William Shakespeare – Sonnet 50

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 measured 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.

This and the following sonnet deal with the heaviness of separation, caused by a journey which the poet has to make. He travels on horseback, the normal means of locomotion in Shakespeare’s day. The condition of the roads, heavily rutted and often flooded, made travel in carriages impracticable, other than in towns. Post horses could be hired from the frequent Inns which were situated along the highways and in the various towns on route. But travellers frequently would have their own horse, which would carry them between 20 or 30 miles in a day, a much slower method than hiring the post horses. Shakespeare refers to the horse in this poem as if it were his own. But in any case he is not much concerned to speed on his journey, since it only seems to lead him onward into sorrow.

 It would be interesting to know what the journey was to which the poet alludes. Was it a trip back to his native Stratford, which tradition tells us he made on numerous occasions, choosing the Oxford route rather than the one through Ayelsbury and Banbury? But of course we have no means of knowing the answer to such a question, and it is probable that the two sonnets summarise the feelings arising from having to make any and every journey which the poet makes and which thereby sunder him from his friend.

Despite the melancholy of the poem, it is possible to find humour in the cleverness and wit in the description of the horse sharing the rider’s unwillingness to travel. One could even see it as one of the ‘sugared sonnets’ which amusingly depict the boundless love the poet has for his friend and which show how that love enters into every aspect of his existence, including the most mundane and tedious, as this one of going on a journey.

 Sidney wrote a sonnet comparing himself to a horse, and another one extolling the highway, which might have the pleasure of kissing Stella’s feet. Both sonnets are given at the bottom of this page.

The 1609 Quarto Version

HOw heauie doe I iourney on the way,
When what I ſeeke (my wearie trauels end)
Doth teach that eaſe and that repoſe to ſay
Thus farre the miles are meaſurde from thy friend.
The beaſt that beares me,tired with my woe,
Plods duly on,to beare that waight in me,
As if by ſome inſtinct the wretch did know
His rider lou’d not ſpeed being made from thee:
The bloody ſpurre cannot prouoke him on,
That ſome-times anger thruſts into his hide,
Which heauily he anſwers with a grone,
More ſharpe to me then ſpurring to his ſide,
   For that ſame grone doth put this in my mind,
   My greefe lies onward and my ioy behind.


1. How heavy do I journey on the way,

heavy = heavily, burdened with sorrow. A heavy heart was proverbial, especially in lovers and Shakespeare himself often uses the phrase. e.g.

My heart is heavy and mine age is weak;
Grief would have tears, and sorrow bids me speak. AWW.III.4.41-2.
‘O heart,’ as the goodly saying is, –O heart, heavy heart,
Why sigh’st thou without breaking?
 TRO.IV.4.14-15.2. When what I seek, my weary travel’s end,travel – travel and travail were used indiscriminately. See 27, 34, in which Q gives the spelling trauaile or trauaill.3. Doth teach that ease and that repose to say,that ease and that repose – the ease and rest one would expect at the end of a journey. The construction however forces one to respond mentally to the ‘doth teach that‘ clause, as if my weary travel’s end were teaching the poet a lesson.4. ‘Thus far the miles are measured from thy friend!’

Instead of ease and repose, the two conspire to remind him of the distance that now separates him from his friend.5. The beast that bears me, tired with my woe,tired – can also have the meaning ‘attired’, as though the beast had been clothed with the sorrow that afflicts the rider.6. Plods dully on, to bear that weight in me,dully – Q gives duly which OED records as an old spelling for dully. There may not have been much difference in the pronunciation. duly suggests the mechanical performance of a tedious obligation. to bear that weight in me – because it was bearing the extra weight of the rider’s sorrow; because he (the horse) was also weighed down with my sorrow.7. As if by some instinct the wretch did knowinstinct = innate knowledge, or intuition. (The modern usage is much the same. OED 3.)8. His rider lov’d not speed being made from thee.speed being made from thee – any speed which results in my travelling farther away from you. The ‘speed being made’ construction is related to the phrase ‘make haste‘ which Shakespeare frequently uses, or ‘making a journey‘, so that the primary meaning is ‘he (the horse) knew that his rider delighted not in speed, as it only hasted him away from you’. The other evident meaning is that the rider (the poet) is made from the beloved, because the two are one, so each inhabits the other.9. The bloody spur cannot provoke him on,spur – a small metal wheel with pointed projections which fits round the heel of a rider’s boot. It is jabbed into the horse’s side to provoke it to move faster, and could on occasion draw blood.10. That sometimes anger thrusts into his hide,

anger – because of the horse’s tardiness.11. Which heavily he answers with a groan,

heavily – the horse shares the writer’s despondency.
groan – groans were the traditional accompaniment to the lover’s pain. Compare for example:
Yet, in good faith, some say that thee behold
Thy face hath not the power to make love groan:
To say they err I dare not be so bold,
Although I swear it to myself alone.
And, to be sure that is not false I swear,
A thousand groans, but thinking on thy face,
 131.12. More sharp to me than spurring to his side;More sharp to me – the antecedent is ‘groan’ in the previous line. The reason for its sharpness is given in the couplet.13. For that same groan doth put this in my mind,14. My grief lies onward, and my joy behind.

As he proceeds onwards, he goes farther from his friend, so that he is, as it were, hasting towards sorrow, and leaving behind the joy of his friend’s company.

Additional notes

From Sir Philip Sidney’s
  Astrophel and Stella.
I on my horse, and Love on me doth try
Our horsemanships, while by strange work I prove
A horseman to my horse, a horse to Love;
And now man’s wrongs in me, poor beast, descry.
The reins wherewith my rider doth me tie,
Are humbled thoughts, which bit of reverence move,
Curbed in with fear, but with gilt boss above
Of hope, which makes it seem fair to the eye.
The wand is will; thou, fancy, saddle art,
Girt fast by memory, and while I spur
My horse, he spurs with sharp desire my heart:
He sits me fast, however I do stir:
And now hath made me to his hand so right,
That in the manage my self takes delight.

Highway, since you my chief Parnassus be,
And that my Muse, to some ears not unsweet,
Tempers her words to trampling horses’ feet,
More oft than to a chamber melody;
Now blessed you, bear onward blessed me
To her, where I my heart safeliest shall meet;
My Muse and I must you of duty greet
With thanks and wishes, wishing thankfully.
Be you still fair, honored by public heed,
By no encroachment wronged , nor time forgot;
Nor blamed for blood, nor shamed for sinful deed.
And, that you know I envy you no lot,
Of highest wish, I wish you so much bliss,
Hundreds of years you Stella’s feet may kiss.

6. bit of reverence – the horse’s bit (mouthpiece) is the reverence the poet has for Stella.
7. gilt boss – a gilded decorative piece of the horse’s harness, most probably on the nose band or brow band.
9. wand = riding crop. will = desire, determination.
11. he spurs = fancy, or memory spurs on.
12. He = fancy, or memory; sits me fast = rides glued to the saddle.
13. to his hand so right = so obedient to his direction.
14. manage = control (of a horse).
  1. Parnassus = mountain in Greece sacred to the Muses. Hence, source of inspiration.
7. of duty greet = greet you dutifully.
9-10 honored by public heed, / By no encroachment wronged – Highways were supposedly maintained by landholders in the area, usually by compulsory labour of tenants. The landlords also tended to encroach on the highways, claiming them as part of their land.
11. blood … sinful deed – presumably acts of brigandage by highwaymen and robbers.


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