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 imprison’d pride.
Blessed are you, whose worthiness gives scope,
Being had, to triumph, being lack’d, 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.