Contentment in Sonnet 29

Contentment is hard.

The last few months have been an emotional rollercoaster for me.

One day, I’m happy to be in the States, having all the experiences I’ve had over the summer. The next day, I’m missing home so much it hurts.

One day, I’m grateful for all the ways I’ve been blessed since coming here—a house, food, friends—and the next day, I’m worrying about everything I don’t have yet, like a job and a sense of stability in my life.

It’s easy to focus on the less-than-ideal parts of my life, and it’s easy to get sucked into discontentment, to lose sight of everything that’s good about my life right now.

There’s a sonnet that describes exactly what I’ve been experiencing over the last couple of weeks—and how I should respond to the threat of discontentment in my life.

Sonnet 29

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 possessed,
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 remembered such wealth brings,
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
—William Shakespeare

When I read a poem like this, I ask myself three questions:

  1. What does it mean?
  2. What’s the point?
  3. Why does it matter?

What does it mean?

Tip #1 for reading old poems: look up the archaic words and phrases. I have a copy of Shakespeare’s sonnets with footnotes, but you can also just use Google.

To be “in disgrace” is to be out of favor. It’s like if a king is offended and won’t allow you in his presence. The speaker feels that he’s in disgrace “with fortune” because he’s not having any luck in life, and with “men’s eyes” because he’s not popular anymore.

“I all alone beweep my outcast state” He feels alone, and he’s mourning because he’s cut off from the good things other people in society are experiencing.

“…trouble deaf heaven…” Heaven seems “deaf” to the speaker because he sees no evidence that anyone is listening to his prayers. He feels that his cries to God are “bootless”—useless—because they don’t seem to be having any effect.

“Wishing me like…” This is where he starts wishing he was like other people he sees:

  • “one more rich in hope” That person has hope; their future looks bright.
  • “Featured like him…” This person is physically attractive.
  • “…with friends possessed…” That person has lots of friends.
  • “…this man’s art…” This person is talented.
  • “…that man’s scope…” That person has opportunities.

“With what I most enjoy contented least” The things the speaker used to enjoy no longer bring him pleasure.

“Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising” The speaker’s discontentment has an unforeseen consequence: he begins to hate himself.

“Haply”—by chance, by a stroke of luck—“I think on thee”—he remembers his friend. All at once his “state”—his condition—changes.

He feels like a “lark at break of day arising…” Just as the birds suddenly break into song at the dawn of a new day, remembering his friend snaps the speaker out of the dark spiral of discontentment into which he has slipped.

“…thy sweet love remembered…” When he remembers the affection his friend has for him, the speaker no longer feels poor and outcast.

Instead, he says, “I scorn to change my state with kings.” “Scorn” usually implies looking down on something or someone, considering it of no value. For the speaker, the power and riches of kings are inferior to his friendship with this person.

What’s the point?

In a sonnet, the last two lines usually summarize the main point of the entire poem.

For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings,
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

When the speaker remembers the relationship he has with the person he’s writing to, he’s no longer jealous of the people he sees around him. All the wealth and good fortune the speaker was coveting at the beginning of the sonnet are worthless compared to this friendship.

Why does it matter?

Why go to all the trouble to understand a poem written more than 400 years ago? Why take the time to look up all the words and identify the main point? Why does it matter?

It matters because these are not just Shakespeare’s thoughts and feelings—they’re mine.

When I’m going through a legitimately rough time, it’s easy to indulge in self-pity. After all, it’s true that moving so suddenly is stressful. It’s true that it was traumatic. It’s true that being so far away from my family and the friends I grew up with feels lonely.

But self-pity is a dangerous road to go down because before I know it, I’m focusing on myself and on everything that’s going wrong, and it’s only a small leap from there to comparison.

Look at this person who is more attractive than I am.

Look at that person who has so many friends living close by.

Look at this person who has opportunities I don’t have.

Look at that person who gets to live near her family.

I wish I had that life.

And as I envy them and wish my life were different, my entire thought process becomes swallowed up in this negative spiral of discontentment, and the things that once brought me joy become meaningless to me.

I first noticed this when I had depression. I start fixating on everything that’s going wrong in my life, and I try to distract myself from my own misery by keeping busy. Only, all the keeping busy crowds out the things that used to matter to me—things like reading, and playing the piano, and writing. And all of a sudden, my life is all envy and emptiness, and I begin to hate the person I’m becoming, a person I barely even recognize anymore.

That’s where “Sonnet 29” is at the end of line 9. But then, the speaker happens to remember his friend, and everything changes.

My first instinct is to say that his attitude changed because he was grateful—but I think it’s more than that. I think the key is that he stopped focusing on things that are tangible and quantifiable and turned his attention to things that actually matter.

Quantitative vs. Qualitative

There are two ways you can describe something

  1. In a quantitative approach, you focus on the quantity of a thing—how much of it is there?
  2. In a qualitative approach, you focus on the thing’s qualities—what features does it have?

Most of us tend to assess our lives based on quantitative standards. We like things we can measure. That’s what the speaker of the sonnet is doing when he compares himself to others. “Let me count how many friends he has compared to me.” “Let me list all the talents and abilities she has that I don’t.”

His friendship with the person he thinks of in line 10, though—that’s not a quantifiable thing.

This friendship is meaningful to him because of its qualities. It’s not that he has a lot of friends—it’s that this friend loves him and cares about him. Their friendship can’t be measured, but it has value beyond things that he can clearly define.

What would happen if I stopped basing my contentment on things I can measure?

Let’s face it—most of the quantifiably negative things about my circumstances aren’t going to change any time soon. Next month, I will still live far away from my family. Three months from now, I will still be trying to fit school and work and time to rest into a schedule that feels too full. A year from now, I will still miss my friends.

But when I stop thinking about measurable things, I think about getting a text from a friend and hanging out all afternoon, just talking.

I think about sitting at a housewarming party and realizing how many people care about me and my sister and are willing to help us.

I think about a long phone call with a friend from home, a reminder that, with the Internet, 4,000 miles isn’t as far as it feels.

I think about sitting on our couch in our own house with nowhere to go, watching the rain come down and drinking tea and feeling relaxed for the first time in a long time.

I think about watching the sun rise from my room this morning and knowing that, after a few more mornings like this, this house will feel like home.

These things can’t be measured. They can’t be quantified.

But they are the things that make me “scorn to change my state with kings.”

How do you handle discontentment?

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