April 20, 1995

From Gerald R. Lucas
Sonnet 35
By: William Shakespeare

No more be grieved at that which thou has done.
Roses have thorns, and silver fountains mud,
Clouds and eclipses stain both moon and sun,
And loathsome canker lives in sweetest bud.
All men make faults, and even I in this, 5
Authorizing thy trespass with compare,
Myself corrupting, salving thy amiss,
Excusing their sins more than their sins are.
For to thy sensual fault I bring in sense—
Thy adverse party is thy advocate— 10
And ’gainst myself a lawful plea commence.
Such civil war is in my love and hate
That I an accessary needs must be
To that sweet thief which sourly robs from me.

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The final two lines of Sonnet 34 are carried over into the first five-and-a-half lines of 35, and the tone must follow also. With an emphasis on “thou” the first line can continue a gloating, accusative tone. This reading would be fortified by the nature images of the next lines with the pejorative words “thorns,” “mud,” “stain” and “eclipse”carried over from 33, hitting hardest and most suggestively on “loathsome canker.” Or, equally believable, a allaying tone of true forgiveness can be inferred; a consoling, affable amity attempting to sooth the crying friend. Even a sense of embarrassment by the speaker for the outburst that he has caused.

Sonnet 35 begins a more complex, conflicting attitude for the poet. The initial lines are commonplace, emblematic aphorisms that remind one of the naive, romantic speaker in Sonnet 33.[1] While forgiveness is being given lip service in the first lines, the “stain” still remains to be worked out.

In the middle of line 5, the poet takes a turn from the nature metaphors into a more introspective, self-conscious position. The conflict does not lie without, but within the speaker. The poet has attempted to excuse the moral sin of his friend by comparing it with natural occurrences. In his strong desire to forgive and assuage the friend’s “trespass” (this word adding additional weight to the religious significance of “cross” in 34), the narrator has “excused” the sun and moon for being eclipsed and the sweetest bud for its cancer.[2] These natural sins cannot be helped, while moral failure can be; this compare is, therefore, self-deluding and injurious. This poet, compared with Astrophel, is more seriously implicated morally. He has praised a less-worthy subject, thereby contaminating his own moral standards.[3] The poet grasps the illogic of his compare and realizes that he has infected himself with corruption; the innocent poet before Sonnet 33 has learned that he is part of the fallibility common to all humanity.[4] His realization is supported by this very sonnet.

Now the poet has brought “in sense” to sweeten the friend’s “sensual fault.” This “sence” is an ambiguous term. If “sensual fault” means a fault of the senses, i.e. physical, then “sense” is logically defined as “rationality;” yet rationality seems to have led the poet into this situation in the first place. The speaker in Sonnets 33 and 34 is very calm and precise, indicative of a shrewd, sober, and witty mind. His reason, supported by his imagination, has created this “false compare.” Yet, if “sense” does not mean rationality, then it must be an existential understanding based upon the experience of feeling and not a rationalization that is solely of the intellect. “Sensual” and “sense” are the extremes, as are “love and hate,” all of which have been contending within the poet. The narrator both loves and hates the friend so “an accessary [he] needs must be.”

“Thy adverse party” is perhaps sensuality, while “a lawful plea” is perhaps rationality or natural law, both helping the poet reach his understanding. With this understanding the poet can now see himself and the friend in their true forms as erring human beings: “All men make faults.” This realization is bitter sweet: he has reconciled his own feelings and come to a higher understanding of himself and his friend only at the cost of his innocence. This new-found understanding, while shattering his naïveté, morally strengthens the poet and prepares him for life in a world of complex interrelations which can be both deleterious and beautiful.

The Elizabethans might have interpreted the poet’s “civil war” as consisting between the spirit and the flesh. This medieval idea is carried over into the renaissance and transformed by Shakespeare and later Donne. Shakespeare here is beginning to realize that as humans we are a combination of both spirit and flesh, and, like the humors, when one dominates, the total being is subject to dis-ease. Donne will later, in The Ecstasy, show that the “sensual” coupled with the “sense” is necessary in being human. Order and relation have been restored by the end of 35, even more solidly so being based in reality. If the narrator had been guilty of excessive pride, he has been humbled by his bitter-sweet realization. The poet and the friend are no longer alienated, and a sense of renewed honor, decorum, and amity—again based in a harsher reality—is exhibited. Most of all a Golden Mean has been established between excess and defect, between “sensual fault” and “sense,” between “love and hate.”

Notes and Citations

  1. Landry, Hilton (1963). Interpretations in Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Berkley: University of California Press. p. 60.
  2. Pequigney, Joseph (1985). Such is My Love: A Study of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 111. Retrieved 2021-07-25.
  3. Ferry, Anne (1983). The “Inward” Language: Sonnets of Wyatt, Sidney, Shakespeare, Donne. Chicago: U of Chicago P. p. 184.
  4. Krieger, Murray (1964). A Window to Criticism: Shakespeare’s Sonnets and Modern Poetics. Princeton: Princeton UP. p. 157.