Nos. 139-140, on a mistress who is not called false or guilty, but who appears rather to be conventionally unkind and proud.

Nos. 143-144 seem to refer again (the first doubtfully, the second with more certainty) to the incident of Nos. 40-42 and 133-134. No. 144, in its account of the poet's "two loves," is the key-sonnet for the group in question, and, some will have it, for the entire collection.

No. 145 is a trifling pleasantry, in octosyllabics, wholly unconnected.

No. 146 is a moral epigram on the soul and body.

Nos. 147-152 together deal with a stormy and guilty love, and are naturally associated with Nos. 137-138 and 141-142, though far more tragic in tone.

Nos. 153-154 are epigrams on Cupid, based on an ancient source (see Notes).

Such an outline reveals the fact that there is no obvious or necessary continuity in the collection as a whole. It is quite possible, of course, to read connectedly successive sonnets which have been separated in the foregoing analysis, by supplying some link, often of a very simple character. But on the other hand there are many breaks, changes of tone, and contradictions in detail, which make the consecutiveness of the whole a more than doubtful hypothesis.

Clearly a large number of pairs and trios of sonnets belong together, and there appear two or three short series which may well be thought of as having been written and despatched to the person addressed in the manner of a letter. Certain subjects and persons seem to reappear now and again, with interspersed matter for which it is impossible to postulate any definite persons or circumstances. A natural explanation of all these facts would seem to be something like the following: whoever arranged Shakespeare's sonnets in their present order found them in various unarranged manuscript copies, but in sheets on which two or three connected sonnets were frequently preserved together, and, in some cases, short manuscripts embodying longer series. He placed at the beginning of the collection the longest of these apparent series, in some cases brought together sonnets on similar themes, but in general undertook no topical arrangement, except that he left to the end those few sonnets which clearly had reference to women, together with a few others of different character from the majority of the collection.


How to cite this article:
Alden, Raymond M. Sonnets and A Lover's Complaint. New York: Macmillan, 1913. Shakespeare Online. 30 Aug. 2013. < >.

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