W William Shakespeare

Sonnet 8 – Music to hear, why hear’st thou music sadly? by William Shakespeare

‘Music to hear, why hear’st thou music sadly?’ is Sonnet 8 in the series of 154 sonnets that Shakespeare wrote during his lifetime. It belongs to the Fair Youth sequence. This is the series of poems that were dedicated to a specific person, a young, beautiful man whose identity has never been confirmed.  This sonnet is one of seventeen that is part of the group focused on procreation, and finding a wife. The poem explores themes of companionship, happiness, and one’s legacy.


Summary of Sonnet 8

Sonnet 8: ‘Music to hear, why hear’st thou music sadly?’ by William Shakespeare is directed at the Fair Youth who has yet to find a wife and have a child. 

The poem outlines the reasons why the Fair Youth is unhappy, or so the speaker thinks. He should be taking pleasure from pleasurable things but instead, they make him sad. The speaker uses music as an example. The Fair Youth is not resonating with the music because he has no one near him to resonate with personally. There is no wife in his life and no child. His singleness is going to mean he ends up lonely and forgotten.


Structure of Sonnet 8

Sonnet 8: Music to hear, why hear’st thou music sadly?’ by William Shakespeare is a fourteen-line sonnet that follows the pattern that has become synonymous with the poet’s name. It is structured as all “Shakespearean” sonnets are. This means that it is made up of three quatrains, or sets of four lines, and one concluding couplet, or set of two rhyming lines. The poem follows a consistent rhyme scheme that conforms to the pattern of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG and it is written in iambic pentameter. This means that each line contains five sets of two beats, known as metrical feet. The first is unstressed and the second stressed. It sounds something like da-DUM, da-DUM. 

The last two lines of ‘Music to hear, why hear’st thou music sadly?’ are a rhyming pair, known as a couplet. They often bring with them a turn or volta in the poem. They’re sometimes used to answer a question posed in the previous twelve lines, present new ideas, contradict old ideas, shift the perspective, or even change speakers. In the case of this specific poem, the final two lines get to the main point of the poem. They leave behind the metaphor and get to the speaker’s main point that the Fair Youth is going to be forgotten unless he does something to preserve his legacy.


Poetic Techniques in Sonnet 8

Shakespeare makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Music to hear, why hear’st thou music sadly?’. These include, but are not limited to, alliteration, sibilance, enjambment, and metaphor. The latter is one of the most important techniques in ‘Music to hear, why hear’st thou music sadly?’. A metaphor is a comparison between two unlike things that does not use “like” or “as” is also present in the text. 

When using this technique a poet is saying that one thing is another thing, they aren’t just similar. In this case, the poet created a metaphor that compared the youth’s unhappiness to discordant chords in a song. He is not resonating within someone else and can, therefore, take no joy in music.

Alliteration is frequently used in poems. It occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “this” and “thee” in the last line. Sibilance is similar to alliteration but it is concerned with soft vowel sounds such as “s” and “th”. This kind of repetition usually results in a prolonged hissing or rushing sound. It is often used to mimic another sound, like water, wind, or any kind of fluid movement. There are more examples of this technique in ‘Music to hear, why hear’st thou music sadly?’ than there are

A close reader can also find an example of enjambment in this poem. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For instance, the transition between lines seven and eight. 


Analysis of Sonnet 8

Lines 1-4

Music to hear, why hear’st thou music sadly?

Sweets with sweets war not, joy delights in joy:

Why lov’st thou that which thou receiv’st not gladly,

Or else receiv’st with pleasure thine annoy?

In the first lines of ‘Music to hear, why hear’st thou music sadly?’ the speaker begins by asking the Fair Youth a question. This person, whose identity has never been revealed or positively determined, is single and childless. This is a constant source of irritation and worry for the speaker who over seventeen stanzas chastises him for this choice and tries to convince him to change his mind. 

He begins this poem by not directly returning to the subject touched on in the other sixteen poems, but talking around it. He uses music as an entry point. The speaker wants to know why listening to music, which should be joyful, makes the Fair Youth sad. This is something that he thinks he knows the answer to but it is not revealed until the next quatrain. 

The speaker goes on, trying to fit the two things together. Joy goes with joy and pleasure with pleasure. Happy things shouldn’t make one sad. He needs to know why the youth takes no pleasure in things that sound good. 


Lines 5-8 

If the true concord of well-tuned sounds,

By unions married, do offend thine ear,

They do but sweetly chide thee, who confounds

In singleness the parts that thou shouldst bear. 

In the second quatrain of Sonnet 8 he presents what he thinks is the answer to the problem. He says that the reason things are quite clicking for the speaker is that he is not in harmony himself. The youth has remained single and has no chord against which to resonate. The music is pushing back against him for this choice. 


Lines 9-14 

Mark how one string, sweet husband to another,

Strikes each in each by mutual ordering;

Resembling sire and child and happy mother,

Who, all in one, one pleasing note do sing:

Whose speechless song being many, seeming one,

Sings this to thee: ‘Thou single wilt prove none.’

In the final quatrain, the speaker asks that the Fair Youth take note of how the strings strike against one another. They are vibrating together “by mutual ordering” or in harmony. This is introduced to the listener as a metaphor for his childlessness and lack of a romantic partner. 

In the last two lines, after the turn, the speaker says that the youth is going to remain unhappy and unimportant in the larger scheme of things if he remains single. 

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Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analysing poetry on Poem Analysis.

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