Sonnet 52

Shakespeare Sonnet 52

SO am I as the rich whoſe bleſſed key,
Can bring him to his ſweet vp-locked treaſure,
The which he will not eu’ry hower ſuruay,
For blunting the fine point of ſeldome pleaſure.
Therefore are feaſts ſo ſollemne and ſo rare,
Since ſildom comming in the long yeare ſet,
Like ſtones of worth they thinly placed are,
Or captaine Iewells in the carconet.
So is the time that keepes you as my cheſt,
Or as the ward-robe which the robe doth hide,
To make ſome ſpeciall inſtant ſpeciall bleſt,
By new vnfoulding his impriſon’d pride.
Bleſſed are you whoſe worthineſſe gives skope,
Being had to tryumph, being lackt to hope.

The positioning of Sonnet 52 is appropriate. Its liturgical metaphor of “feasts so sollemne and so rare” refers to those infrequent feasts, which are classified as double or solemn feasts and which are distinguished from simple feasts. The Book of Common Prayer, in which the number of pre-reformation solemn feasts had been reduced, continued to record in its calendar as the first tier of solemn feasts, “All Sundayes in the yeare,” of which there are 52, the dominical number.

Sonnet 52 takes up the lock and key conceit found in Sonnet 48, but to different purpose. Such a man is the poet (“So am I”) that he can compare himself to a “rich” man, who can approach with “blessed key” his locked-up treasure, but who, unlike the miser, refuses to look upon it hourly (“suruay” from super + videre = to look upon), for, otherwise, the pleasure he might take would be blunted through familiarity. Shakespeare for the moral has drawn on a family of proverbs, for example, Culmann’s, “More rare vse (sidenote: “A more seldom vse”) doth commend pleasures,” a rendering of “Voluptates commendat rarior usus.” 1 The quatrain can also be read suggestively, the poet possessing the “key” to the youth’s “sweet vp-locked treasure” which he will use only infrequently lest his “point” or ‘prick’ become blunted. (For the bawdy use of the ‘prick’ or ‘point of addition’ see Sonnet 20, where it is to be used for a woman’s “treasure” and compare Cym. 2.2.41-2, “I haue pick’d the lock, and t’ane / The treasure of her Honour” with its allusion to the Song of Solomon’s spouse as “a garden well locked” [4.12; BB].) The refusal of the rich man to look on his treasure “eu’ry hower” begins a series of temporal allusions: “point,” “yeare,” “time,” “instant.” The “fine point of seldome pleasure,” is the sharp edge of infrequent pleasure or the very instant of pleasure as in ‘the point of death.’ The point of an instrument, whether a quill or stylus, also becomes blunt through use, as does a diamond when engraving, thus anticipating the coming image of jewels. 2

Occasions of pleasure should be like solemn feasts that occur infrequently but regularly through the year (solemn is from solus = whole + annus = year): “sildom coming in the long year set.” To “set” was a liturgical term meaning to appoint a feast to be observed, while an allusion to jewels that are “set” in a necklace is also present. The regularity but rarity of such feasts is illustrated by the metaphor of “stones of worth” that are “thinly placed” or of “captaine Iewells,” principal or chief jewels (from caput = head or chief), that can be found in a “carconet,” a necklace or headband with jewellery inset.

Such is the nature of the occasions (“So is the time”), rare but precious, that keeps the young man as a treasure in the poet’s “chest,” a coffer where valuables are kept and visited seldom, but with a hint of the poet’s breast, in which the youth is kept. A “ward-robe” was a small space, often curtained off from a bedroom, where armour or valuables were stored and guarded (“ward” recalls the wards of a key in Sonnet 48; a wardrobe as a piece of furniture is of 18th century origin, although a “chest” in Shakespeare’s day could be like a modern wardrobe). The poet sees the youth as a treasure hidden behind the robe which, being newly folded back (“new vnfoulding”), makes a special moment (“speciall instant”) especially (“speciall,” an adverb) blessed by revealing the splendour enclosed within it (“imprison’d pride”).

The couplet recasts the earlier “blessed key” and “blest” in the image of the “Blessed” of the Beatitudes, “Blessed are ye . . .” The youth is blessed because his preciousness or his station in life (“worthinesse”) allows him to be looked upon or desired (“giues skope”) or he is blessed because his worthiness gives freedom (“skope”). The final line, “Being had to tryumph, being lackt to hope” is concise to the point of speculation: ‘the scope to triumph when you are being possessed and the hope of being possessed when you are absent;’ or “to tryumph” and “to hope” are datives of purpose: ‘being possessed for the purpose of triumph, being absent for the purpose of hope.’


52.1. Culmann, Sententiae (1612) 19; cf. Sententiae Pueriles pro primis Latinae Linguae tyronibus, ex diversis Scriptoribus collectae (London: Eliz[abeth] P[urslowe], 1639) 17; cf. Morris Palmer Tilley, A Dictionary of the Proverbs in England in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1950) P417.

52.2. Compare Jer. 17.1 (GV), “written . . with the poynt of a diamonde, and grauen vpon the table of their heart.”