‘Sonnet 50,’ also known as ‘How heavy do I journey on the way’ is number fifty of one hundred fifty-four sonnets that Shakespeare wrote over his lifetime. It is part of the prolonged Fair Youth sequence of sonnets, which last from number one all the way through one hundred twenty-six.
These are all dedicated to, or directed at, a young, beautiful man about whom the speaker cares deeply. In this poem, Shakespeare explores themes of separation, loneliness, and depression. This particular poem is one of the darker sonnets in this series. There is nothing of the celebratory love and shining beauty that marks other sonnets in the series.
In the first lines of ‘Sonnet 50’ the speaker describes how he’s on a journey, one that he doesn’t want to finish. He realizes that at the end, when he gets to his destination, that all he’s going to have to do is dwell on his separation from the youth. His emotions are strong, so strong that the horse that carries him seems to realize that this is the case. The horse walks slowly, unwilling to be quickened by the spurs that the speaker uses in his hide.
‘Sonnet 50’ 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 50’. These include but are not limited to alliteration, enjambment, and imagery. The latter, imagery, refers to the elements of a poem that engage a reader’s senses. Traditionally, the word “image” is related to visual sights, things that a reader can imagine seeing, but imagery is much more than that. It is something one can sense with their five senses. In this particular poem, through the repetition of words related to physical and mental exhaustion, especially as they relate to the horse, the poet creates a very clear image.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “miles” and “measured” in line four and “beast” and “bear” in line five.
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. In this case, a reader can look to the transitions between lines one and two as well as that between lines nine and ten for examples.
How heavy do I journey on the way
When what I seek (my weary travel’s end)
Doth teach that ease and that repose to say,
“Thus far the miles are measured from thy friend.”
In the first four lines of ‘Sonnet 50,’ the speaker begins by describing a journey and his fears for his arrival. The speaker knows that once he gets to where he’s going and his weary travel is at an end he’ll have plenty of time to think. This time to think is going to result in his consideration of the distance between himself and his “friend,” the Fair Youth. The newfound leisure will provide him with plenty of time to dwell on this person. In the last line of this quatrain, the speaker puts his words into quotes. This is meant to signal to the reader that he’s going to be thinking this exact phrase.
The beast that bears me, tired with my woe,
Plods dully on to bear that weight in me,
As if by some instinct the wretch did know
His rider loved not speed, being made from thee.
In the second quatrain of ‘Sonnet 50,’ he takes the reader into the present where he is slowly moving forward on his horse. The “beast that bears” him seems to be well aware of the speaker’s depression. It too is “tired with…woe”. The poet is transmuting this speaker’s experiences into another creature, imagining that all the world is reacting to his emotional state. The “weight” in the speaker’s mind and heart is the main source of weight that the “beast” has to bear.
Somehow, he asserts the “wretch,” the horse, knows that his “rider” does not love speed. The horse knows that the speaker doesn’t really want to be making this journey where he moves farther and farther away from the youth.
The bloody spur cannot provoke him on
That sometimes anger thrusts into his hide,
Which heavily he answers with a groan,
More sharp to me than spurring to his side;
For that same groan doth put this in my mind:
My grief lies onward and my joy behind.
In the fourth and final quatrain the speaker adds sometimes, despite his own reticence to get where he’s going, he still tries to force the horse to go faster. He attempts to provoke him into a faster pace. This is done by “thrusting” the spur into “his hide,” or the side of his body. He always “answers with a groan” when this occurs but never picks up his pace. The “groan” hurts the speaker, he asserts, more than the spur hurts the horse. The reasoning behind this is set out in the last two lines which form a couplet. They state that this is because the groan reminds him of the grief that “lies onward” and the “joy behind”. He feels is own sorrow in the horse’s pain.