Sonnets for Advent 19: Sonnet 128

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Vermeer: Lady Seated at a Virginal

Vermeer: Lady Seated at a Virginal

Flirtation, eroticism, desire and envy are all brought to life and woven together by music here. The poet watches the beloved (it’s not clear whether it’s a male or female) play a keyboard instrument and is captivated by the way his or her fingers seem to be caressed by the keys, leaping up to kiss ‘the tender inward of thy hand.There’s probably a sexual pun in the way the poet says the sight makes him ‘blushing stand’. The brilliance of Sonnet 128 is, in part, the way the poet communicates a feeling of being kept at arm’s length from the beloved – frustrated, longing, watching – whilst at the same time feeling an overwhelming sense of desire as the music continues to play.

How oft, when thou, my music, music play’st
Upon that blessed wood whose motion sounds
With thy sweet fingers when thou gently sway’st
The wiry concord that mine ear confounds,
Do I envy those jacks that nimble leap
To kiss the tender inward of thy hand
Whilst my poor lips, which should that harvest reap,
At the wood’s boldness by thee blushing stand!
To be so tickled they would change their state
And situation with those dancing chips
O’er whom thy fingers walk with gentle gait,
Making dead wood more bless’d than living lips.
Since saucy jacks so happy are in this,
Give them thy fingers, me thy lips to kiss.

Click on the post below to hear Sonnet 128 read by Ronan Hatfull, a student on the Shakespeare and Creativity course at The Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham.

You might like to visit a similar Shakespeare for Advent project led by students at the University of Tubingen by clicking here.

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Author:Paul Edmondson

Head of Research and Knowledge and Director of the Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival for The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Follow Paul on Twitter @paul_edmondson

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