‘Sonnet 28,’ also known as ‘How can I then return in happy plight,’ is number twenty-eight of one hundred fifty-four that Shakespeare wrote over his lifetime. It is part of the Fair Youth sequence of sonnets (numbers one through one hundred twenty-six) as well as a smaller segment of poems that address the theme of sleeplessness and depict the speaker trying to conjure the youth’s face in his mind. This sonnet picks up directly where the twenty-seventh left off.
The speaker talks directly to the Fair Youth telling him that he isn’t getting any sleep because night and day have made a pact to keep him awake. He spends all day toiling and all night worrying about the toiling and how it’s not bringing him any closer to the youth. He also describes how he tries to reason with night and day by using the youth’s light and beauty to convince them to leave him alone.
‘Sonnet 28’ by William Shakespeare is a fourteen-line sonnet that is structured in the form known as a “Shakespearean” or English sonnet. The poem is made up of three quatrains, or sets of four lines, and one concluding couplet, or set of two rhyming lines. They follow a consistent rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG and are 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.
As is common in Shakespeare’s poems, the last two lines 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, shift the perspective, or even change speakers. In the last lines of this sonnet, the speaker admits that despite his attempts to convince day and night otherwise he is still suffering twenty-four hours a day.
Shakespeare makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Sonnet 28’. These include but are not limited to alliteration, personification, and hyperbole. The first of these, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “day doth daily draw” in line thirteen and “each,” “enemies,” and “either’s” in line five.
A hyperbole is an intentionally exaggerated description, comparison or exclamation meant to further the writer’s important themes, or make a specific impact on a reader. In the third quatrain the speaker uses this technique by describing the Fair Youth as having the ability to light up the sky like the sun or stars when they are covered with clouds.
Personification occurs when a poet imbues a non-human creature or object with human characteristics. There is a good example in the central image of the poem. The speaker says that night and day “shake hands to torture” him. They, as if lively forces with their own agency, are able to make decisions and actively plot against the speaker.
How can I then return in happy plight
That am debarred the benefit of rest?
When day’s oppression is not eased by night,
But day by night and night by day oppressed?
‘Sonnet 28’ picks up where ‘Sonnet 27’ left off, speaking about the Fair Youth’s image as a “jewel hung in ghastly night” and as the reason that the speaker cannot find rest during the day or at night.
In the first lines of ‘Sonnet 28’ the speaker asks the youth a rhetorical question. He wants to know how he can possibly “return in happy plight” when he hasn’t gotten any sleep at night. “Day’s oppression,” he says in the third line is not “eased” by rest at night. The days bother him at night and the nights bother him during the day.
And each, though enemies to either’s reign,
Do in consent shake hands to torture me,
The one by toil, the other to complain
How far I toil, still farther off from thee.
The poet uses personification in these lines to describe night and day as enemies that have made a bargain. They’ve decided to “shake hands to torture” the speaker. They are working together to harm him. The day gives him “toil” and the other brings him thoughts of how far away he is from the youth during the day. It is bringing him no closer, which is all he really cares about.
I tell the day to please him thou art bright,
And dost him grace when clouds do blot the heaven.
So flatter I the swart-complexioned night,
When sparkling stars twire not, thou gild’st the even.
But day doth daily draw my sorrows longer,
And night doth nightly make grief’s length seem stronger.
In the final quatrain of ‘Sonnet 27,’ the speaker explains his attempts to try to get himself out of this situation. He tries to “please him,” meaning the day, but telling “him” how bright the Fair Youth is. The speaker has hoped that this depiction will please the day. The youth takes the place of the sun when “clouds do blot the heaven”.
At the same time, he also uses the youth to flatter the “swart-complexioned,” or black, “night”. The youth brightens the night when the stars do not shine. He gilds the sky like gold.
In the final two lines, the speaker adds that despite his words and the power of the Fair Youth nothing changes. They continue to make the speaker suffer during the day and at night.