When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes’ by William Shakespeare is part of the “Fair Youth” sequence of poems. In these poems, the speaker expresses his love and adoration for a young man. The sequence stretches from sonnet one all the way to sonnet 129. They are the largest subsection within the 154 sonnets Shakespeare wrote during his lifetime.
The poem decides the speaker’s depression. He despairs over his state, his fate, and his difference from other luckier men. But, the second half of the poem asserts, this sadness goes away when he remembers his love. This person elevates him higher than a king.
‘When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes’ by William Shakespeare is a fourteen-line, traditional Shakespearean sonnet. The poem is structured in the form which has come to be synonymous with the poet’s name. It 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. 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 turn is followed by a summary of the speaker’s attitude. Despite his depressive moments, he would not change anything when he thinks on “thee”.
Shakespeare makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes’. These include but are not limited to, alliteration, simile, and enjambment. The first, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “all alone” in line two and “hymns” and “heaven” in line twelve.
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 example, the transition between lines eleven and twelve.
A simile is a comparison between two unlike things that uses the words “like” or “as”. A poet uses this kind of figurative language to say that one thing is similar to another, not like metaphor, that it “is” another. In the sestet Shakespeare’s speaker compares his rising mood, when he thinks about his love, to a lark taking off from the sullen earth.
When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
In the first lines of ‘When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes’ the speaker begins by describing a particular mental and emotional situation he’s often in. “When,” he says he feels disgraced in the eyes of luck or fortune and “men” he finds himself weeping over his outcast state. At these moments he feels terrible as though heaven is deaf to his plight and God is not listening to his cries. This mournful speaker curses his “fate,” whatever that may be.
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
The next quatrain continues on the same themes. He wishes, in these moments, that he was more hopeful. That he had the characteristics of those who are “more rich in hope” than he. The idealized man this speaker has in mind has a lot of friends and a “scope” that is more pleasing. He has more opportunities than the speaker does and a lot more skills. Although the speaker does not reveal in these lines what he is so upset about, it is clearly something fundamental. He feels as though he’s lacking something that other men have.
He adds at the end of this quatrain that he no longer enjoys that which he used to love the most. The man is in a deep depression.
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
(Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
In the last six lines of ‘When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes’ the speaker, unlike in most of Shakespeare’s sonnets, does not provide a solution to the problem. There does not appear to be a clear way out of this mindset, but there is a balm.
When is despairs about his own fate and life he thinks on “thee” This “thee” is the “fair youth” to whom so many of Shakespeare’s sonnets are dedicated. He thinks about this person, becomes happy, and his state is improved. He uses a similar to compare his rising spirits to a “lark at break of day arising / From sullen earth”.
The speaker as a lark leaves behind all his mundane earthly problems and is elevated to a higher plane. He feels, in these happier moments, that he is able to sing hymns at “heaven’s gate,” directly to God.
The final lines of ‘When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes’ summarize the previous twelve. They state very clearly that the fair youth’s love is the only thing that brings the speaker happiness. He feels wealthy in these moments, richer than kings. There is no one he’d rather trade places with.