April 18, 1995

From Gerald R. Lucas
Sonnet 33
By: William Shakespeare

Full many a glorious morning have I seen
Flatter the mountaintops with sovereign eye,
Kissing with golden face the meadows green,
Gilding pale streams with heavenly alchemy;
Anon permit the basest clouds to ride 5
With ugly rack on his celestial face,
And from the forlorn world his visage hide,
Steeling unseen to the west with his disgrace.
Even so my sun one early morn did shine
With all-triumphant splendor on my brow. 10
But out, alack! He was but one hour mine;
The region cloud hath masked him from me now.
Yet him for this my love no whit disdaineth;
Suns of the world may stain when heaven’s sun staineth.

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Shakespeare recasts Sidney’s sonnet into another incarnation altogether where the sun is dubiously veiled, suggesting corruption, equivocation, and falsehood. Here we see the object of adoration has permitted the “basest . . . region cloud” to “mask” his radiance. The speaker[1] had obviously been like Astrophel in Sonnet 22 at one time, but now his Sun-Friend has committed some “disgrace” and has covered himself up with shame. The opening lines contain suspicions of corruption: “Flatter,” “Kissing,” and “Guilding” even before an open disclosure of some failure in amity.

A hierarchy is evident within Sonnet 33. In the extended metaphor, the friend, or object of adoration, is represented by the sun which is considered the center of the Elizabethan universe, the King of the Heavens, if you will. The Sun-King-Friend has graced the speaker, represented by “world” or earth, with his light, but the light is now “masked” by the “basest . . . region cloud.” The “base cloud” could represent someone who has come between the Sun-Friend and the World-Speaker (a person who is remiss in the eyes of the world and some association with this person has caused the Sun-Friend “disgrace”), some sort of reprehensible behavior or thoughtless impulse, or a woman.[2] The former explanation, or perhaps all three together, have caused some “disgrace” (i.e. “loss of beauty”) to the friend and offended the speaker.[3]

Joseph Pequigney opines, ad infinitum, that the fault, which subsequently is disclosed as “sensual” in Sonnet 35, is somehow sexual. The bawdy sense of the verb “ride,” i.e. “to mount sexually,” is indicative, states Pequigney, of “oral-genital carnality engaged in with some low type.”[4] He continues by likening “pale streams” with seamen, paraphrasing line 4 as “enriching an orgasm with delectable magic,” and citing “Kissing with golden face the meadows green” as surely suggestive of amorous play.[5] Shakespeare’s wording here does parallel his Venus and Adonis, where Venus compares her body to a park and Adonis to a deer coaxing him to “Feed where thou wilt, on mountain or in dale;/ Graze on my lips . . . Stray lower, where pleasant fountains lie. / . . . Sweet bottom grass and high delightful plain” and so on. The language is similar and a sexual (in this case an x-rated) reading of Sonnet 33 is not tenuous.

Whichever interpretation of “basest clouds” is chosen one thing remains indisputable: there has been an upset in the order and relation of things. The Elizabethans would see that ideal of the Sun has permitted the basest clouds to cause him disgrace leaving the World “forlorn” and alienated.[6] This alienation is real, not of the court. A potentate might “flatter” a courtier with “sovereign eye,” and then be distracted by “region cloud[s]” causing only surface, feigned injuries; the courtier would not be truly harmed. Yet, some true, emotional bond exists between the speaker and the Sun-Friend (implied here and evident in the subsequent sonnets), which the latter has disrupted. The trusted friend, lover, parent, or companion has committed some perfidy seriously injuring the speaker’s moral sensibilities. The constancy that the friend had ostensibly given in the past has now been disturbed; the ideal image of the companion that the speaker held in his mind has become obscured, stained. If the Sun-Friend had stood for the symbol of perfection in the speaker’s eyes, regretfully (“alack!”) he can no longer, poetically, function in that manner.[7][8]

This betrayal committed by the Sun-Friend is probably the first real test of the speaker’s love for, what was up until now, the perfect object of his affections. Something has been allowed to intervene within their world, their perfect microcosm, upsetting that world and introducing evil and sin to the speaker. This fall proves that the Sun-Friend has faults and tests the love and imagination of the speaker who must now cope with this obviously devastating fact and bitter disillusionment[9][10] The Eden in which the speaker and the friend existed was invented by the speaker and his poetic words, both flattering the subject and deceiving himself; the subject is, both figuratively and literally, no longer “mine.” The subject’s true nature was, therefore, disguised, as well as the true inward nature of the poet. The pertinence of this line inquiry will become more apparent with an exegesis of Sonnet 35.

The couplet offers the best clue to the speaker’s true self, and a more objective look at the Sun-Friend. Most simply the couplet can be paraphrased: “What happens in the heavens can happen on earth.” These lines, suggests Seymour-Smith, can be read as simultaneously reflecting the friend and the poet.[11] If this is the case then the friend is either glib and obtuse, unworthy of the poet’s praise, or defensive, while the poet himself is capable of naive forgiveness, true caritas, cynical acceptance, or servile weakness. This situation also reflects upon the speaker as one who has perhaps erred in choosing an unworthy subject for praise, a subject who might have the potential for goodness, but who has fallen into depravity, which a cynical, bitter reading would support. The poet finds no consolation in his musings of the universe’s workings and imperfections and is left isolated and miserable.[12] Any of the readings are valid; however, the speaker seems to want to forgive the friend, looking at the sonnet in relation to 34 and 35. The poet ponders over his friend’s disgrace—now his own too—in the latter two sonnets, indicative of one who is looking for a reason, or excuse, to forgive one whom he loves. The next sonnets also illustrate how the poet copes with his newly-discovered, painful truth.

Notes and Citations

  1. The speaker in Shakespeare’s sonnets is generally considered masculine because of the sonnets’ authorship; yet a feminine speaker seems not out of the question, especially when discussing the universality of the sonnets. Though the pronoun “he” is occasionally employed in this essay, a “she” should not be discounted. The friend, however, is obviously male, yet this fact is too is ultimately unimportant.
  2. See:
    • Pequigney, Joseph (1985). Such is My Love: A Study of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 104. Retrieved 2021-07-25.
    • Winny, James (1968). The Master-Mistress: A Study of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. New York: Barnes & Noble. p. 52.
    • Seymour-Smith, Martin (1976). "Shakespeare's Sonnets 1-42: A Psychological Reading". In Landry, Hilton. New Essays on Shakespeare’s Sonnets. New York: AMS Press, Inc. p. 33.
  3. Winny (1968, p. 54) points out that the speaker is not “directly” hurt by the friend, but is simply a “bystander” involved in the friend’s disgrace. Yet in Sonnet 34 the speaker becomes directly hurt.
  4. Pequigney 1985, p. 106.
  5. Pequigney 1985, p. 107.
  6. Line 8 has the Sun surreptitiously moving closer to the earth (“west”), i.e. the Sun-Friend is hiding his shame which is bringing him down in his disgrace. He is literally moving down, closer to the earth.
  7. Seymour-Smith 1976, p. 33.
  8. Winny, 1968 & Winny, p. 54.
  9. Spender, Stephen (1962). "The Alike and the Other". The Riddle of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. New York: Basic Books. p. 105.
  10. Spender (1962, p. 104) suggests that this dilemma is akin to Keats’ “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” If the Sun-Friend represented the paragon of Beauty/Truth for the speaker, then the realization of the Sun-Friend’s fallibility could be analogous to having to accept the fact that the universe is not geocentric, or proof that there truly is not a God.
  11. Seymour-Smith 1976, p. 34.
  12. Pequigney 1985, p. 109.