Explaining Why Sonnet 30 by Shakespeare Touches the Heart

Sonnet 30 by Shakespeare cover image

The general theme of sonnets, especially Petrarchan sonnets are love, beauty, admiration, eternity, etc. But Sonnet 30 by William Shakespeare, also referred to as When to the Sessions of Sweet Silent Thought, is about a very personal, emotional, and sad theme. The poet details his encounters with grief, pain, and regret in a poetic expression. And the way Shakespeare expresses makes Sonnet 30 his most touching sonnet. 

The language of the sonnet is very formal as if written to be presented in a court. We’ll elaborate more on that in the analysis part. We’ll add a paraphrased version of Sonnet 30 using simple language yet retaining the essence of the sonnet, making it a summary. Take a look at the original sonnet:

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought

I summon up remembrance of things past,

I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,

And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:

Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,

For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,

And weep afresh love’s long since cancelled woe,

And moan the expense of many a vanished sight:

Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,

And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er

The sad account of fore-bemoanèd moan,

Which I new pay as if not paid before.

    But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,

    All losses are restored and sorrows end.

Sonnet 30: Shakespeare’s Most Touching Sonnet

When in periods of sweet, quiet thought 

I look back on my days, venture into my past

I sigh when I see I lack so many things I sought

And those old pains bring new suffering and dear time’s waste

Then my eyes are filled with tears, eyes that aren’t used

Eyes cry for the loss of a friend, lost to death

Eyes cry again remembering the pain of lost love

And I moan at the cost of many lost faces and places. 

I feel the melancholy of sufferings long gone

And from one painful memory to another, I grieve 

About the pain caused again by something I thought was lost

But I pay for those memories with tears, as I had not done that before. 

But at that moment if I think of you, my friend 

Everything that’s lost is restored, and pains come to an end.

Analysis of Sonnet 30

To condense the meaning of the sonnet into a few lines, Sonnet 30 is about remembering everything painful about one’s past and revisiting those memories to suffer again. The sonnet describes how regret and loss have the power to always bring back the same pain which they caused the first time. This is what makes this sonnet so powerful and emotional. 

The sonnet before this one, Sonnet 29 is also about pain. But that talks about the pain emanating from the current situation, which can change and disappear with the change of the current situation. But Sonnet 30 is about the deep-rooted pain, something so intrinsic that it becomes a part of us. It is about regret and loss. 

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought

I summon up remembrance of things past,

I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,

And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:

Notice the contrast between the meaning and the wording of the sonnet. Shakespeare is talking about something so emotional, so human. Yet the way he says that is so formal. Words such as Sessions, Summon, etc are legal, official terms used in courts and offices. Perhaps this is done to show that the speaker is trying to convey something serious, rather than blabbering about one’s misfortune. The language makes us take the message seriously. 

When the speaker sits alone in silence, amidst thoughts, he brings back all the memories from the past. This shows him the absence of all the things he sought, he wanted to have. And those old painful memories (since he could never have those things) bring new suffering, wasting his good time. 

Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,

For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,

And weep afresh love’s long since cancelled woe,

And moan the expense of many a vanished sight:

The second stanza starts with “Then can I” showing that now the things that were not easy to do, happen easily. His eyes that did not cry, started flowing with tears. These tears are for the loss of his friends, lost in death’s infinity.

These tears also bring back the memories of lost love. The pain that was caused by heartbreaks, which were subdued now come back with full might. All the things that he lost, all those memories have a price, and the price is the speaker’s sufferings.

Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,

And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er

The sad account of fore-bemoanèd moan,

Which I new pay as if not paid before.

In this remembrance of lost things, he can suffer for the sufferings that were long gone. It is not just the regret and loss that makes him sad, but the very feeling of sadness he had to suffer before makes him feel pain. The speaker says that he has to pay the price of these sufferings as if he had not already done that. 

    But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,

    All losses are restored and sorrows end.

The final couplet is the volta of this sonnet, where the tone and mood change. Here, the speaker brings about the importance of his friend and says that just by thinking about his friend, everything that was lost is restored and all his sufferings end. This implies that his friend is everything to him, everything he sought, everything he lost, and everything he wanted. 

While the central theme of the sonnet is still love and friendship, as seen at the end of the sonnet, the way Shakespeare approaches the theme is so refreshingly unique. He does not dwell in the praise of his friend, which would have made the sonnet very generic. But he shows how strong the presence of his friend is in his life.

Sonnet 30 by William Shakespeare
Sonnet 30 by William Shakespeare

Literary devices of the sonnet

Rhyme scheme: The sonnet has the typical Shakespearean sonnet rhyming scheme of ABAB BCBC CDCD EE. The sonnet is made of three quatrains and a couplet. The meter of this sonnet is iambic pentameter and each line has ten syllables. 

Alliteration: Some examples of alliteration in this sonnet are: 

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought

And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:

For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,

And weep afresh love’s long since cancelled woe,

Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,

And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er

But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,

Metaphors: Here are some examples of metaphors used:

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought

I summon up remembrance of things past,

Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,

hid in death’s dateless night,

And weep afresh love’s long since cancelled woe,

Which I new pay as if not paid before.

Assonance: Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds in consecutive or nearby words. Here are some examples:

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought

I summon up remembrance of things past,

And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:

And weep afresh love’s long since cancelled woe,

Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,

And heavily from woe to woe tell o‘er

The sad account of fore-bemoanèd moan,

Which I new pay as if not paid before.

This concludes the article. But why must the reading stop? Here are some more articles on Shakespeare’s works that you should read:

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