W William Shakespeare

Sonnet 128 by William Shakespeare

‘Sonnet 128,’ also known as ‘How oft when thou, my music, music play’st,’ is a sensuous poem. In it, the speaker describes the way his mistress plays the harpsichord and how he longs to touch her.

This poem is one of William Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets. It is the second poem in the Dark Lady sequence of sonnets. They deal with the speaker (who is usually considered to be William Shakespeare himself) and his relationship with his mistress, the Dark Lady. This sonnet, and those which follow, are concerned with what’s beautiful and how concepts of beauty are changing. The speaker is right at the heart of that. As with the Fair Youth, there is no consensus in regard to who the Dark Lady is or if she was even a real person.

How oft when thou, my music, music play’st,
Upon that blessed wood whose motion sounds
With thy sweet fingers when thou gently sway’st
The wiry concord that mine ear confounds,
Do I envy those jacks that nimble leap,
To kiss the tender inward of thy hand,
Whilst my poor lips which should that harvest reap,
At the wood’s boldness by thee blushing stand!
To be so tickled, they would change their state
And situation with those dancing chips,
O’er whom thy fingers walk with gentle gait,
Making dead wood more bless’d than living lips.
   Since saucy jacks so happy are in this,
   Give them thy fingers, me thy lips to kiss.

Sonnet 128 by William Shakespeare

Sonnet 128 by William Shakespeare


Summary

’Sonnet 128’ by William Shakespeare is the second Dark Lady sonnet. It depicts the speaker’s mistress playing an instrument and conveys the speaker’s lust for her.

In the first lines of the poem, the speaker describes how he’s standing and watching his mistress play the piano. He feels jealous about the entire situation as she’s touching the keys with a gentle rhythm that he longs to feel himself. The poet personifies the instrument, describing the keys as though they are happy at her touch, leaping up to continue it. He can only stand there and fantasize about having her touch him instead.

Themes

Throughout ‘Sonnet 128,’ the poet engages with themes of lust and music. The latter fills the poem and helps to convey the former. The Dark Lady plays music for the speaker, filling him with longing, especially as he watches her hands and how they touch the keys. She’s so beautiful that this simple yet skilled act makes him want her even more. All he can do is stand there and watch her, wishing that his lips could take the place of the deadwood of the harpsichord.

Structure and Form

‘Sonnet 128’ by William Shakespeare is a traditional sonnet that follows the pattern Shakespeare popularized. It contains fourteen lines that are divided into two quatrains, or sets of four lines, and one sestet, or set of six lines. They rhyme ABABCDCDEFEFGG as the vast majority of Shakespeare’s sonnets do.

In iambic pentameter, 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 fifth line is a particularly good example of the pattern. The poem can also be divided into three sets of four lines and a final two-line couplet.

Literary Devices

Shakespeare makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Sonnet 128’. These include but are not limited to examples of:

  • Alliteration: the repetition of words with the same consonant sound. For example, “music” and “motion” in lines one and two and “sweet” and “sway’st” in line three.
  • Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines two and three, as well as three and four.
  • Personification: an important technique in this poem that occurs when the poet imbues non-human things or animals with human characteristics. For example, the poet personifies the keys of the harpsichord and his own lips.


Detailed Analysis

Lines 1-4

How oft when thou, my music, music play’st,

Upon that blessed wood whose motion sounds

With thy sweet fingers when thou gently sway’st

The wiry concord that mine ear confounds,

In the first lines of ‘Sonnet 128,’ the speaker addresses the Dark Lady, describing her beauty and the music she creates. He’s watching her play the harpsichord, that which the speaker describes as “that blessed wood.” He watches the keys bounce against her fingers and fantasizes about kissing her.

Lines 5-8

Do I envy those jacks that nimble leap,

To kiss the tender inward of thy hand,

Whilst my poor lips which should that harvest reap,

At the wood’s boldness by thee blushing stand!

The speaker expresses envy in these lines that the keys of the harpsichord are touching her and she isn’t touching him. They “kiss” the “tender” palm of her hands where he thinks his lips should be kissing. He personifies the keys of the instrument, depicting them as “jacks that nimble leap” up to touch her. They are as excited as he would be to touch her skin. He looks on with his lips blushing at the boldness of the keys.

Lines 9-14

To be so tickled, they would change their state

And situation with those dancing chips,

O’er whom thy fingers walk with gentle gait,

Making dead wood more bless’d than living lips.

Since saucy jacks so happy are in this,

Give them thy fingers, me thy lips to kiss.

In the final sestet of the poem, the speaker creates an innuendo, alluding to sex with the Dark Lady and how he’d feel if he could be touched in the same way the keys of the harpsichord are touching her. His lips would “change their state / And situation with those dancing chips.” Right now, the “dead wood” of the instrument is “more bless’d than living lips.” The harpsichord’s levers are “saucy jacks” happy to be touched by her fingers. He asks to kiss her and touch her hands in the final couplet of the poem. His fantasy is all that he has at this moment, making this one of Shakespeare’s most sensuous sonnets.

Similar Poetry

Readers who enjoyed ‘Sonnet 128’ should also consider reading other William Shakespeare poems. For example:

  • Sonnet 101’ – directed at the speaker’s muse who is failing to provide him with needed inspiration.
  • Sonnet 40’ – discusses the speaker’s recent choice to sleep with the Youth’s mistress.
  • Sonnet 92’ – discusses the fact that the speaker is going to die happily having just known the Fair Youth.

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About
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 analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
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