William Shakespeare – Sonnet 52
So am I as the rich, whose blessed key,
Can bring him to his sweet up-locked treasure,
The which he will not every hour survey,
For blunting the fine point of seldom pleasure.
Therefore are feasts so solemn and so rare,
Since, seldom coming in the long year set,
Like stones of worth they thinly placed are,
Or captain jewels in the carcanet.
So is the time that keeps you as my chest,
Or as the wardrobe which the robe doth hide,
To make some special instant special-blest,
By new unfolding his imprisoned pride.
Blessed are you whose worthiness gives scope,
Being had, to triumph, being lacked, to hope.
The lover now compares himself to a miser doting on his hoarded treasure. This is part of the group of sonnets (43-52) which deals loosely with absence and the separation caused by the minutiae of daily existence. The beloved youth is like a jewel, or a stored treasure, a rich garment, a rare feast day, but alas, his rarity means that he is almost never seen. Despite the praise at the end of the poem of his worthiness, a somewhat curious compliment of the pleasure he gives by ‘being had’, the loved one, for all the praise heaped upon him, seems by reflection to be distant and cruel, and the lover is left in the wilderness with the forlorn consolation of being allowed only to hope.
Wordsworth tells us that ‘with this key, Shakespeare unlocked his heart’, and if one is to look anywhere in the sonnets for such revelations, this sonnet, with its references to keys and treasure and hiding places, is perhaps not a bad place to start. (Nowhere else in the sonnets does Shakespeare use the word ‘key’.)
It is indeed a somewhat mysterious sonnet, which I feel has a secret locked away deep in its bosom, and no one has yet plumbed its depths or been able to suggest wherein its mystery lies. None of the commentators that I have seen, SB, GBE, KDJ, JK, HV give any help. The points that trouble me are the following.
1. This is sonnet 52, and the careful placing of several sonnets connected with time, most notably 12, 49, 60, 63, 104, and 126, imply that this one is set here for a specific purpose. There are 52 weeks in the year, and although there are no obvious dating references, there are mentions of solemn feasts in the long year set, and a special instant. I shall argue hereafter that sonnet 104 is a form of coded reference to either the year 1599 or 1604. Moreover, sonnet 104 is significant as representing a two year span of 104 weeks. The midway point of that two year span is this sonnet, 52, but alas I cannot proceed any farther beyond that point, or give any suggestions as to what calendular tricks are involved. It may be that the fourteen line sonnet represents a fortnight, and we could in fact be dealing with a four year period, rather than two. This may seem to be a trivial matter, and certainly it has little to do with the poetic merits of the sonnet. But the use of the image of keys and treasure, of things hidden away, creates its own interest which stirs up speculation.
2. Line 10 : Or as the ward-robe which the robe doth hide, is almost tautological. It repeats the word robe and Shakespeare does not usually find it necessary to explain the meaning of a common word, or to add a superfluous gloss. (The meaning of wardrobe probably differs from the modern one, but I suspect that the definition ‘a piece of furniture for storing clothes’ is older than OED indicates. See the note on line 10 below.) The most obvious reaction to this cryptic comment is to seek for something hidden in the line itself, and one can see without much difficulty that words like hero, bed, throb, hic, hew, war, rob, as well as the ubiquitous HW, WH and Herbert (but not Henry) may be dragged out of it without too much difficulty. It may be that a name is deliberately hidden here, and that the other words come in as bonus points which help to poke fun at the reader.
3. The closing couplet is not exactly complimentary, and its overt meaning of sexual triumph is awkwardly disturbing, especially when taken with line 4, ‘For blunting the fine point of seldom pleasure‘ with its ostensibly phallic meaning. It is rather insulting to be told – ‘You offer the chance of sexual intercourse, and even allow the lover to triumph in his success. Or if he doesn’t get it on the first occasion, you always hold out the hope that the opportunity will be there in the future (as any flirt trading on his/her sexuality would do)’. What young man, or young nobleman, would be flattered to be addressed in such terms?
What is more, all this is set against the religious references of feast days, and the word blessed, used three times, with its direct links to the Beatitudes, and also, more importantly, to the prayer to the Virgin Mary, ‘Blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.‘ (See notes to lines 13-14 below and also the Introductory Notes).
These are extraordinary comments to direct to any young man, and would require a high level of camaraderie and tolerance to pass for common coin in the circles in which they moved. I have little doubt that this relaxed atmosphere did indeed prevail and cast its spell over the coterie, but I consider it important that we should not skate past the more outrageous sonnets, or interpretations of them, but should do our best to fit them into the context of the Elizabethan world and the milieu in which Shakespeare breathed and moved. He did not spend all his leisure hours drinking at the Mermaid Tavern. And in this case I do not feel that I have in any way distorted the obvious meanings of the words in order to drag out some specious or rare usage in favour of some predetermined point. It is important to confront the question of how we choose to understand ‘being had, to triumph, being lacked, to hope.‘
There is perhaps some significance in this being Sonnet 52, marking the end of a year, or perhaps some special year which is specially blest. I suspect that it ties in in some way with the other sonnets that have biblical and religious references in them. One thinks of the tabernacle as hiding the sweet up-locked treasure, and the rich garments of religious processions which the wardrobe hides. See the Introductory Notes for further discussion.
The 1609 Quarto Version
SO am I as the rich whoſe bleſſed key,
Can bring him to his ſweet vp-locked treaſure,
The which he will not eu’ry hower ſuruay,
For blunting the fine point of ſeldome pleaſure.
Therefore are feaſts ſo ſollemne and ſo rare,
Since ſildom comming in the long yeare ſet,
Like ſtones of worth they thinly placed are,
Or captaine Iewells in the carconet.
So is the time that keepes you as my cheſt,
Or as the ward-robe which the robe doth hide,
To make ſome ſpeciall inſtant ſpeciall bleſt,
By new vnfoulding his impriſon’d pride.
Bleſſed are you whoſe worthineſſe giues skope,
Being had to tryumph,being lackt to hope.
1. So am I as the rich, whose blessed key,So am I as the rich – I am like a rich person; blessed key – the key is blessed in that it has the (sacred, mystical) ability to unlock the rich man’s treasure so that he may view it. There is also the direct association of the word with the beatitudes ‘Blessed are the meek, blessed are the merciful etc’, this association being further called upon in the couplet. See note on line 13 below.2. Can bring him to his sweet up-locked treasure,sweet up-locked treasure – Apart from the riches of coin etc., which the miser greedily looks upon, there is the innuendo of sexual treasure, which the lover dreams on, as the following citations confirm. It runs as a humorous undertone from here onwards, but especially in lines 4, 11, 12, 14.
Will force him think I have pick’d the lock and ta’en
The treasure of her honour. Cym.II.2.40-2
If with too credent ear you list his songs,
Or lose your heart, or your chaste treasure open
To his unmaster’d importunity. Ham.I.3.30-2.3. The which he will not every hour survey,The which = which. survey = cast his eyes over. Cf.
And shalt by fortune once more re-survey
These poor rude lines of thy deceased lover, Sonn.32.4. For blunting the fine point of seldom pleasure.For blunting = for fear of blunting;
the fine point of seldom pleasure – the image is unusual, but not glossed by the commentators, other than by reference to proverbial usage (A seldom use of pleasures maketh the same more pleasaunt. Tilley p.417. See SB p.223, n.3-4.) Some sharp instrument is implied, and Shakespeare uses point in this material sense of something having a sharp end, most often in combination with weapons, (swords, bodkins, rapiers, lances etc.), and dials (of clocks). The word might be called into play simply because of the use of blunting, which automatically suggests the edge of a knife or something sharp. As in Temp.V.1.138 How sharp the point of this remembrance is, which does not necessarily require us to make the image corporeal, although it does suggest a pointed object cutting into the viscera. Here, because of what precedes and follows, there is a strong element of sexual innuendo. I have not found point used in a phallic sense elsewhere, but the following is suggestive:
For thou thyself hast been a libertine,
As sensual as the brutish sting itself; AYL.II.7.65-6.5. Therefore are feasts so solemn and so rare,feasts = feast days in the Christian calendar, festivals.
solemn = marked by ceremonies and rituals; grand, sumptuous.
rare = thinly spaced; precious and scarce.6. Since, seldom coming in the long year set,seldom coming – i.e. the feast days. in the long year set – refers back to feasts. The word set however also prepares us for the stones of worth in the next line, set in a piece of jewellery.7. Like stones of worth they thinly placed are,placed – the ‘ed’ is stressed.8. Or captain jewels in the carcanet.
captain = chief, most important.
carcanet = a necklet, often inset with precious stones. Note the Q spelling. Probably pronounced as karkanet.
The description of feasts given here is more suggestive of those in the Catholic tradition, which were colourful affairs, full of pomp and ceremony. The Protestant tradition tended to frown on such frivolous merry-making and regarded religion as a much more serious matter. My Introductory Notes deal with the question of Shakespeare’s apparent nostalgia for the old religion. This sonnet, along with others that have covert biblical references, may be referring obliquely to some long lost doctrinal dispute, more probably to do with Catholicism than the Anglican Church. 9. So is the time that keeps you as my chest,So is the time – This seems to refer back to the construction of the first line So am I as the rich, implying ‘I am like’, so, by analogy, ‘the time is like that (thing, whatever it is) which preserves you, as my chest preserves things, or as the ward-robe hides rich garments’. The meaning is not crystal clear, and is probably not intended to be so. It includes such additional meanings as ‘Time shows you to me to be like a rich treasure chest’; ‘Time unfolds you to me, as a robe brought out on display from a wardrobe’; ‘Time preserves you, as if preserving you in a treasure chest’.10. Or as the wardrobe which the robe doth hide,wardrobe – Note Q’s hyphenation. The meaning in Shakespeare’s day was ‘a room for storing clothes’ which could be locked, not a movable cupboard. However OED’s date of 1794 as the earliest use of wardrobe as a movable clothes-cupboard is clearly wrong, as it cites under press n.(1) IV.15 the following: 1753 Smollett Ct. Fathom (1784) 35/2 He should…conceal himself in a large press or wardrobe, that stood in one corner of the apartment. I suspect that there were earlier uses, since the cupboard or press for keeping clothes dates back much earlier. A ward-robe in a nobleman’s house would keep much more than clothes. Suits of armour, statues and valuable objects might be stored there.11. To make some special instant special-blest,A special garment might be kept in a wardrobe, to be brought out on festal days and other important occasions.12. By new unfolding his imprisoned pride.The imagery rather suggests a flower opening. But the direct reference is to the unfolding of a garment taken from the wardrobe. There is also the hint of a bawdy meaning (see note to line 4 and the extended commentary above).13. Blessed are you whose worthiness gives scope,Blessed are you – An echo of special-blest in line 11 and blessed key in line 1. But I suspect the main tendency of the use of this word is to remind readers of the Beatitudes, as in ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit: for their’s is the kingdom of heaven. …. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.‘ Matt.5.3 & 8. Since the poet so often refers to himself as poor (26, 32, 37, 49, 71, 107, 125, 128) and even in this sonnet, although he is like the rich, yet he is poor in having only miserly glimpses of his beloved, yet he hopes and trusts that, like the meek, he will inherit the earth. Here the epithet is applied to the beloved, but its scope is surely to bring them close to each other, as those who are blessed by God, and the kingdom of heaven will be theirs.
There is also a further important reference to the Hail Mary, a prayer to the Blessed Virgin, a reference which is even more challenging than the Beatitudes. It contains the words ‘Blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus‘. If we take it that the echo was intended, then the poem is treading a very thin line between high spirited hilarity and blasphemy. Are we to assume that the joke is that the young man does not have a womb and cannot conceive? (See however my comments above, where I suggest that the poem might originally have been addressed to a woman).14. Being had, to triumph, being lacked, to hope.
The sexual meaning of being had makes interpretation of this line rather difficult, since with that meaning predominant, it is too brutally frank, and it is difficult to see how it could be addressed to anyone, let alone a young nobleman, and also be circulated among the company of friends, and subsequently published, without causing offence. In Sonn. 129 line 10 :
‘had, having, and in quest to have extreme‘
the meaning of had is quite explicit from the context and it refers to the experience of sexual conquest. Here that meaning is also evident, especially with the use of to triumph and the implication that, even if one does not succeed this time, one may still entertain the hope of sexual favours in the future.
The problem as I see it is that one has to interpret the poem in a way that would allow it to be accepted in its social context, not as something which could only have an exclusive and private meaning. Although double entendres were permissible, it does not seem probable that the Elizabethan world was comfortable with the idea of openly physical homosexual relationships. However much it might be possible to joke about such matters, overt homosexual behaviour in the real Elizabethan world merited instant condemnation. Here therefore I suspect that we should interpret the conclusion in terms of a) the courtly tradition of romance as expressed by sonneteers, who always hoped that the beloved would yield. Here, not only does the beloved allow the delight of triumph to the lover, but even, in his absence, the delight of hoping for further success. b) The delight of possession in the sense of enjoying his mere presence alone, (without the sexual connotations) contrasted with the bleakness of his lack, or absence, as in 98 & 99. c) A humorous and risqué reference to sexual possession, set against the background of the religous humility of the Beatitudes. d) The humour of the poet stating his devotion to the young man in the bald language of sexual intercouse (or lack of it). e) The blasphemous reference to the Virgin Mary, which can easily be denied, as it is too near the bone, and obviously cannot refer to the young man. (Yet it is still apparent to those in the know).
All these meanings (and others), run concurrently, and, as with so many of the sonnets, we are invited to interpret them on many levels at once. There is not, and was never intended to be, one single and absolute meaning. What we do have always is the richness of primary and secondary suggestions and rippling undercurrents, as a brook has many faces, with half-hidden multicolored pebbles, waving water plants, rushes and mossy overhangings, which make the face of the brook both simple and complex in an instant. That is often how poetry works and interacts with our conscious assessment of it, and nowhere is this more apparent than with the Sonnets.