To The Sessions of Sweet Silent Thought Sonnet 30 Explained

First Page of Shakespeare
"When to the sessions of sweet silent thought.." as Shakespeare puts it at the beginning of his Sonnet 30. Whether he lost you at the turn or at those first few words, we're here to help. We're going to try to explain what Shakespeare was talking about and the literary techniques he employs to make his point.

Share This Post

Though not a traditional quote, we'll nevertheless follow protocol and begin with Sonnet 30 in its entirety, but first a little context. Sonnet was another legendary sonnet curtesy of poet William Shakespeare. Characteristic of Shakespeare is a complex rhyme scheme and heavy use of alliteration (all things we'll get to in subsequent sections. However first, the sonnet in its entirety. 

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 th' 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.

What is Sonnet 30 About?

To put it briefly, the main message is one of regret for one’s life and the pain that recalling these memories has on the author. However, although recalling previous misfortunes is as painful as experiencing them initially, these misfortunes must be contrasted against the good thoughts
he has for his dear friend which, in the end, balances everything out.

Shakespeare’s Use of Assonance or Alliteration

The author really hits the reader over the head right out of the gate with his very first line:
“When to the sessions of sweet silent thought” (there’s no shortage of alliteration just with
‘W’-“When, with, woes’, wail, waste” or “sessions of sweet silent”) where the author uses sounds to add to the meaning. There’s this deep metaphor between stories that recall past memories using
the whisking away sound and imagery of wind (such as wind/clouds inside a crystal ball) and I
believe it is precisely this imagery that the author is evoking here. However the key use of alliteration the effect of the alliteration comes in the form of the “s” sound which creates a sense of serenity, and quiet meditation.

In addition to alliteration, the author utilizes is assonance (repeated use of similar vowel sounds) throughout the sonnet but specifically with his use of the “e” sound in the phrases “When sessions” to begin the sonnet and “end” to finish the sonnet. As a former English teacher once told me “you want the final line to make the entire piece retroactively click into place” and the author’s utilization of alliteration accomplishes that perfectly here by unifying the beginning with its end.

Shakespeare’s Significant Clusters of Rhyme

Shakespeare utilizes significant clusters of rhyme that reinforce the meaning of the poem. The words cancell’d, expense, grievances, account, pay, paid, losses, and restored, are all types of financial-related terms that the author is employing. Straightforwardly, the entire sonnet is a type of accounting procedure where he’s adding up all the negative elements of recalling his mournful past vs the positive and seeing it all balance out.

There are, at least, two reasons why this device is very, for lack of a better adjective, cool. The first is because the reader doesn’t know that it’s an accounting procedure while one is reading it. The first 10 lines are all about the lament the author has over the lost opportunities of his past. It’s only after the final two lines do one realize that the entire sonnet had been the sweetest exercise in accounting, perhaps ever.

The other reason is that there’s a kind of mathematical argument that the author is using to make the point he wants. He wants to communicate how amazing his friend is and to do that he stacks the deck on one side (IE- here’s an insurmountable amount of reasons that memories are excruciatingly painful), only to say this one thing can be so great that it balances out those other things. Perhaps it’s obvious and cliche, but I found it rather sweet.

What does the phrase “death’s dateless night” mean?

The phrase is remarking something to the effect “death’s eternal night”, in other words, his
friends are perpetually stuck in death’s hold. A, perhaps simplistic, reading here is that if
something is eternal then it in some ways lacks any specific date. To help pull your
intuition, a definition for “infinity” I recently heard is that it is a number so big that no
number is any closer than another number. However, you may be forgiven for conflating the two by thinking “Shakespeare is complicated and hard to understand” and “infinity is complicated and hard to understand” so maybe they’re the same.

More Quotes