The first four lines of “Sonnet 30” establish one of the poem’s themes and its form. The poem begins with the speaker reminiscing, thinking about “things past.” The speaker describes this act of reminiscing with an evocative and suggestive metaphor. The speaker describes thought itself—“sweet silent thought”—as “sessions.” In Renaissance England, where the poem was written, the word “sessions” had a specific technical meaning: it refers to court sessions, the period of the year when magistrates and judges heard legal cases. The metaphor thus suggests that the speaker experiences “sweet silent thought” as a kind of tribunal: a place of trial and questioning. The metaphor might even suggest that the speaker starts the poem feeling guilty.
Indeed, as becomes clear in lines 3-4, the speaker’s memories are not pleasant. Instead of returning to happy times, the speaker focuses on “old woes”: disappointments and failures from the past. For the speaker, just thinking about these things is enough to bring them back with all their painful power. And so the speaker “new wail[s]” them. In other words, the speaker grieves the “lack of many a thing I sought” and “my dear time’s waste” again. Just remembering these failures and wasted opportunities is enough to send the speaker into a spiral of regret and self-recrimination.
The tone of these opening lines is thus dark and brooding: they are full of guilt, grief, and disappointment. But the poem itself is exceptionally elegant and refined. That creates some tension for the reader. For example, line 4 contains a strong alliterative /w/ sound in “woes,” “wail,” and “waste.” The /w/ sound underlines the way old and new overlap, the way the speaker tries—and fails—to get over the past. The assonant /o/ sound in the line, in “old woes,” also emphasizes the speaker’s grief: it sounds like someone moaning. But these sounds work in a highly literary, even artificial way. Though the poem describes despair and disillusionment, it remains powerfully controlled and organized.
This control is reflected in the poem’s form. “Sonnet 30” is a Shakespearean sonnet. It follows a strict rhyme scheme—the first twelve lines form three rhyming quatrains and follow an ABAB pattern. The poem also follows an equally strict meter, iambic pentameter. The speaker’s pensive meditative mood is further underlined throughout by the speaker’s use of end-stop: almost all of the poem’s lines are end-stopped, as though the speaker were hesitating, procrastinating. One of the only exceptions comes in the poem’s first line, which is enjambed. That enjambment gives the opening of the poem a sense of energy and sprightliness that quickly fades as the speaker wades deeper and deeper into despair.