VVHen in diſgrace with Fortune and mens eyes,
I all alone beweepe my out-caſt ſtate,
And trouble deafe heauen with my bootleſſe cries,
And looke vpon my ſelfe and curſe my fate.
Wiſhing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featur’d like him, like him with friends poſſeſt,
Deſiring this mans art, and that mans skope,
With what I moſt inioy contented leaſt,
Yet in theſe thoughts my ſelfe almoſt deſpiſing,
Haplye I thinke on thee, and then my ſtate,
(Like to the Larke at breake of daye ariſing)
From ſullen earth ſings himns at Heauens gate,
For thy ſweet loue remembred ſuch welth brings,
That then I skorne to change my ſtate with Kings.
The sonnet opens with imagery evocative of the fall from grace of Adam and Eve. As a result God “cast out man” (Gen. 3.27; GV) from the garden. Adam earlier had been found “alone;” later both were “cursed” as the earth from which Adam came was cursed (“cursed is the earth for thy sake” [Gen. 3.17; GV]) and in “disgrace.” Beyond the biblical context “in disgrace” means ‘out of favour’ with “Fortune,” both with fate and with ‘wealth’ (taken up later in “rich” and “welth”). Being “in disgrace” in “mens eyes” suggests disfavour and ostracism. Solitarily (“all alone”) the poet becomes introspective and prey to self-pity: he will “beweepe my out-cast state,” his being excluded from grace. He will “trouble deafe heauen,” ‘bother’ or ‘importune’ heaven, which refuses to listen to his “bootless cries,” futile cries which gain no recompense. To “looke vpon my selfe” continues the gaze imagery, “eyes,” “looke,” “scope” (from σκοπεω = look), “despising” (from de + spicere, look down on). Being “out-cast” he will “curse” his lot. Consequently the poet envies another whose prospects might be brighter (“more rich in hope”); he wishes to be “featured like him,” either ‘fashioned like him’ or ‘having characteristics like him’ or ‘being comely like him.’ The balanced anadiplosis, “like him, like him” could be two different ‘hims’ or a single ‘him’ that are/is possessed of friends. The “art” desired is skill and intelligence hinting at poetic ability; the “scope” is the way another looks on things or the range of his abilities. Finally and melancholically anything in which the poet once took pleasure is now the least satisfactory: “With what I most inioy contented least.”
“Yet” in these desultory and secluded moments, “my selfe almost despising,” the poet’s thoughts fall on the beloved by chance (“Haplye” or ‘happily’ through assonance). Then his cast down “state,” “(Like to the Larke at breake of daye arising) / From sullen earth sings himns at Heauens gate.” The phrase is a favourite of Shakespeare, compare “Hearke, hearke, the Larke at Heauens gate sings, / and Phoebus gins arise” (Cym. 2.3.20-1). The lines are grammatically imprecise: “at breake of daye arising” can qualify either “Larke” or the poet’s “state” (which would require a comma after “Larke”); “sullen” (or ‘solein’) originally meant “all alone” (from solus = alone), thus both poet’s state and the earth are solitary and fallen. But “sullen” also means ‘gloomy’ as well as ‘silent’ or ‘morose,’ from which state the poet’s song springs forth like the lark rising to sing from the dewy earth, as yet undried from night-time moisture. Likewise the poet’s state will rise “from sullen earth,” the earth of which he is made, to which he will return, and which is “cursed for thy sake.” Thus “sullen earth” becomes a metonym for the fallen state, from whose depths the poet rises to sing “himns at Heauens gate.” Solitariness and melancholy are overcome by remembrance of the youth’s “sweet loue,” which brings such reward (“wealth”) that the poet, no longer “despising” himself, disdains (“skorne”) to change his state with kings, who bestow grace and fortune.