‘Th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame’ by William Shakespeare, also known as Sonnet 129, is a fourteen-line poem. It is structured in the form which has come to be synonymous with the poet’s name. It is made up of three quatrains, or sets of four lines, and one concluding couplet, or set of two rhyming lines. The last two lines 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, shift the perspective, or even change speakers.
In the case of sonnet 129, the couplet changes the tone. It includes expressions of regret and acceptance of how men have and will continue to live. It is much less argumentative than the opening 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.
Sonnet 129 William Shakespeare The expense of spirit in a waste of shame Is lust in action: and till action, lust Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame, Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust; Enjoyed no sooner but despised straight; Past reason hunted; and no sooner had, Past reason hated, as a swallowed bait, On purpose laid to make the taker mad. Mad in pursuit and in possession so; Had, having, and in quest to have extreme; A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe; Before, a joy proposed; behind a dream. All this the world well knows; yet none knows well To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.
This piece begins with the speaker stating that an “expense of spirit” occurs when one engages in sexual activities, and it is shameful. It results in the men who commit these acts losing some sort of internal, powerful force. He goes on to explain that this refers only to “lust in action.” But, “till action,” lust is something else entirely. He sees it as an angry, “bloody,” and “savage” emotion. It is “cruel” and untrustworthy.
In the next quatrain, he goes on to describe how loss is a very temporary state. Any joy that it brings fades quickly and leaves behind men who are mad with the “pursuit and…possession“. At first, lust is joyful. But in the end, it is nothing but a dream that leaves one hungry for more. In the final two lines, the speaker appears resolved to the fact that his words will change nothing. Men throughout history have known that lust will lead them away from heaven and into hell, but they still engage in sexual acts that inevitably lead to their shame.
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Often known by its numeral designation, sonnet 129, is one of the 154 sonnets written by William Shakespeare. It was published in 1609 and is considered to be amongst the group titled “Dark Lady “sonnets. This unknown person is featured in sonnets number 127 to 152. Some scholars believe that she was a woman the poet was having an affair with and that she served as the inspiration for a number of other works as well. But, there is not sufficient evidence to say that this is absolutely the case.
Th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
In the first quatrain of ‘Th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame’, the speaker begins by stating that the “expense of spirit” is a wasteful thing. He is specifically speaking about men and the phrase “expense of spirit” suggests that the lustful man is losing some sort of internal power. When this happens, the man feels shame. This is an interesting way to begin a poem and suggests a lot about the speaker. Especially considering the contextual details which go along with this poem, as were mentioned in the introductory section.
While the speaker is addressing the reader from a rather detached point of view, it is evident as the poem progresses that the way he was speaking about men or human beings in general also applies, and maybe specifically applies, to him.
Is perjured, murd’rous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trus
To be more exacting, the speaker states that the waste of shame comes from “lust in action.“ This is any sexual act. It is lust as it is occurring. In the second half of the second line, which is a great example of a caesura, the speaker goes into a passionate, and undeniably angry, and frustrating list of emotions that are associated with the lead-up to a sexual act.
For example, the speaker says that “lust is… murderous.” It is “bloody” and “full of blame”. He goes on to refer to it as “extreme, rude, cruel.” The final phrase in this list is perhaps the most interesting, he speaks of the emotional and physical desire associated with the prelude to sex as being untrustworthy. It is a state of being one should not choose to give into as it will lead to, as the first line stated, an eventual feeling of shame.
Enjoyed no sooner but despisèd straight,
Past reason hunted; and, no sooner had
Past reason hated as a swallowed bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad;
This is made all the clearer at the beginning of the second quatrain of ‘Th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame’. The speaker states that no sooner is lust and sex enjoyed than it becomes “despised”. The temporary pleasure that one gets from feeling lust and then acting on lust is very limited. In the next lines the speaker tries to convince himself, and the reader, that when one is feeling lust they are “passed reason.” It brings one into a state that is closer to madness than happiness. It can make “the taker” lose his mind.
The reference to man as “the taker“ is an interesting one. It is connected to the traditional role in a sexual coupling between a man and a woman, that the man takes his pleasure from the woman. Not the other way around. But, in this case, it also speaks to the man taking on the desire of the moment. He accepts the consequences when he engages in sexual actions.
There is a great example of anaphora in lines six and seven. Shakespeare uses and re-uses the phrase “past reason.” A reader should also take note of the fact that the third word in both of these lines begins with the letter “h.”
Mad in pursuit and in possession so,
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.
The speaker remains focused on the madness one is forced into before and after engaging in a lustful activity. As was stated in the previous lines, man becomes “Mad in pursuit and in possession so.” The entire quest brings one to extremes. From the “had” to the “having.”
In the next two lines of ‘Th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame’ the speaker focuses on the joys and pleasures which are associated with sex. These are the extremes that men quest for in the previous lines. Everyone knows, the speaker is inferring, that bliss is a state that humans will undoubtedly seek. But, when it happens and it is over it is woeful. In the final line of the quatrain the speaker says that before sex, one is in a state in which joy is being proposed. But, when the sex is behind them, it becomes just a dream. All the negative consequences outlined in the first few lines are made real.
All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.
In the final rhyming couplet, the tone changes significantly. The angry, passionate, and determine tone of the first 12 lines dissolve. Now, the speaker is addressing the situation from a more detached, and accepting point of you. He states that everyone in the world “well knows” everything that he has said so far.
Everyone knows that to give in to lust would be to “shun the heaven” but all the same, men do what they feel like they want to. And they are led to “this hell.”