When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancelled woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanished sight:
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restor’d and sorrows end.
This is one of the most pensive and gentle of the sonnets. It links in closely with the previous one, both in thought and layout. The discontent with life which was expressed there still remains in this one, as the poet surveys his past life and all the sorrows it has brought him.
The language is quasi-legal, possibly based on that appropriate to a manorial court investigating discrepancies in its accounts. Hence terms like, waste, expense, grievance, cancelled, tell o’er, paid before, are employed. When the account is finally reckoned up, with his dear friend added to the balance sheet, the discrepancies and losses disappear, and all sorrow is outweighed by the joy of remembering him.
The 1609 Quarto Version
WHen to the Seſſions of ſweet ſilent thought,
I ſummon vp remembrance of things paſt,
I ſigh the lacke of many a thing I ſought,
And with old woes new waile my deare times waſte:
Then can I drowne an eye(vn-vſ’d to flow)
For precious friends hid in deaths dateles night,
And weepe a freſh loues long ſince canceld woe,
And mone th’expence of many a vanniſht ſight.
Then can I greeue at greeuances fore-gon,
And heauily from woe to woe tell ore
The ſad account of fore-bemoned mone,
Which I new pay as if not payd before.
But if the while I thinke on thee (deare friend)
All loſſes are reſtord,and ſorrowes end.
1. When to the sessions of sweet silent thoughtsessions – the sitting of a court. We still use phrases such as quarter sessions in connection with legal sittings. The court imagery is continued with summon up in the following line.2. I summon up remembrance of things past,summon up – as in summoning a witness. See above. But there is also the meaning of summoning up spirits, as if remembrances of the past were spirits which could be called back from the grave.
remembrance of things past – the phrase occurs in the bible also. Wisdom of Solomon, OT Apocrypha, 11.12.3. I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,I sigh the lackof = I sigh for the absence of, for the fact that I never attained…4. And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:Shakespeare uses the new/old contrast in two other sonnets
This were to be new made when thou art old, 2,
For as the sun is daily new and old, 76.
The freshness of his grief is contrasted with the age of his sorrows, which, to heighten his sense of despair, he resurrects.
my dear time’s waste = the squandering of my precious time. waste also conveys the meaning of destruction and barrenness.5. Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,Then can I weep, from an eye which does not often shed tears. Drowning one’s eyes suggests copious weeping.
unused – Othello speaks of himself as not often weeping
……of one whose subdued eyes,
Albeit unused to the melting mood,
Drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees
Their medicinal gum.V.ii.135.
Men were expected not to weep (then as now). See Laertes words when he cannot hold back his tears for Ophelia. Ham.IV.7.185-9.6. For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,dateless = without end.7. And weep afresh love’s long since cancelled woe,And weep once more over the pain of one or more love affairs, though I have long since written off the sorrow associated with them.8. And moan the expense of many a vanished sight:the expense = the cost, the drain on (my) resources. The phrase probably refers more to emotional loss than to anything else, although it does link with line 3 above-I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought, especially as sight had an archaic meaning of sigh, though fallen mostly into disuse by Shakespeare’s time.9. Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,grievances = griefs; injuries done to me;
foregone = in the past, that have gone before. Also perhaps, because of the similarity of the words, with some of the meaning of foredone, ‘killed, dead and gone’. Compare:
Your eldest daughters have fordone them selves,
And desperately are dead. KL.V.3.291-2.10. And heavily from woe to woe tell o’erWoes (sorrows) are listed as in an account book, which he heavily peruses and tots up;
tell o’er – this is an accounting phrase, referring to the reading over and summation of lists of figures. We still have tellers in banks, although the word is falling into disuse.11. The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,Recounting these lists to himself makes him sad; hence sad account; sad also had the meaning of ‘serious, weighty’.
fore-bemoaned = wept for in former times.12. Which I new pay as if not paid before.The sorrow caused by an earlier grievance requires that a debit of tears be chalked up against it. Although this debit has been cleared in the past, he now pays it over again, as if he had not paid it off before.13. But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,The denouement of this concluding couplet is less dramatic than in the previous sonnet, in which the whole sestet lifts the poet from the doldrums. But it is no less effective. The simplicity and directness of the language contrasts with the heaping up of gloomy colours and sorrows which afflict him in the first 12 lines.14. All losses are restor’d and sorrows end.
All losses are restored – this is probably the language of a legal settlement. restore = to make restitution for damages. OED.2.a.