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The use of imagery, versification, sound patterning, and sound effects in Shakespeare’s sonnet 33

The significant paper for English 549, also, in this case, many lines written about only 14...

Added by colin #442 on 2004-06-16. Last modified 2004-08-30 02:14. Originally created 2004-06-16. F0 License: Attribution
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: engl549

The use of imagery, versification, sound patterning, and sound effects in Shakespeare’s sonnet 33

Shakespeare’s sonnet 33 may represent Shakespeare’s feelings after being treated inconsiderately in a love relationship. The artful construction of the sonnet can be seen in how the sonnet’s plot, imagery, structure, metrical variation, and word choice interact to create a densely meaningful 14 lines. I will look at how sound patterning relates to and elaborates the sonnet’s imagery, how the emotional tone of poem varies as the sonnet proceeds, and at some particular imagery that broadens the meaning of the final couplet. These elements contribute to sonnet 33’s embodiment of the mix of joy and sorrow often involved in loving.

How sound patterning relates to and elaborates imagery

The main thoughts of the sonnet are organized into three quatrains followed by a couplet. The rhyme scheme is abab, cdcd, efef, gg. The meter is iambic pentameter, with the final couplet having feminine endings. I will look at the imagery and sound effects in each section in turn. Imagery in poems as opposed to technical documents is ultimately emotional imagery. This sonnet is a sort of travelog of emotion.

The first quatrain is notable in that only the first line is regular iambic meter, and that line could be read as starting with a spondee followed by two anapests. I prefer reading a 10-syllable first line starting with a spondee and ending with a caesura as in the 1609 quarto version[1]. This produces a thoughtful, drawling effect, and sets the first line distinctly apart from the following three. It is like a sigh. The trochaic inversion in the first foot of the second, third, and fourth lines helps to unify those lines and to establish a faster tempo, while the caesura at the end of the third line, the spondee in the second foot of the fourth line, “pale streams,” and the mouthy, rhyming final two words of the quatrain, “heavenly alchemy,” slow the flow of the sonnet to a meander in time for the end of the first quatrain. “Heavenly alchemy” seems to echo the smooth sound of “gloryous morning” in line one.

The sound patterning of the first quatrain is suggestive of a stream running down a mountain. The stream falls from the steep slopes, pausing temporarily in high meadows, before slowing to a relaxing flow in bottomland valleys. In particular, the staccato of “flatter the mountain tops” suggests a small waterfall, and “pale streams” suggests a dam that the sonnet’s rhythm slowly overflows to end the quatrain. The path and pace of the stream I visualize would be similar to those of the sun’s rays in a mountain sunrise: beginning with the sun’s rays striking the mountaintop in the first two lines, brightening the meadows in line three, and finally, as the morning grows, gilding streams in the bottomlands in the last line. The colors of this quatrain are gold and green, but the streams are pale, not dark, which seems unusual. The emotion expressed is joy and appreciation of beauty.

The second quatrain is distinctly different metrically from the first quatrain. While the first quatrain is flowing, by the first two words of the second quatrain, “anon permit,” we have entered a sequence of three lines that feels in comparison like wading through muck. Only the last line, with a trochaic inversion in the first foot, varies markedly from a regular iambic meter. This trochaic inversion, part of “stealing unseen” is appropriate in that the rhythm suggests a sliding or sneaking rather than a regular walking movement. The short vowels, hard endings, or negative connotations of the words “basest,” “ugly rack,” “visage,” “disgrace,” and “stealing” help the quatrain to embody ugliness. The imagery in the quatrain is of a sun permitting clouds to so obscure its rays from the earth that the sun cannot be distinctly seen all day. In the continuing personification, this hiding is presented as a disgrace to the sun.

If we imagine a human scrunching his face in hate or anger, the sonnet suggests that the face with an unpleasant expression is not the individual’s true face, and that his radiance is hiding behind the frown. However, even though the “golden face” and “ugly rack” are presented as separate entities, the description in the fourth line of the quatrain shows the disgrace of the one who let his visage be obscured.

In sound effects and imagery the third quatrain parallels the first and second quatrain in its first and second halves. It is as if the first two quatrains set up two general moods that the final quatrain, in detailing a particular incident, can draw from. The first two lines of quatrain three return to the smooth round sound of the first quatrain, and the imagery is again of an early dawn with bright sun on the speaker’s forehead. The second half of the quatrain, with “but out alack,” and “hath masked” returns us to the mire of the second quatrain. The imagery is of a speaker chagrined at having a common Seattle experience: the sun, gloriously visible on the horizon at sunrise, soon disappears for the rest of the day above the clouds.

The final couplet is regular iambic pentameter with feminine endings, except for a trochaic substitution in the first foot of the last line. The trochaic inversion adds a nice variation to the closing line but does not appear related to imagery. The first line suggests constancy of love, and the last, a fading and discoloring of suns. The final line of the couplet mixes muck and beauty in each line: “love” with “disdaineth” in the first line, and “suns of the world” and “heaven’s sun” with “stain” and “staineth” in the last line. It is the final line that, in combining the emotional attitudes that were kept separate in the previous quatrains, finally unifies the sonnet.

Speaker as sun of the world

The sonnet begins with the speaker describing his experience of many beautiful sunrises in the first quatrain. The second quatrain modifies this description: the speaker is in fact describing his experience of many beautiful sunrises that have then been hidden behind thick clouds for the rest of the day. The third quatrain describes a particular instance when the speaker’s sun, “my Sunne,” did shine on him briefly before being hidden behind clouds. It is reasonable to interpret “my Sunne” as representing a person that the speaker still wishes to love in spite of this person’s inconsiderate behavior. The couplet closes the sonnet with the speaker saying his love for his sun is no less because of this, and that “Suns of the world may ſtaine, whê heauens ſun ſtainteh.”

The OED suggests that a common transitive meaning of “stain” in the 16th century was, figuratively, “to throw into the shade by superior beauty or excellence; to eclipse,” while the intransitive sense, for which this line is used as an example, is “to lose color or lustre.” Thus, a possible paraphrase could be: suns of the world may fade when eclipsed by heaven’s sun. However, given the context, the sense that seems more likely is: suns of the world may fade when heaven’s sun fades.

There is a dramatization of a staining sun of the world in the speaker’s exclamation in the third quatrain: “But out alak, he was but one houre mine.” This exclamation suggests a speaker crestfallen or angry (or at least resigned, depending upon how you read “out alak”) at the dimming of his briefly glorious morning. Thus, the sonnet’s author may also be inwardly saying and outwardly portraying, “yes, and the same happens to me.” In this manner, the author reinforces that his speaker is also a sun of the world, and this softens his criticism.


Sonnet 33 is a script for calling forth sequences and layers of imagery—sounds, sights, rhythms, sensations, experiences, and ultimately emotions—that take us somewhere. We can be with the speaker when he’s appreciating beauty, we can be with him when he’s brooding about losing that beauty, and we can see how he is attempting to continue to love in spite of what has occurred. In these 14 lines can be read love, anger, resentment, an attempt at nonchalance, and an attempt to relate and to forgive. Structurally, we’ve seen how the initial two quatrains provide background or define vocabulary for the third quatrain, and ultimately the final couplet, to draw from. We’ve seen how word choice, event sequences, and sound effects combine to show us a progressing sunrise, the muckiness of a feeling, and the speaker’s attempt to make sense of what has occurred.

On one hand, the sonnet expresses sadness at beauty being fleeting or quickly hidden. On the other hand, the sonnet is an affirmation that the beauty is still and always there—that the golden face and the inconsiderate expression are two separate things. Thus the sonnet becomes an appreciation of the essential beauty to be experienced in an only briefly joyful encounter, and also a partial attribution of a loved one’s inconsiderate behavior to circumstance instead of character.

[1] FVll many a glorious morning haue I ſeene,
Flatter the mountaine tops with ſoueraine eie,
Kiſſing with golden face the meddowes greene;
Guilding pale ſtreames with heauenly alcumy:
Anon permit the baſeſt claoudes to ride,
With ougly rack on his celeſtiall face,
And from the for-lorne world his viſage hide
Stealing un’eene to weſt with this diſgrace:
Euen ſo my Sunne one early morne did ſhine,
With all triumphant ſplendor on my brow,
But out alack,he was but one houre mine,
The region cloude hath mask’d him from me now.
  Yet him for this,my loue no whit diſdaineth,
  Suns of the world may ſtaine,whê heauens ſun ſtainteh.

Colin Leath <>    

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   similar imagery in Henry IV p. 1, by colin on 2004-08-30 01:39:15

Compare the following from Prince Hal in Henry IV part 1 lines 65-87 (Oxford Shakespeare):

I know you all, and will awhile uphold
The unyok’d humour of your idleness:
Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wonder’d at,
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapours that did seem to strangle him.
If all the year were playing holidays,
To sport would be as tedious as to work;
But when they seldom come, they wish’d for come,
And nothing pleaseth but rare accidents.
So, when this loose behaviour I throw off,
And pay the debt I never promised,
By how much better than my word I am
By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes;
And like bright metal on a sullen ground,
My reformation, glittering o’er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.
I’ll so offend to make offence a skill;
Redeeming time when men think least I will.

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