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Shakespeare Sonnet 50: "How heavy do I journey on the way"

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

 Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford - the real "Shakespeare"

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford - the real "Shakespeare"

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 50: "How heavy do I journey on the way"

In sonnet 50 from the classic Shakespeare 154-sonnet sequence, the speaker is bemoaning the struggle between body and soul—a battle in which every human being must engage. Even the artist's creations cannot alleviate the suffering that dualism causes. The trials and tribulations that result on the physical, material plane of being will continue to engender woe in many circumstances.

The speaker speculates as he attempts to look ahead to the end of his current incarnation. He tries to console himself, but the beast of burden becomes strong, and he remains in a funk as he allows himself the luxury of mourning his state of being. Physical pain can cause utter depression, and mental pain then must become the spur to gouge out that pain through creative endeavors.

This speaker is usually able to overcome all sorrow as he contemplates his unique talent, but there are times when nothing avails to drive away the trammels of biology and its relationship to metaphysics. Mental equanimity is always in danger after such times descend upon the individual. It is then that soul power alone can dislodge the pain and suffering from physical and mental sorrows.

Sonnet 50: "How heavy do I journey on the way"

How heavy do I journey on the way
When what I seek, my weary travel’s end,
Doth teach that ease and that repose to say,
‘Thus far the miles are measur’d from thy friend!’
The beast that bears me, tired with my woe,
Plods dully on, to bear that weight in me,
As if by some instinct the wretch did know
His rider lov’d not speed, being made from thee:
The bloody spur cannot provoke him on
That sometimes anger thrusts into his hide,
Which heavily he answers with a groan
More sharp to me than spurring to his side;
For that same groan doth put this in my mind:
My grief lies onward, and my joy behind.

Reading of Sonnet 50

Commentary

The speaker is grieving as bemoans having been caught in the battle between body and soul—the painful results of dualism that, it seems, even his art cannot assuage in such times of tribulation and woe.

First Quatrain: Addressing the Soul

How heavy do I journey on the way
When what I seek, my weary travel’s end,
Doth teach that ease and that repose to say,
‘Thus far the miles are measur’d from thy friend!’

The speaker is addressing his own soul through his creativity. He reports that as he travels through his life the burden of merely living causes him great consternation. The speaker speculates about what might meet him at the end of his life's journey. He fears that instead of "repose" and "ease," he might experience nothing but a giant nihilistic nothingness.

However, the speaker knows he must continue the journey, regardless of how far from his vaunted expectations the miles may lead him. All of the speaker's activities have become life habits, which he speculates that he will perceive to have receded as he ages into decrepitude. He labels the journey "heavy" because peering into the future brings doubt and worry.

Second Quatrain: A Metaphoric Animal

The beast that bears me, tired with my woe,
Plods dully on, to bear that weight in me,
As if by some instinct the wretch did know
His rider lov’d not speed, being made from thee:

The speaker then metaphorically likens his physical body to a draft animal, "the beast that bears me." The body "plods dully on," afflicted by the burdensome weight of his talent. The "wretch" or his animal-like body seems to intuit that the soul is not interested in speed, but in celestial food gathered in part through the act of creativity. Yet the body and soul contrast even as they attempt to work together. The artist/poet must still acknowledge that his body, or animal, carries that burden that results from the soul’s duty to itself.

While the body becomes "tired with [ ] woe," the soul spurs it on, and the individual who is the result of this composite of soul and body must balance the weight of each: the physical weight that weakens and ages and the spiritual weight (more accurately "presence") that does neither. The speaker/poet realizes that he is "made from thee," as he addresses the soul, or the creator of his art.

Third Quatrain: Angry Off Balance

The bloody spur cannot provoke him on
That sometimes anger thrusts into his hide,
Which heavily he answers with a groan
More sharp to me than spurring to his side;

In the third quatrain, the speaker recognizes his emotional self that becomes angry when he finds himself thrown off balance in his attempt to appease body and soul. The "bloody spur" that attempts to prod the body may cause a "groan," but it is impotent in spurring on the soul. The speaker suffers more mentally than physically when his talent is under attack from worries and woes.

This speaker lives more by mental power than physical prowess, despite all of the physical encounters he has experienced. The battle with sonnet composition remains as great as any fighting he may have had with physical enemies. He has educated himself through his experience as well as through books and learning, and intuitively, he knows there is a vast difference of degree but not kind between physical and soul power.

The Couplet: Physical vs Spiritual Reality

For that same groan doth put this in my mind:
My grief lies onward, and my joy behind.

The "groan" that transpires from the soul’s spurring on the body motivates the speaker/poet to think that his past has been more joyful than his future. The speaker falls into the funk of distorted reality, when too much identification with physical reality overtakes the ultimate authenticity of spiritual reality.

Ending on such a bitter note simply means that there is, in fact, no end, but that this sonnet will require correction in some further piece. Therefore, this sonnet becomes the origin of a sub-sequence, which remains a natural occurrence in any sonnet sequence. As the poet continues the sequence, he always finds that one sonnet will not allow the completion of some thoughts, whose resolution must then stretch out over two or more pieces.

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

The De Vere Society

The De Vere Society

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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