It is a singularly significant fact about Shakespeare’s sonnets that they consistently outsell everything else he wrote. The plays — performed with metronomic-regularity year in year out — are far more frequently taught than the sonnets. But Shakespeare’s sonnets are more widely bought and read.
Among the readers of Shakespeare’s sonnets, you will find any number of types — be it those who hope to discover something scandalous by peeping into Shakespeare’s private life; or those who engage in the pointless quest to disprove that Shakespeare was actually Shakespeare; or those with a yearning to decode the sonnets in such a way that the endless sexual politics of the day will prove, once and for all, anticipated and vindicated.
Yet I like to imagine that the largest group of this sonnet readership consists not of the political or the polemical or the poseur, but of the solitary and thoughtful: the true literature-lovers to whom these compact compositional masterpieces, with their rich psychological-emotional complexity and stylistic genius, speak endlessly, yielding up newer, deeper surprises upon each rereading, for a lifetime.
Often now, the sonnets read to me like little lyrical puzzles which, when worked upon with an effort of attention, give back brilliant and flashing insights into the human psyche and the human heart.
It can easily be argued that there exists no work of comparable brevity and excellence which simultaneously and with such stylistic sophistication captures the immense range of the human experience.
In addition to which, Shakespeare’s poems are written in such a way that when you reread them, there soon develops the soft and subtle yet somehow certain realization that in loving another human being, our passions and hopes come to be more and more generated by how we’ve come to feel about ourselves — ultimately, perhaps, that one cannot truly love another who does not first love oneself, in a healthy, authentic manner.
Upon realizing an emerging passion, no apparent pitfall at first presents itself — perhaps because by being shared with and also partially caused by another with whom we feel a growing love and connection, our own happiness also, for a time, grows enormously enlarged. That enlarged happiness can consume everything else. The more fundamental the connection, the deeper the love.
For certain ruminative dispositions, however, this initially innocuous state can transform without warning: becoming a seed that too-soon grows into an increasingly complicated jungle of the mind, with near-infinite permutations. This is one of the many subjects that Shakespeare in his sonnets so expertly explores.
How, for example, do we react when the person we love most commits a transgression that badly wounds?
Perhaps the first reaction is to fall back upon the old reassurances and rationalizations: “To err is human”; “nobody is perfect”; “If someone lies or behaves duplicitously, it is meaningless, because complicated people contain multitudes.”
Perhaps the next realization is that, while acknowledging our wound, we see also that we’ve envisioned a kind of perfection in the other which is not only impossible but absurd. And in addition to realizing this, we might also realize that no person could ever live up to this fabricated standard we’ve erected — and perhaps, as well, in an attempt to spare the loved one any additional anguish, we sometimes begin blaming ourselves for feeling this way in the first place, which in turn can lead to viewing oneself from a different but equally exaggerated and fabricated angle: supine and even servile.
Thus, in an attempt to guard against blaming the one we love, we might suddenly find ourselves asserting an unconditional devotion and love — which, after all, is what love is, isn’t it?
I myself have witnessed many such instances of this exact phenomena, in many around me, a warped devotion, which to an outside eye can seem peculiar, obstinate, blind, even perverse.
I believe Shakespeare’s Sonnet 35 is precisely about this very subject:
No more be grieved at that which thou hast 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,
Authórizing thy trespass with compare,
Myself corrupting salving thy amiss,
Excusing thy sins more than thy sins are:
For to thy sensual fault I bring in sense—
Thy adverse party is thy advocate—
And against myself a lawful plea commence.
Such civil war is in my love and hate,
That I an áccessory needs must be
To that sweet thief which sourly robs from me.
“To thy sensual fault” is obviously referring to something which would cause a much deeper sense of distress and even guilt than could easily be cleared up with a simple apology:
Whatever was done, in other words, was grave enough for the speaker to think it appropriate to offer absolution — an absolution based upon the fallibility and imperfection of terrestrial things, which are discussed in the opening — and I think that this passage (“to thy sensual fault I bring in sense”) the most important clue in understanding this brief but intricate poem.
“Loathsome canker” is harsh and heavy language, with the power to hurt the beloved, but the speaker in the poem may also hope that this bitter and possibly vengeful tone is tempered by the term “sweetest bud.”
(This last thing, I know, is pure speculation.)
The things cited in the second, third, and fourth lines of the poem are a statement of the “faults” of nature, and in drawing comparisons with such imperfections to the beloved — and implying furthermore that such imperfections are unalterable — the speaker is at great risk of rationalizing all poor behavior with a sentiment which might be summed up thus: “There’s no point in apologizing since you (like roses which have thorns and silver fountains which have mud and the clouds and eclipses which stain both moon and sun) cannot help what you’re doing.”
Shakespeare is of course aware of this risk, and that’s part of the point of the whole poem.
In fact, this wild and reckless notion transforms the beloved into an unthinking, unchoosing, almost intellectually primitive kind of creature, and in so doing it completely nullifies and invalidates the sheer significance of the grief mentioned in the first line. That word — “grieved” — is also a crux and a key to understanding this entire poem.
In lines seven and eight, the speaker goes on to state that he is, in any case, the worse transgressor of the two — both for making too much of the trespass in the first place and then for assuming the role of judge, jury, and priest who can offer exoneration and absolution.
The ninth line is, as previously mentioned, the pivotal line of the poem.
It also begins the most complex passage of the poem.
For to thy sensual fault I bring in sense
Here I quote William Empson, who has accurately described this line as containing at least three different strains of thought:
- “I bring in reason, arguments to justify your sensual fault.”
- “I bring in feelings about it, feel it more important than it really was (and therefore offer more of an excuse than it needs).”
- “I enjoy making arguments to defend it, so that my sensuality sympathizes with yours.”
The poet Anthony Hecht adds this:
“It can also bear a further meaning: ‘To the sensuality of your fault I bring in (to my regret) my own sensuality, which may well, alas, have been the initial cause of your arousal, though now that arousal is not directed at me — or, in other words, I am myself the unwitting author of your promiscuity.'”
Lines ten and eleven are ingeniously paradoxical:
Thy adverse party is thy advocate—
And against myself a lawful plea commence.
These lines may (or may not) be an attempt to lighten the justice-like gravity of the moral predicament in which both parties are now deeply enmeshed.
But the paradox also shifts nearly the whole focus of complaint and indictment to and against the speaker himself, leaving the loved one almost out-of-frame, to such a degree that come the twelfth line, love-and-hate are not merely balanced, but the hatred is as much self-directed as it is outwardly directed: it is, on the one hand, directed at the beloved’s sensual fault, and, on the other hand, at the love which is not only pointed toward the beloved but generates the (seeming) necessity of this sort of degrading absolution.
Christopher Marlowe, who was Shakespeare’s contemporary and who’s most famous, I think, for writing the unforgettable character of Doctor Faustus in the play The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus, described this condition as “civil war … an intestine broil.” He also called the condition “highly complex,” and here, as elsewhere, Christopher Marlowe was unquestionably correct.
The “intestine broil” is a condition consisting of something like this:
Love and hate are at war.
The speaker is at much at war with himself as he is with the one he loves.
The speaker is furthermore at war with the impulses of war and the impulses of hate.
All this warfare may very well end in complete calamity.
And in this poem, there is no happy ending: the sense of calamity and disaster continues right up to the closing couplet, which says, among other things, that the very distraction of the speaker may be driving his beloved from him — or that his generous willingness to forgive transgressions has encouraged and enabled the beloved to feel no real remorse because no real harm was done (even if it actually was).
Either alternative — and they are mutually exclusive — is not healthy or good.
The speaker of the poem is thus left in a terribly ambivalent position, which ambivalent position seems insoluble.
Once unlocked, Sonnet 35 swiftly accumulates dramatic power — capturing, as it does, all the grief-stricken choices and alternatives, via delicate maneuverings, to avoid placing too much blame on the beloved, and yet unable to get around the very real torment, which gave rise to the poem in the first place. This sonnet also strikes a near-perfect poetic balance which is encapsulated in the “sweet” and “sour” of the last line, and which echoes so subtly and so brilliantly the “civil war” and “love and hate” in line twelve, as well as the mixed “imperfections” discussed in the second, third, and fourth lines.