“Remembrance of Things Past” and the Problem of Order In Memory: On Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30

Sonnet 30

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancell’d woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanish’d sight:
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restored and sorrows end.


Why is the couplet satisfactory to the speaker? It seems to contradict every other line in the poem.

To answer that question, we need to ask how the stanzas correspond to one another. Thus one of the most difficult literary puzzles ever conceived confronts us – it looks like there are several plausible orderings, each corresponding to a different theme.

It could turn out that the couplet is not satisfactory to the speaker, that he’s making a joke to the audience he’s addressing. But we’ll only know that if we can explain the relation of the couplet to the stanzas before exactly.

The first interpretation I want to attempt involves seeing the second stanza as a line-by-line comment on the first stanza in reverse.

What this means is that “And with old woes new wail my dear’s time waste” is directly extended by “Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow” – the former is an internal, mental wailing, and the latter is an external, physical crying. Both are two sides of the same coin.

We then find that “precious friends” hid in the “darkness” could be an extension of lacking something “sought.” The speaker in the first stanza is using his mind’s eye to see a gap, and sighs. The searching for precious friends in a dateless realm is at once both metaphorical and yet strangely more concrete: we are told what exactly he is seeking, and death is equated with something very real, “night.”

A summoning up of the “remembrance of things past” could correspond exactly to “love’s long since-cancell’d woe:” the difference between weeping and summoning is the difference between effect and cause. And the “moan” of the expense of “many a vanished sight” is critical: moaning contrasts very much with “silent thought,” and yet it is the “sessions of silent thought” which caused moaning and weeping.

The past has become the present, and mind has exerted an influence over the body which is total and yet not good at all.

Generally speaking, the third stanza is serving the function of tying the previous two stanzas together in some way. It does so by moving beyond the contents of the mind (“woes”) and the action of the body (“drown an eye”), focusing instead on a state of mind (grief), an action (speaking – “tell o’er” the sad account of fore-bemoaned moan”), and, strangely enough, obligation (“I new pay as if not paid before”).

Now at this point you might be puzzled about my characterizing the first stanza as “the speaker’s mind,” and the second stanza as “the speaker’s body/actions.” After all, the speaker sighs, seeks (“sought”) and wails in the first stanza. The quick and dirty argument I have is this: We can’t discuss the mind except in metaphorical terms. Notice that Shakespeare’s metaphorical terms curiously point to mind more than body. The key to the line with the sighing and the seeking is the word “lack” – the lack doesn’t actually exist, it is something thought of. Furthermore, the “old woes” are themselves his “new wail:” in wasting time wailing the wasting of time previous, there is no need for external comment so he can attack his thought. The thought itself is the condemnation, and the woes are thoughts.

But what is the order of the third stanza? One could say it is a line-by-line comment on the second stanza, where the eye drowning corresponds with grieving, the precious friends hid are the movement from woe to woe, the moaning about things past over again is the literal manifestation of “love’s long since cancell’d woe,” and an expense thought not to be paid is paid yet again.

That ordering makes sense if we focus on a “lack” and an “expense.” Mind lacks, and the body pays – to not see what one wants to see takes its toll over time. The third stanza tells us that the repetition of the grief – that which the speaker has condemned himself for having – can enable the speaker to realize that debts have been paid. And maybe that fits nicely and neatly into the speaker thinking about his “dear friend,” and escaping the cycle. The debt has been paid, so a precondition for present happiness has been fulfilled. It does seem like we are moving from past to present in this sonnet.

But I think there are other ways to order this sonnet. One might want to try to get the two lines that begin with “I” in the first stanza to match up with the lines that begin with “And” in the second. Another project that can be attempted is trying to see if the lines that contain “woe” in one form or another correspond, or if the lines that contain the image of the speaking seeing or emitting speech or something speech-like matter.

This is an outrageously complicated sonnet, and yes, I have a real and almost final interpretation of it. I’m not giving it out because I’m still working through some issues. I will say that I am convinced the couplet is cynical, but not towards the “dear friend,” but about “thought” itself – note that the three stanzas and the couplet each give us different objects of attention for the speaker.

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