A Thee of the Heart: Love’s Redeeming

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When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possess’d,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

William Shakespeare, Sonnet XXIX

Imagine a young Will Shakespeare, in the middle of Romeo and Juliet, taking a break to honor an intimation that a sonnet wanted to be born. More likely, from the depth and breadth of what was about to pour from his pen, it was a William Shakespeare more seasoned by life’s buffetings, perhaps pausing from his swansong in The Tempest to give wings again to his heart. Whether a pining Romeo or an aging Prospero, the Immortal Bard began his great love song of redemption in darkness.

When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,

All the harmony and sweetness connoted by “grace” is nullified by “disgrace,” the discordant note on which Shakespeare begins this compelling sonnet. Disgrace with fortune calls to mind “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” as he put it more vividly in Hamlet, or more prosaically simply feeling out of luck, out of favor with Fortune (respected enough to be personified by the ancients). Who does not remember times of down and out, when the deck felt stacked against, when, taking the measure of interior weather, it was not only raining but pouring?

To this downpour of misfortune add the social disgrace, the loss of face, the presumed loss of estimation in the eyes of others. Beyond feeling unlucky it is feeling frowned upon, looked down upon, disapproved if not disdained. Few burdens can weigh heavier than “when in disgrace.”

I all alone beweep my outcast state,

Instead of proceeding in philosophic or moralizing fashion, the sonnet’s second line suddenly shifts to the personal. This will be no disquisition on disgrace, as from a detached remove; this will be a cry from a human heart knowing anguish firsthand, knowing from the searing inside the agonizing state of un-grace.

“I all alone…” Not we together. Not I comforted in the knowledge that others are standing near, standing with, understanding. No, I alone. Shakespeare catches up the reader into this “I,” for who of us has not felt the weight of “all alone”? Who can’t remember, at stark moments, feeling outcast, cast out in some fashion by the very Fates? “Feeling sorry for myself” is our pale equivalent of “beweep my outcast state.” But the beweeping gets even worse.

And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries

Those believing in a heaven above, where Someone with the power to intervene not only dwells but cares enough to listen, heave prayers in desperate times, trusting consolation at least will come, heart-cries at least will be heard. How crushing, then, when heaven seems not to hear, when cry after cry after cry seem in vain?

In one of his “terrible” sonnets beginning with “I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day,” fellow Englishman Gerard Manley Hopkins centuries later has these words so well echoing Shakespeare’s: “And my lament/ Is cries countless, cries like dead letters sent/ To dearest him that lives alas! away.”

Out of luck, frowned upon, utterly alone with a stack of pleading letters returned to sender, undelivered—it doesn’t get much worse than this.

And look upon myself and curse my fate

Hopkins again captured as well as any, when looking upon self, this abject dejection, this feeling of virtual curse:

No worst, there is none…
I am gall, I am heartburn. God’s most deep decree
Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me;
Bones built in me, flesh filled, blood brimmed the curse.

Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,

The sonnet’s speaker (each of us, remember, at a dark extremity) elaborates yet further this overbrimming lamentation, this consuming sense of woe. How not envy others possessing what most is felt lacking? How not envy the rich in hope when so empty of it? But it is not just hope that is envied here.

Featured like him, like him with friends possess’d,

There, see that one surrounded by friends, how it intensifies my aloneness. How I wish it were me! But it extends yet further, this misery engulfing.

Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;

The creativity of some, the breadth of knowledge of others—how everyone reminds me of my own impoverishment by comparison. Even things that used to bring me comfort, the little satisfactions, the small savorings—all is insipid to me now, contentment of any kind is foreign to me now.

Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising

In the powerfully moving hymn of redemption by an ex-slaver are words that cause some today to wince: “that saved a wretch like me.” How sad to call oneself a wretch, we might protest, ruing the theology of a bygone day. Are not human beings shining in their core, “little less than the angels”? Shakespeare, crafting those words, too, knew better the human heart, as capable of plummeting as soaring, as capable of despising self as cherishing self. What a work, indeed, is man.

But note the great “yet,” the poem’s pivot point, the hinge swinging agony back towards ecstasy. In spite of it all, even under the weight of all that has culminated in almost-despising, someone is remembered, someone crosses the mind, by happenstance as luck would have it. Perhaps Fortune is not frowning. Perhaps letters were indeed received, and not only received but answered. Could amazing grace redeem this darkness too?

Haply I think on thee,

We don’t need to know who the thee is, just that someone forgotten during the downward spiraling is suddenly remembered, with the effect electric. Not just any someone. Thee rings quaint in our ears today, seems affected, connoting the ecclesiastical or the literary, but back in Shakespeare’s day it was just the opposite. You was for formal use then, while thee was familiar and intimate. What we have here, therefore, is a thee of the heart. Such a one comes now to the poet’s mind, is remembered now in the poet’s heart, and all he can do in the sheer joy of it is to reach for a thrilling enough image to announce the transformation.

and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;

The English lark is a small bird known to crouch low in marsh grasses, waiting for dawn to come and sun to rise before leaping on the air to “pour and pelt music, till none’s to spill nor spend.” The words are from Shakespeare’s kindred spirit Hopkins again, in his The Sea and the Skylark:

Left hand, off land, I hear the lark ascend,
His rash-fresh re-winded new-skeined score
In crisps of curl off wild winch whirl, and pour
And pelt music, till none’s to spill nor spend.

What is it that could possibly lift up one from a personal sullen earth, from the abyss of almost despising, to heave at heaven’s gate a hymn of amazing grace? Could truly there be something in the wide universe magical enough to prompt a beggar to scorn the very idea of changing places with kings?

For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my place with kings.

Since Paul in Corinthians has there been such a paean to love, such a ringing tribute not just to love’s beauty but to its power? One need not be religious to bow down here; one need only remember, if Fortune has been kind, the feeling of redemption when cries from the heart were answered by a love that has given that heart wings!

Blessings to William Shakespeare for chiseling from the marble of his life the monument of these words we have been considering. Blessings to priest-poet Gerard Manley Hopkins for transmuting through the alchemy of his own words both plummeting and soaring into extravagant song. Blessings no less to each of us having the great good fortune to have a thee of the heart to anchor us through storms. May we, recipients of revelation, be struck like lightning to realize that as our hearts have grown wings thanks to love’s power, the power of our own love can help other hearts grow wings, that astoundingly as we have been redeemed, we can redeem! Amazing indeed is the grace that transmutes sullen cursing state into hymn at heaven’s gate.

Once again let us marvel at the genie that emerged from the lantern of the Elizabethan Aladdin, heartening, beyond even his imagining, the world for centuries to come.


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