Discusses Literary Techniques in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 43 "When I Most Wink"

William Shakespeare was masterful in his use of words.  In Sonnet 43 he was also playful.  In this sonnet the speaker muses that he sees best when he sleeps; his vision is brightest in the dark of his dreams.  The speaker has someone in his mind’s eye.  How blessed it would be, he says, to look on that person in the light of day.  But because he sees the happy vision only at night, that makes night seem like day; and because of what he does not see during the day, that makes day seem like night. Here is the sonnet itself:

When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see,
For all the day they view things unrespected;
But when I sleep, in dreams they look on thee,
And darkly bright are bright in dark directed.    

Then thou, whose shadow shadows doth make bright,
How would thy shadow’s form form happy show
To the clear day with thy much clearer light,
When to unseeing eyes thy shade shines so!

How would, I say, mine eyes be blessed made
By looking on thee in the living day,
When in dead night thy fair imperfect shade
Through heavy sleep on sightless eyes doth stay!

All days are nights to see till I see thee,
And nights bright days when dreams do show thee me.

The sonnet makes extensive use of opposites.  It discusses something that is opposite what most people experience — seeing best when awake, seeing best in the light.  It is a poem of playful opposites and ironies.  Shakespeare uses several techniques to accomplish this.  The opening line’s use of the word “wink” presents an image of one eye open and the other eye closed — an opposite.   The word is also a double entendre for sleep.  So in the word “wink” is the sense of being awake, and asleep.  

Shakespeare fills the poem with more opposites, doubling single words and giving them opposite meanings, and moving the poem’s focus back-and-forth between opposing ideas, like the speaker’s eyes, and what the speaker sees. The poem is also about sight and insight, in both literal and figurative senses.  So it focuses heavily on eyes and sight.  The speaker refers to his own eyes, and eyes in general.  The first line notes his “eyes best see.”  The second and third lines mention eyes using the pronoun “they”.   Elsewhere, the speaker refers to unseeing eyes, blessed eyes and sightless eyes. Because it is about sight, the poem focuses as well on the person who the eyes see.  The speaker notes his eyes “look on thee.”  He refers to “thy shadow’s form,” and repeats “looking on thee.” The poem ends with “dreams that show thee me.”

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  • Mimi Dumontt on Dec 5, 2011

    AMAZING!!! This completely helped me understand the sonnet so much more! I love Shakespeare and his wonderful wordplay~ and must add: Love YOUR wordplay (or pun) at the very end! Very cunning!

  • David Gurnick on Dec 5, 2011

    Mimi – Thanks for the nice comment. I am glad you found this useful, and that was nice of you to let me (and the world) know. I like Shakespeare too. His writing is amazing.

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