Sonnet 30

Shakespeare Sonnet 30

VVHen to the Seſſions of ſweet ſilent thought,
I ſommon vp remembrance of things paſt,
I ſigh the lacke of many a thing I ſought,
And with old woes new waile my deare times waſte:
Then can I drowne an eye (vn-vſ’d to flow)
For precious friends hid in deaths dateles night,
And weepe a freſh loues long ſince canceld woe,
And mone th’expence of many a vanniſht ſight.
Then can I greeue at greeuances fore-gon,
And heauily from woe to woe tell ore
The ſad account of fore-bemoned mone,
Which I new pay as if not payd before.
But if the while I thinke on thee (deare friend)
All loſſes are reſtord, and ſorrowes end.

Sonnet 30 is an exercise in the classical rhetorical figure, recordatio or ‘remembrance,’ defined by Cicero as ‘remembrance of past memory’ (“recordatio praeteritae memoriae”). 1 Henry Peacham in his Garden of Eloquence describes the figure as

a forme of speech by which the Speaker calling to remembrance matters past, doth make recitall of them. . . The use of this figure serueth in sted of a necessarie memorial of time past, whereby we are put in mind what we haue beene, what we haue done, what we haue heard or seene, what we haue suffred, what we haue receiued, and so to compare it with the time present for the profite of our selues and our hearers. 2

The sonnet continues the reverie of Sonnet 29, as the poet’s exercise in memory is given a juridical and accountancy framing: “When to the Sessions of sweet silent thought, / I sommon vp . .” “Sessions” were legal sittings (from sedere = to sit) for the transaction of business or the settling of accounts. In the sonnet’s case the sitting is held in the presence of or in a court presided over by “sweet silent thought.” To “sommon” was to call to court to answer charges or for a determination, but this sense of ‘summon’ is immediately modified by the preposition, “vp.” The poet is calling up something from his memory, as if from a place or room, here the setting of a court. The practice was a feature of “the arte of remembrance,” which is worked more exactly as the conceit of Sonnets 77 and 122. Rhetoricians like Wilson gave detailed advice on how to use as an associative mnemonic a memory place (“locum”) or room, often a theatre or court, from which stored remembrances were recalled:

When wee come to a place where we haue not bene many a day before, wee remember not onely the place it selfe, but by the place, wee call to remembraunce many thinges done there. 3

That which is summoned up is the “remembrance of things past,” a biblical phrase either from the apocryphal Book of Wisdom where the grief of the Israelites’ enemies “was double with mourning, & the remembrance of things past” (Wisd. 11.10; GV), or from Ecclesiastes which argues that the new is merely the old and that past things are beyond remembrance:

The eye is not satisfied with sight, the eare is not fylled with hearyng. The thyng that hath ben, commeth to passe agayne, and the thyng that hath ben done, shalbe done agayne . . The thyng that is past is out of remembraunce . . And [I] dyd applie my mynde to seke out & searche for knowledge of all thynges that are done vnder heauen. (Eccles. 1.8-13 passim; BB)

In the sonnet “remembrance” is the defendant being examined: the poet laments (“sighs”) the “lack” of things for which he once “sought.” The oratorical devices that constitute his pleading, alliteration, paradox, contrast and ambiguity, pile up in, “And with old woes new waile my deare times waste,” the line’s meaning partly depending on where the voice pauses, before or after “new.” The most solid readings are: ‘I newly bewail with old expressions of woe either the waste of time that is dear or the waste of things caused by dear time’ (“deare” is either costly or precious), or ‘I waste away my dear time or things dear with old woes newly wailed.’ At the summons “Then can I drowne an eye,” an oratorical homonym and periphrasis for ‘weep,” although it is an eye unaccustomed to weeping. The poet’s grieving is for absent but “precious friends,” now hidden in the interminable darkness of death (“dateles” is without term or closure).

The poet, in an act of accounting, can “weepe a fresh loues long since canceld woe;” he can lament anew (“a fresh”) the woe caused by love but long ago balanced out (“canceld” derives from cancelli, a cross-worked lattice, whose decussated X shape was used by jurists to score out debts; the figure is reflected by Shakespeare in the repeated chiastic or rhetorical X structures of the sestet’s lines). Likewise the poet can bemoan (“mone”) the cost of “many a vannisht sight,” where “sight” can be what was once seen or an archaic spelling of “sigh.”

The sestet is marked by polyptota (“greeue” and “greeuances,” “fore-bemoned” and “mone,” “pay” and “payd”). Having summoned remembrances (“Then”), the poet can grieve again at grievances, legal injuries or complaints, which are “fore-gon,” either ‘foregone’ (of an earlier date) or ‘forgone’ (for which payment has been forgiven). As each “woe” comes to mind, with heavy heart (“heauily”) he can “tell ore,” both ‘count’ or ‘rehearse’ to himself, the “sad account” of a moan earlier uttered and lamented (“fore-bemoned mone”). The moan extracts from him a new requital (“new pay”), as if it had gone unpaid in the past.

The couplet, however, breaks the poet’s impasse and self-absorption by focussing on the external (“deare friend,” the first occasion in the sequence that “friend” is used of the youth). If now he should, even for a moment (“the while;” ‘alas the while’ was often used in exclamations of grief), think of the friend, then it would “profite” the poet (see Peacham above) by bringing about complete restitution (“All losses are restord”) and the “end” of sorrows. The “friend,” in contrast to the “dateles” death of former “precious friends,” would be alive to the poet and sorrow allowed an “end” or ‘date.’

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30.1. Cicero, Epistulae ad Quintum Fratrem 2.2.1; cf. De Oratore 1.2.4, “recordatio veteris memoriae.”

30.2. Henry Peacham, The Garden of Eloquence, conteining the Most Excellent Ornaments, Exornations, Lightes, flowers, and formes of speech, commonly called the Figures of Rhetorike (London: Richard Field, 1593) 76.

30.3. Wilson 219.

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