‘Sonnet 48,’ also known as ‘How careful was I, when I took my way,’ is number forty-eight of one hundred fifty-four sonnets that Shakespeare wrote over his lifetime. It is part of the prolonged Fair Youth sequence of sonnets, lasting from number one through one hundred twenty-six. These poems are dedicated to a young, beautiful man about whom the speaker cares deeply. In this poem, Shakespeare explores themes of love, loss, and fear. He expresses an ever-present fear that something is going to take the Fair Youth from him.
Throughout the lines of ‘Sonnet 48’, the speaker compares the youth to something that he wants to lock up, just as he used to lock up his jewels. As these jewels have become less important to him the youth has increased in his worth. He is the most important thing the speaker has and the only protection he has for him, his heart isn’t really any protection at all. It is the speaker’s greatest fear that the youth will be stolen from his heart by some common thief.
‘Sonnet 48’ by William Shakespeare is a fourteen-line, single stanza poem that is structured in the form that has become synonymous with the poet’s name. The English or Shakespearean sonnet 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.
Iambic pentameter 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.
Shakespeare makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Sonnet 48’. These include but are not limited to alliteration, metaphor, and enjambment. 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, “trifle” and “truest” in line two and “greatest grief” in line six.
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 the case of ‘Sonnet 48,’ the speaker uses a metaphor to compare the youth, positively, to the jewels that the speaker used to lock up carefully.
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 transition between lines three and four.
How careful was I, when I took my way,
Each trifle under truest bars to thrust,
That to my use it might unusèd stay
From hands of falsehood, in sure wards of trust.
In the first lines of ‘Sonnet 48,’ the speaker begins by uses the images and actions associated with locking up one’s possessions to depict his relationship with the Fair Youth. This image extended metaphor, that compares the youth to something immeasurably precious has been touched on in previous sonnets in the Fair Youth series.
He describes how in the past he used to make sure that “Each trifle,” or meaningless thing was help securely when he travels. This was to ensure that the “hands of falsehood” could not touch these objects that used to mean something to the speaker.
But thou, to whom my jewels trifles are,
Most worthy comfort, now my greatest grief,
Thou best of dearest, and mine only care,
Art left the prey of every vulgar thief.
The speaker transitions to speak directly to and about the Fair Youth in the second quatrain. In these lines, he describes how the youth is far more precious than his jewels ever were. They are “trifles,” a word Shakespeare repeats, in comparison to the youth. The youth is now the only thing that the speaker cares for and he is unable to secure him. He is vulnerable to “every vulgar thief”. Any common person could come and take the youth from him.
Thee have I not locked up in any chest,
Save where thou art not, though I feel thou art,
Within the gentle closure of my breast,
From whence at pleasure thou mayst come and part;
And even thence thou wilt be stol’n, I fear,
For truth proves thievish for a prize so dear.
In the third and final quatrain of ‘Sonnet 48’, the speaker adds that it hurts him that he can’t lock the youth up any more securely than he already has. The youth’s only protection from the outside world is the speaker’s own chest. He is locked within his heart but, the speaker acknowledges this is all metaphor. He’s not really there and therefore he isn’t protected.
The youth has a certain power over the speaker that he’s able to come and go as he pleases. He may leave “at pleasure”. He worries that the youth is going to be taken from his heart and become a rich prize for some terrible thief.