The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,
Enjoy’d no sooner but despised straight,
Past reason hunted, and no sooner had
Past reason hated, as a swallow’d bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad;
Mad in pursuit and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.
All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.
This complex poem grapples with the idea of sexual desire as it exists in longing, fulfillment, and memory. (That is to say, it deals with lust as a longing for future pleasure; with lust as it is consummated in the present; and with lust as it is remembered after the pleasurable experience, when it becomes a source of shame.) At the beginning of the poem, the speaker says that “lust in action”—that is, as it exists at the consummation of the sexual act—is an “expense of spirit in a waste of shame.” He then devotes the rest of the first quatrain to characterizing lust as it exists “till action”—that is, before the consummation: it is “perjured, murd’rous, bloody, full of blame / Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust.”
In the second quatrain, the speaker jumps between longing, fulfillment, and memory. No sooner is lust “enjoyed” than it is “despised.” When lust is longing, the fulfillment of that longing is hunted “past reason”; but as soon as it is achieved, it becomes shameful, and is hated “past reason.” In the third quatrain, then, the speaker says that lust is mad in all three of its forms: in pursuit and possession, it is mad, and in memory, consummation, and longing (“had, having, and in quest to have”) it is “extreme.” While it is experienced it might be “a bliss in proof,” but as soon as it is finished (“proved”) it becomes “a very woe.” In longing, it is “a joy proposed,” but in memory, the pleasure it afforded is merely “a dream.” In the couplet, the speaker says that the whole world knows these things well; but nevertheless, none knows how to shun lust in order to avoid shame: “To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.”Read a translation of Sonnet 129 →
The situation of the speaker of this poem is that of a person who has experienced each stage of lust, and who is therefore able to articulate the shame he now feels with reference to his past desire and its consummation. Though the lust of this poem is not explicitly sexual, it is described in highly carnal language—bloody, full of blame, savage, rude, swallowed bait. The most important device of this poem is its rapid oscillation between tenses and times; it jumps between the stages of lust almost uncontrollably, and in so doing creates a composite picture of its subject from all sides—each tinged by the shameful “hell” the speaker now occupies.
Another important device, and a rare one in the sonnets, is the poem’s impersonal tone. The speaker never says outright that he is writing about his own experience; instead, he presents the poem as an impersonal description, a catalogue of the kinds of experience offered by lust. But the ferocity of his description belies his real, expressive purpose, which is to rue his own recent surrender to lustful desire. (The impersonal tone is exceedingly rare in the sonnets, and is invoked only when the speaker seeks most defensively to deflect his words away from himself—as in Sonnet 94, where his tone of impersonal description covers a deep-seated vulnerability.)
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