Wednesdays With Will – Negative Praise and Will’s Tool Belt

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Worker with construction tools.In several sonnets Shakespeare uses negativity to render praise upon the subject of the poem. This clever technique heightens the effect of positive praise found in the ending couplet.

An example is 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,
Featur’d like him, like him with friends possess’d,
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 remember’d such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

In this sonnet the speaker paints a pitiful picture of himself and gives examples of why he is so. The tone changes in Line 10 when the speaker thinks of the subject of the sonnet and his world brightens. The change of tone concludes with the final couplet in which the subject is joyfully remembered. The joyful remembrance is exceptionally powerful when contrasted to the speaker’s prior wretched state.

Sonnet 30 follows the pattern of Sonnet 29:

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, unus’d to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancell’d woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanish’d 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.

In the final couplet, a wretched speaker is made happy by remembrance of a friend. As with Sonnet 29, the happiness is greater when contrasted to the earlier misery of the speaker.

There are other sonnets that employ negativity to render praise upon a subject, but to me the greatest example of the technique is Sonnet 130:

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask’d, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.

In this work the speaker makes a series of negative comparisons of his love to the accepted concepts of beauty of the time. The first twelve lines of the sonnet paint such an unflattering picture of the woman that one wonders if he is dissatisfied with her. All is saved in the final couplet when the poet mocks the accepted criteria of beauty and claims his love the equal of any other woman:

And yet by heav’n I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.

Negativity to enhance praise? An effective tool in Shakespeare’s bulging bag of effective tools!