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.
After the torment and anguish of betrayal, the poet in this and the following sonnets analyses his own disturbed mind and the dark brightness that love has cast upon it. This is a sonnet of antitheses, seeing and not seeing, day and night, shadow and form, dark and bright, dead and living. It is also a poem of absence, and links itself thematically with the next seven sonnets (43-52, excluding 49).
The exuberance with which he uses the language of shadows and forms blunts the biting edge of absence, which otherwise cuts into his heart. Shadows, substance, form and dreams are part of the machinery of Plato's cave in which the real world is unknown, and only flickering shadows of people cast on the wall of the cave by a sickly light are interpreted as if they were reality. Real form, or essence, was something which only the spiritual eyes, or the eyes of the mind, could see. The theme of shadow substance duality was a common one in Elizabethan literature. Lyly for example frequently mentions it: 'Well gentlemen, answered Lucilla, in arguing of the shadow we forgo the substance.' (Euphues (c.1578). L.Scragg, ed., p.20).
In this sonnet the shadows seem to flicker and in the end one enters a dream world which is as real to the poet as the world of absence from which he strives to escape. The days become nights and nights days, and the natural order of things is inverted and confounded.
The 1609 Quarto Version
When moſt I winke then doe mine eyes beſt ſee,
For all the day they view things vnreſpected,
But when I ſleepe,in dreames they looke on thee,
And darkely bright,are bright in darke directed.
Then thou whoſe ſhaddow ſhaddowes doth make bright,
How would thy ſhadowes forme,forme happy ſhow,
To the cleere day with thy much cleerer light,
When to vn-ſeeing eyes thy ſhade ſhines ſo?
How would (I ſay )mine eyes be bleſſed made,
By looking on thee in the liuing day ?
When in dead night their faire imperfect ſhade,
Through heauy ſleepe on ſightleſſe eyes doth ſtay?
All dayes are nights to ſee till I ſee thee,
And nights bright daies when dreams do ſhew thee me.