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Shakespeare Sonnet 49: "Against that time, if ever that time come"

The Shakespeare sonnets play an essential rôle in my poetry world. Those 154 classic sonnets masterfully dramatize truth, beauty, and love.

First Edition of Shakespeare Sonnets

First Edition of Shakespeare Sonnets

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 49: "Against that time, if ever that time come"

Sonnet 49, from the classic Shakespeare 154-sonnet sequence, begins to play out with the structure of the phrase, "Against that time"; he means he will guard against the time when certain events may occur. The first and second quatrains reveal the events, while the third, along with the couplet, reveals what the poet intends to do about the results of those events.

The speaker is addressing his muse in sonnet 49, and he is aware and somewhat fearful that at any time, and especially likely in future, his muse might abandon him. Thus, he fears losing inspiration for creating his little dramas. But this perceptive speaker always remains observant and is capable of detecting any change in circumstances, and he, therefore, lets his muse know that he is equal to the task of carrying on without the muse's promptings. His confidence may be tested, but his insistence surely gives him comfort as he progresses through his duty to his work.

Shakespeare Sonnet 49: "Against that time, if ever that time come"

Against that time, if ever that time come
When I shall see thee frown on my defects,
When as thy love hath cast his utmost sum,
Call’d to that audit by advis’d respects;
Against that time when thou shalt strangely pass,
And scarcely greet me with that sun, thine eye,
When love, converted from the thing it was,
Shall reasons find of settled gravity;
Against that time do I ensconce me here
Within the knowledge of mine own desert,
And this my hand against myself uprear,
To guard the lawful reasons on thy part:
To leave poor me thou hast the strength of laws,
Since why to love I can allege no cause.

Reading of Sonnet 49

Commentary

As this talented speaker addresses his muse, he convinces his own will that he is dedicated to securing his inspiration despite any hiatus taken in future by his muse.

First Quatrain: Hesitation Before Prediction

Against that time, if ever that time come
When I shall see thee frown on my defects,
When as thy love hath cast his utmost sum,
Call’d to that audit by advis’d respects;

In the first quatrain, the speaker hesitates by adding, "if ever that time come," because he does not want to predict that such losses will definitely occur. He is covering himself, as he muses on the possibility that if certain unpleasant events occur, he will be prepared, and, of course, if they do not occur, he has lost nothing by being prepared.

But if that undesirable time comes to pass, it will be that his muse looks on him with a "frown" instead of the smile to which the poet/speaker has grown accustomed. When or if the muse is summoned by fate to behave in those uncertain and unwelcome ways and the muse is no longer bestowing on him the affection—and attention—he desires, the speaker will remain awake to the notion that he has been abandoned.

Second Quatrain: Hypothetically, Without Inspiration

Against that time when thou shalt strangely pass,
And scarcely greet me with that sun, thine eye,
When love, converted from the thing it was,
Shall reasons find of settled gravity;

That future accursed time would reveal itself if the muse would seem to be passing the speaker by without even nod for greeting, as the poet makes every attempt to continue composing his creations, his sonnets. Instead of the bright clarity that he usually envisions as he composes, he would feel a heavy darkness ascend upon his mind and heart, obstructing his vision for creativity. The former love that the muse had been bestowing would have changed utterly into a thing that he could scarcely recognize, no longer offering him the inspiration and guidance that he has formerly so easily enjoyed.

The speaker is still deeply musing, cogitating over possibilities as he goes on verbalizing hypothetically, and also he is holding in abeyance his plan to overcome the possible negativity that might be in store with the loss of his muse’s affection. This speaker feels that timing in thought and deed as they relate to art is vitally important; he knows that if he accepts some first notion without due diligence of cogitating, he might be accepting a path that leads down to perdition or even just coagulated confusion. Thus, he has the foresight to infuse just the right phrase to place his conclusions in the proper timeframe.

Third Quatrain: Intention Combating Dryness

Against that time do I ensconce me here
Within the knowledge of mine own desert,
And this my hand against myself uprear,
To guard the lawful reasons on thy part:

The third quatrain reveals the speaker’s intention to remain "ensconc[ed]" in what he knows so well within his own mind, heart, and soul. Even if his own inner environment may remain dry and barren, this high thinking speaker is confident that his own soul remains superior to all the laws or reasons that anything outside himself could perpetrate upon him, including the subtle separateness from his own muse.

The speaker does not delude himself that it is anyone other than his own self who perpetrates this rift between his soul and his muse. His ability to create this tension while questioning it and then ultimately solving the problem that the split causes is just another piece of evidence that this speaker will always remain the consummate craftsman.

The Couplet: The Poet Keeps the Upper Hand

To leave poor me thou hast the strength of laws,
Since why to love I can allege no cause.

The poet/speaker acknowledges that the muse has "the strength of laws" to "leave [him] poor," that is, without the inspiration to continue his craft, but the poet/speaker still has the upper hand because he has not designated reasons or causes for his love. The speaker understands that remaining causeless, he (including his talent and poetic affinity) cannot be contained nor denied.

Muse vs Soul

In several earlier sonnets, the speaker has been exploring the delicate divergence of his muse from his soul, and in this one, he has continued with a slight variation on that theme. One might successfully argue that the entire sequence of sonnets addresses the issue of the classic struggle between mind and soul, or more colorfully between muse and soul.

The speaker’s purpose remains foremost to create colorful, yet profound, pieces of sonnet drama. He has no set notion about how many sonnets he will need, but he does intuit that the number must be substantial. With such a goal in mind, he knows he will always need a specific theme and subject for each sonnet.

With plays, that issue takes care of itself through characters and conflicts, but with poems, characters do not fret and strut upon a stage in the same sense as they do in plays. Therefore, the speaker becomes the main character, who explores, examines, muses on, and then judges his own being. By splitting his character into muse, soul, heart, mind, and even physical encasement, he makes for himself a veritable treasure trove of characters to employ to keep his sonnets colorful and profound.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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