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Shakespeare (sonnet 25):

Let those who are in favor with their stars
Of public honor and proud titles boast,
Whilst I, whom fortune of such triumph bars,
Unlooked for joy in that I honor most.
Great princes' favorites their fair leaves spread
But as the marigold at the sun’s eye,
And in themselves their pride lies burièd,
For at a frown they in their glory die.
The painful warrior famousèd for worth,
After a thousand victories once foiled,
Is from the book of honor razèd quite,
And all the rest forgot for which he toiled.
  Then happy I that love and am belovèd
  Where I may not remove nor be removèd.

I don't understand the basic meaning of the bolded line. Where is the verb? Is it "joy" = "to feel enjoyment"?

Could we rephrase it thus:

Whilst I, whom fortune of such triumph bars,
Unlooked-for, feel enjoyment in the things I honor most.

One other option I came up with is "I boast in unlooked-for joy", but then I cannot make sense of the rest of the sentence: "in that I honor most".

But wait, my first option is also shaky, because it's "that" and not "what" (I honor most).

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  • "The hidden joy I receive from being loved" is what he is saying. Jan 17, 2017 at 15:44
  • @BrianTompsett-汤莱恩 - so the whole sentence has no verb? "Whilst I, whom fortune of such triumph bars, the hidden joy I received from being loved" makes no sense. Is it an omission of "boast"? (I boast of "unlooked-for joy") Still it fails to glue together for me. Jan 17, 2017 at 15:46
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    No. He is not boasting. It is the silent secret pleasure of being saved by love while suffering lifes arduous misfortunes. Yes, there is no explicit verb I can see, but a grammarian may offer a more explicit response. I would imply the hidden verbs of feel, know , recieve or experience. Jan 17, 2017 at 15:51
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    The verb is to joy. Unlook'd for is, according to websites, either an adjective (describing the speaker) or an adverb describing the verb joy. Jan 17, 2017 at 17:01
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    A modern dialect might use "that which I honor most" or "what I honor most" or even "whom I honor most". In this dialect, "that" can stand alone -- with the advantage of not distinguishing between "what" and "whom". The reader doesn't know whether a person is involved until the closing couplet. Jan 17, 2017 at 17:15

2 Answers 2

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Your intuition is correct. The early modern 'joy' was a verb as well as a noun. So the meaning is essentially:

So I - whose fortune has only been to be someone unimportant - being unknown, take pleasure in the thing I honor most (the object of my unrequited love). But whereas courtiers' and soldiers' joy is shallow and easily overturned, I can never be rejected as my beloved doesn't even know I want her [or him - this is a point of contention].

Phonically I think the stressed syllable helps hint that it's a verb, too.

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The sonnet's fourth line is more ambiguous than what the other answer and the comment's suggest. For a starter, here is my paraphrase of the first three lines:

Let those whose stars are favourable
boast about (or possibly even "display proudly") public honour and splendid titles
while I, prevented (from) such triumphs by (bad) fortune, ...

The fourth line needs to be discussed separately, due to the ambiguity of "unlooked for":

  • "Unlooked for" may mean "ignored, overlooked" (Colin Burrow). The line may then be interpreted as "(while I), (being) ignored, take delight in the object or person that I honour most". ("Honour" in this line contrast with the "public honour" in the second line.)
  • "Unlooked for" may mean "unregarded, out of the public eye" (Kerrigan). This is a slightly different nuance than the first meaning that brings out the contrast with "public honour" even more strongly.
  • "Unlooked for" may mean "unexpectedly" (Kerrigan), resulting in the following reading: "(while I), unexpectedly / beyond expectation take delight in the object or person that I honour most".

Sources:

  • Shakespeare, William: The Sonnets and A Lover's Complaint. Edited by John Kerrigan. The New Penguin Shakespeare. London: Penguin, 1986. (458 pages)
  • Shakespeare, William: The Complete Sonnets and Poems. Edited by Colin Burrow. The Oxford Shakespeare. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002 [2008]. (750 pages)

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