A reading of a Shakespeare sonnet
Shakespeare’s Sonnet 34 continues the marvellous heights of Sonnet 33, and is similarly worthy of close analysis and discussion, not least because this sonnet, beginning ‘Why didst thou promise such a beauteous day…?’, continues the sun/cloud imagery introduced in the previous sonnet.
Why didst thou promise such a beauteous day,
And make me travel forth without my cloak,
To let base clouds o’ertake me in my way,
Hiding thy bravery in their rotten smoke?
‘Tis not enough that through the cloud thou break,
To dry the rain on my storm-beaten face,
For no man well of such a salve can speak,
That heals the wound, and cures not the disgrace:
Nor can thy shame give physic to my grief;
Though thou repent, yet I have still the loss:
The offender’s sorrow lends but weak relief
To him that bears the strong offence’s cross.
Ah! but those tears are pearl which thy love sheds,
And they are rich and ransom all ill deeds.
In summary, we’ve got another meditation on the ‘Fair Youth makes the day brighter with his sunny face’ motif in Sonnet 34. Shakespeare addresses the Fair Youth, likening him to the sun, and says (to paraphrase his argument): why did you lead me to think the ‘weather’ you bring was going to be glorious, so I left the house without a coat, expecting warmth and pleasantness? No sooner had I left, than the clouds came over and obscured the ‘sun’ of your affection from view. The fact that the sun breaks through the cloud to dry the rain on my face is not enough to make everything all right again: that’s cold comfort for one (such as me) who has been publicly shunned by you in the first place. And the fact that you feel ashamed of giving me the cold shoulder is not enough to make me feel better either – after all, I’ve still lost your affection, and you feeling bad about it won’t heal the pain of being rejected by you. But then the Fair Youth is not like other lovers, and the tears of shame he sheds are like pearls (which were believed to possess healing properties in the Elizabethan era, as well as being costly and precious), so seeing him cry does make everything better again. This is a bit mean, perhaps, but then when we’re spurned by the one we love, we can sometimes regrettably derive some enjoyment from knowing our unhappiness causes the our former lover unhappiness too. Shakespeare has tapped into this common human trait, or weakness – one that is all too relatable. (Something is lost in the paraphrase – quite a lot, in fact – but then we need to summarise the meaning of Sonnet 34, as it’s a little more difficult to unpick and analyse than some of the other sonnets.)
Don Paterson (who has a very fine analysis of Sonnet 34 in his book Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets: A New Commentary) points out that Shakespeare rhymes ‘face’ with ‘disgrace’ in the same lines in both Sonnet 33 and Sonnet 34: lines 6 and 8 in both. He also observes that the image of ‘rain on [Shakespeare’s] storm-beaten face’ evokes tears, prefiguring a million songwriters who have come along since. There are some very nice touches with the imagery throughout: ‘rotten smoke’ to describe the clouds has a contextual significance (‘rotten’ because clouds were thought to carry the plague, which tore through London on several occasions in the 1590s), but it also neatly works with, or rather against, the idea of the sun with its blazing fire of passion – all that’s left of the Youth’s passionate fondness for the poor Bard is the smoke coming off the embers, and his love has gone ‘rotten’. (The off-rhyme in that concluding couplet, of sheds/deeds, would have been a full rhyme in Shakespeare’s day, by the way, when ‘sheeds’ was used for ‘sheds’.)
Sonnet 34 contains masterly use of imagery to evoke multiple connotations, and represents a development in Shakespeare’s attitude to the Fair Youth: he is now addressing him directly over the cooling of his affection. What will he say next?