‘Sonnet 51,’ also known as ‘Thus can my love excuse the slow offense,’ is number fifty-one 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 about and directed to a young, beautiful man about whom the speaker cares deeply. In this poem, Shakespeare explores themes of separation, longing, and desire. This sonnet comes directly after ‘Sonnet 50’ in which the speaker discussed a journey he was undertaking. It provides the reader with more information about his emotional state.
In these lines the speaker moves away from talking about the journey and the destination and starts thinking about the return. He knows that when he is ready to come back to the youth that the slow horse he’s on now will be unbearable. His slowness will have no excuse as it does now. The speaker declares that he would be unsatisfied with any horse’s speed in the future. He thinks he’ll probably just have to run back home instead.
‘Sonnet 51’ 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 51’. These include but are not limited to alliteration, allusion, and hyperbole. The latter is one of the most obvious techniques as the speaker exaggerates his perception of speed and desire. 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. The best examples are in the last quatrain of this poem.
An allusion is an expression that’s meant to call something specific to mind without directly stating it. In this poem, Shakespeare is alluding to the deeper and emotionally complicated relationship that he, or his speaker, shares with the Fair Youth. Additionally, through similar language and subject matter, he is directly alluding to ‘Sonnet 50’.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “wind” and “wingèd” in lines seven and eight and “pace” and “perfect’st” in lines nine and ten.
Thus can my love excuse the slow offense
Of my dull bearer, when from thee I speed:
From where thou art, why should I haste me thence?
Till I return, of posting is no need.
In the first lines of ‘Sonnet 51,’ the speaker picks up where he left off in ‘Sonnet 50’. In the previous lines he had been speaking about the depression he’s sure to experience when he finally reaches his destination at the end of a journey. This journey is taking him away from the Fair Youth, the young man that he loves. He also spoke in the previous stanza about his horse and its ability to intuit his sorrow and choice to walk as slowly as possible.
Following up on this, the speaker adds that his love for “thee,” the Fair Youth, is the reason that his horse is walking so slow. His “dull bearer” as a reason for his slow progress. He asks himself in the next lines a rhetorical question, what would be the use in walking quickly? That would just take him away from the youth faster. He’s not going to rush until he’s on the way back he declares in the fourth line.
O what excuse will my poor beast then find,
When swift extremity can seem but slow?
Then should I spur, though mounted on the wind;
In wingèd speed no motion shall I know:
In the second quatrain of ‘Sonnet 51,’ the speaker asks another rhetorical question. He brings the poem back around to his “poor beast,” the horse, once more. If the horse is still slow, which he is sure to be, what excuse will he have? The speaker knows that when he’s on the way back even the fastest horse it won’t be fast enough. He’d “spur” any horse, even one moving as quickly as the wind. The speaker would not be satisfied even if the horse had wings to travel at high speed. It would be like he was standing still, nothing would ever be fast enough.
Then can no horse with my desire keep pace;
Therefore desire, of perfect’st love being made,
Shall neigh no dull flesh in his fiery race,
But love, for love, thus shall excuse my jade:
Since from thee going he went wilful slow,
Towards thee I’ll run, and give him leave to go.
In the next four lines of ‘Sonnet 51,’ the speaker says that there is “no horse” that could match “my desire”. All horses are too slow for the speaker’s future longing for speed. The speaker describes his desire in the following lines as racing a “fiery race” to the youth. His lust/love/desire is perfect and powerful. It will take him to the youth’s side as if he’s riding on a horse made of fire rather than one made of “dull flesh”.
The speaker decides in the last lines that he isn’t going to blame his horse for the speed he’s traveling at. He’s thankful for its slowness on the journey out and on the way back he’s just going to have to run instead and leave the horse behind.