‘Sonnet 61,’ also known as ‘Is it thy will thy image should keep open,’ is number sixty-one of one hundred fifty-four sonnets that Shakespeare wrote over his lifetime. It is part of the famous Fair Youth sequence of sonnets, which last from number one all the way through one hundred twenty-six. These sonnets are devoted to a young, beautiful man whose identity remains unknown to this day. The speaker is devoted to this man despite his tendency to have relationships or spend time with other people.
In the first part of this sonnet the speaker questions the Fair Youth asking him if he is keeping the speaker awake on purpose with his enticing image. The speaker states that he has been unable to sleep, or keep his heavy eyes closed because the youth is always there. After considering this for a time, the speaker realizes that it is something else entirely, his own love that’s keeping him awake.
‘Sonnet 61’ by William Shakespeare is a fourteen-line poem that is contained within one stanza, in the form that has become synonymous with the poet’s name. The English or Shakespearean sonnet (sometimes also known as the Elizabethan) 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. There is an exception in this particular poem, namely the use of “brow” and “mow” in the third quatrain. These are half-rhymes rather than full rhymes.
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 61’. These include but are not limited to alliteration, enjambment, and hyperbole. The latter is one of the most interesting techniques at play within ‘Sonnet 61’. 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 poet’s speaker exaggerates his inability to sleep, stating that the youth’s haunting presence in his mind is keeping his eyes from being able to close. At the end of the poem, he switches it up and instead suggests the love he carries for the youth is keeping his eyes from closing.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “Dost” and “desire” in line three and “doth” and “defeat” in line eleven.
Enjambment is another important technique commonly used in poetry. 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 example, the transition between lines one and two as well as between lines five and six.
Is it thy will thy image should keep open
My heavy eyelids to the weary night?
Dost thou desire my slumbers should be broken,
While shadows like to thee do mock my sight?
In the first four lines of ‘Sonnet 61,’ the speaker begins by asking the Fair Youth a rhetorical question. This is a familiar technique whiten this sonnets. Shakespeare often used questions to introduce a new topic for consideration around the youth. Alternatively they are used to emphasize something that he already knows the answer to. In this case, he asks the youth if it was his intention that his “image should keep” him awake at night. It is preventing his “heavy” or tired “eyelids” from closing in the “weary night”. This is a great example of the power that the youth has over the speaker.
He also asks the Fair Youth if he wants the speaker to wake up, when he finally does get to sleep, because of recurring images of the youth.
Is it thy spirit that thou send’st from thee
So far from home into my deeds to pry,
To find out shames and idle hours in me,
The scope and tenor of thy jealousy?
In the next four lines of ‘Sonnet 61’ the speaker asks one longer question that spans across all four lines. The speaker says the youth could be sending out his spirit at night and that that is what’s penetrating his mind so thoroughly and constantly. It appears that the speaker has something, it’s unclear what, that he’s ashamed of. There is something that he does in his “idle” hours that he thinks the youth is spying on and trying to get more information about. Or, alternatively, maybe the youth is just looking into his mind because he is jealous of any moment the speaker spend apart from him.
This is an interesting turn, especially compared to other recent sonnets. Shakespeare’s speaker often suggests that the youth is the one who is always acting out. He tends to follow his desires no matter where they go.
O no; thy love, though much, is not so great.
It is my love that keeps mine eye awake,
Mine own true love that doth my rest defeat,
To play the watchman ever for thy sake.
For thee watch I whilst thou dost wake elsewhére,
From me far off, with others all too near.
In the third and final quatrain of ‘Sonnet 61,’ the speaker turns away from this line of thought and into one that is much more familiar. He says instead that it is his love for the youth that is keeping his “eye awake”. While the speaker knows that the Fair Youth cares about him, it is not this care that’s keeping the speaker awake at night. His own “true love” is defeating his “rest”.
In the final lines of this sonnet, the speaker alludes to the youth’s tendency to stray from his side. He says that he is sitting awake thinking about the youth while he is “with others all too near”.