A reading of a classic Shakespeare sonnet
‘Full many a glorious morning have I seen’: Sonnet 33 is, without doubt, one of the more famous of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. It also introduces the first real note of heartbreak into the sequence: Shakespeare, it would appear, has been dumped by the Fair Youth. The imagery of Sonnet 33 is worth analysing carefully – it has led to some curious alternative interpretations of this poem.
Full many a glorious morning have I seen
Flatter the mountain tops with sovereign eye,
Kissing with golden face the meadows green,
Gilding pale streams with heavenly alchemy;
Anon permit the basest clouds to ride
With ugly rack on his celestial face,
And from the forlorn world his visage hide,
Stealing unseen to west with this disgrace:
Even so my sun one early morn did shine,
With all triumphant splendour on my brow;
But out, alack, he was but one hour mine,
The region cloud hath mask’d him from me now.
Yet him for this my love no whit disdaineth;
Suns of the world may stain when heaven’s sun staineth.
We like Don Paterson’s suggestion, in his Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets: A New Commentary, that Sonnet 33 should be read as a rather paranoid interrogation of ‘I’m ironing my ruff tonight’ – Shakespeare is reading too much into a perceived slight by the Fair Youth, and fears that this spells the end of their relationship (if they ever had such a thing). But is this the only way of interpreting this poem?
The substance of the poem is relatively easy to summarise and paraphrase. On many mornings, I have seen the sun bathing the world in a glorious glow; soon, though, the morning sun is masked by clouds, leading to disfigurement of that sunny ‘face’ (‘disfigurement’ is the principal meaning of ‘disgrace’ in line 8, rather than ‘shame’). Indeed, it was so with me and my sun: it shone on me briefly, but within an hour the heavenly clouds (‘region cloud’) had hidden it from view. Yet I do not bedrudge my ‘sun’ this fickleness: beautiful men may flatter me with their attention and then withdraw it, and I will put up with that, just as I put up with the fact that the sun is shining in the sky one moment and then hiding its glow from the world the next.
The extended metaphor whereby ‘sun = Fair Youth’ is intended to pay homage to the young man’s beauty: he shines as brightly as that heavenly orb. Shakespeare piles on the flattery, though, with extra touches: the sun has a ‘sovereign eye’ and so, by association, has the Fair Youth – ‘sovereign’ suggesting royalty or at least nobility. The words ‘golden’, ‘gilding’, and ‘alchemy’ all reinforce this association with wealth and nobility. Yet Don Paterson detects an overturning (of which the Bard was perhaps only partly conscious) of this flattery in that phrase, ‘Suns of the world’, since it reminds us – through a pun on ‘sons’ – that the Fair Youth and his other well-heeled chums are no more heavenly than the Bard himself. They are suns/sons of the world rather than ‘heaven’s sun’.
This possible sun/son pun has led to some scholars, such as Mark Schwartberg, interpreting Sonnet 33 in light of the death of Shakespeare’s young son, Hamnet, in 1596. Shakespeare’s son was ‘but one hour mine’ because Hamnet was not yet a teenager when he died, and Shakespeare had only known him a short while. (Compare here Ben Jonson’s elegy ‘On My First Sonne’.) This is a plausible secondary reading of the lines, though the rest of the poem seems to fit more snugly into the sequence of the sonnets, and so should probably be principally read as a poem about the Fair Youth. Still, it’s nice to have some food for thought when it comes to alternative interpretations and analysis. What do you make of Sonnet 33?