Here is the "Sonnet 29" by Shakespeare.

When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man's art, and that man's scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least.
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

The book SAT II Success: Literature which I use to prepare for the SAT exam (a multiple-choice test for high school students in the US) asks the following question about the sonnet:

In lines 4 through 7, the speaker explains that he envies all of the following aspects of others EXCEPT

(A) hopefulness.
(B) having many friends.
(C) skill as an artist.
(D) a handsome appearance.
(E) contentment.

In my opinion, choices A, B, and D are definitely present (in phrases "[w]ishing me like to one more rich in hope," "like him with friends possessed," and "[f]eatured like him," respectively). I also thought that the choice C had been present in the poem in the phrase "[d]esiring this man’s art." This would leave only choice E, contentment.
However, the book says otherwise. Here is an explanation for this question:

The correct answer is (C). This question is best approached by eliminating all the right answers. Check each phrase to see if it is in the quatrain: hopefulness = “rich in hope,” choice (A); many friends = “like him with friends possessed,” choice (B); handsome appearance = “featured like him,” choice (D); and intellectual ability = “that man’s scope,” choice (E). The phrase that is not in the quatrain is choice (C), skill as an artist, which is the correct response.

I've checked the analysis of the sonnet on multiple websites, and they had different explanations for the word "scope" in the poem, including "freedom" and "opportunity." However, I see how "scope" can mean intellectual ability: wide range of one's knowledge.
Even so, the book indicates "contentment" in the answer choice E and "intellectual ability" in the answer choice E explanation. I personally cannot see how these can be one and the same thing. According to the Internet definition:

Contentment is a state of happiness and satisfaction.

Then, this is not connected to one's intellectual abilities.

Could you help me see how the answer choice C can be correct? I can't be sure if it is some kind of mistake in a book which is why I want to make sure I don't miss or don't understand something. So if there any details that would make choice C sound correct (or "more correct"), please share.

  • 4
    After this question and this one it should be clear that SAT II Success: Literature has a few mistakes. – Gareth Rees Sep 26 at 9:11
  • I would have assumed, given that Shakespeare is an author, that in this poem that "this man's art" meant his writing ability. And writing ability should definitely qualify as "skill as an artist". So I would say that (C) is a very dubious answer. If they had wanted a properly misleading answer, they should have said "skill as a painter". – Peter Shor Sep 27 at 0:19
  • @Gareth Rees I know, but I still wanted to make sure I didn't miss anything even though I knew it could have mistakes. And as it turned out from the answer below, I actually did miss an important detail about the vocabulary of the question that would help me – Elena Kolumba Sep 28 at 23:45
up vote 4 down vote accepted

In the phrase, "this man's art", "art" can mean "skill", "learning", "cunning", "magic" or "artifice". In Shakespeare's time, the word "art" usually refers to capabilities that have nothing to do with art in the present-day sense, so option C is what educationalists would call a "plausible destractor" for people who are not very familiar with Shakespeare's language.

Shakespeare often uses "scope" often in the phrase "give / have scope", meaning "give, have free play, liberty or opportunity" (see A Shakespeare Glossary by C. T. Onions, 1911). In addition, "scope" can also mean "object, aim" or "licence", but I don't think these are the primary meanings in Sonnet 29. I have never seen "scope" in the sense of contentment anywhere in Shakespeare (though, of course, my memory is imperfect).

Contentment is mentioned in line 8 ("With what I most enjoy contented least"), but not in the context of a comparison with another person.

Since "skill as an artist" is much more specific than "this man's art", choice C is strictly speaking a correct choice. However, since "contentment" is not mentioned as something the poet envies in other men, choice E is logically also a correct option. (One should identify the aspects that are not being envied.) I think that question author(s) mixed something up there.

  • I agree with everything but your conclusion. As you say in the first paragraph, “this man’s art” is unrelated to artistic ability, so skill as an artist is in fact not being envied. Rather, I suspect the error in the question is that choice E was supposed to be intellectual ability (envied in “that man’s scope”), making the correct answer indeed C. – alex_d Sep 26 at 12:22
  • 1
    @alex_d Thanks for your comment. What I should have written is that neither C nor E are being envied, so both these choices are correct. Intellectual ability (E) is not contentment. – Christophe Strobbe Sep 26 at 12:32
  • I agree -- I mean that I suspect the question author’s error was that whoever typeset the answer choices used “contentment” instead of “intellectual ability” for choice E. But without a way to see the author’s mind, this is a weak inference at best. – alex_d Sep 26 at 13:28

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