Sonnet 43: When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see by William Shakespeare

Sonnet 43,’ also known as ’When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see,’ is number forty-three of one hundred fifty-four sonnets that Shakespeare wrote over his lifetime. It is part of the Fair Youth sequence of sonnets, numbers one through one hundred twenty-six. This sonnet comes directly after a brief series of three known as the betrayal sonnets. Some believe that the emotions the speaker is expressing in these lines are still tinted by that betrayal. 


Summary of Sonnet 43

‘Sonnet 43’ by William Shakespeare speaks about sleeping, darkness, light, and the Fair Youth’s power to brighten the speaker’s dreams. 

In the first lines of this poem the speaker addresses the differences between his days and nights. At night, he is able to see because the youth brightens his dreams. During the day, things are darker as the youth isn’t there in all his beauty to improve it. The speaker considers what it will be like when the youth is there to brighten the day once more. He tells the youth that his days are going t remain dark until he gets to see him again. 


Structure of Sonnet 43

‘Sonnet 43’ 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 this case, the speaker says that the days he’s living through are going to remain dark and by contrast the nights, light until the youth returns.


Poetic Techniques in Sonnet 43

Shakespeare makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Sonnet 43’. These include but are not limited to alliteration, enjambment, and antithesis. The last of these, antithesis, is a complex literary technique that is concerned with the juxtaposition of opposites. It can be seen in the last lines of the poem as the speaker says that days will the dark and nights will be light until the youth is around again.  

Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “do” and “day” in lines one and two as well as “darkly” and “dark directed” in line four.

Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. 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 transitions between lines six and seven as well as that between nine and ten. 


Analysis of Sonnet 43 

Lines 1-4 

When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see,

For all the day they view things unrespected;

But when I sleep, in dreams they look on thee,

And, darkly bright, are bright in dark directed.

In the first lines of ‘Sonnet 43’ the speaker begins by stating that during sleep his eyes work best. When most he “wink[s]”then his eyes do “best see”. This is because he spends all the waking hours of his life with his eyes open seeing things “unrespected”. These are things that he doesn’t care about and that means nothing to him. In sleep, that changes. In these lines, a reader should take note of the just of juxtaposition and antithesis as the speaker sets two inverted things against one another. He can’t see when he’s awake only when he’s asleep and his eyes are closed. 

In the last lines of this quatrain, the speaker adds that his eyes “look on thee,” the Fair Youth, when he is sleeping. There are more examples of contrasting imagery in these lines as he speaks on the youth glitteringly brightly in the dark. He can find the bright image of the youth in the dark of sleep and with his eyes closed. 


Lines 5-8 

Then thou, whose shadow shadows doth make bright—

How would thy shadow’s form form happy show

To the clear day with thy much clearer light,

When to unseeing eyes thy shade shines so?

In the second quatrain of ‘Sonnet 43’, the speaker goes on to ask a rhetorical question. This is a technique that Shakespeare was quite fond of and can be found in numerous sonnets. He contemplates the youth’s brightness and how much brighter he would seem if he was present during the day. This alludes to absence or separation, perhaps due to the youth’s betrayal of the speaker in the previous three sonnets. 

He also says I these lines that the youth’s brightness might be even brighter if he was there during the day and there were no shadows to contend with. 


Lines 9-14 

How would, I say, mine eyes be blessèd made

By looking on thee in the living day,

When in dead night thy fair imperfect shade

Through heavy sleep on sightless eyes doth stay?

All days are nights to see till I see thee,

And nights bright days when dreams do show thee me.

In the final quatrain of ‘Sonnet 43’ the speaker steps away from the idea of seeing the youth in the daytime. He already sees him at night, and his eyes are blessed to do so. The “living day” might not make a difference at all. He gets to enjoy looking at the image of the youth in the “dead night” through “heavy sleep”.

In the final two lines of ‘Sonnet 43’ the speaker concludes by saying that in fact, all the days are dark until he gets to see the youth again in person. The days “are nights’ and the nights are “day” until everything is set back the way it used to be. This is a perfect example of antithesis. The two phrases ask the reader to consider opposite premises and contrast one another. 

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  • Avatar PATRICK says:

    What’s the feeling is prevailed at the end of the poem

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      I think that he is suggesting effectively that his love lights up his life. Without her the days feel like night and when he dreams of her it lights up his dreams. So I guess if you wanted to attribute a feeling to that it would be love.

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