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Shakespeare Sonnet 34: "Why didst thou promise such a beauteous day"

Updated on May 7, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

The real "Shakespeare"
The real "Shakespeare" | Source

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 34

In Sonnet 34, the speaker again employs the metaphor of weather to elaborate his concerns with the bumpy roads that his writing process sometimes has travel. As the speaker dramatizes his writing experience, he extends that weather metaphor of sun and clouds that provide the ups and downs, the crests and troughs, that both favor and then disrupt the ever evolving tumult of the speaker’s writing process.

Sonnet 34

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.

Reading of Sonnet 34

Commentary

Sonnet 34 dramatizes its subject, extending a metaphor of weather with sun and clouds with the troughs and crests that appear in the always evolving tumult of the speaker’s writing ability.

First Quatrain: Dramatizing a Complaint

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?

The first quatrain of Sonnet 34 finds the speaker addressing some person or something, inquiring with the rather blunt question that seems to imply some grievance: "Why didst thou promise such a beauteous day / And make me travel forth without my cloak?"

The speaker then continues with the issue, "To let base clouds o’ertake me in my way, / Hiding thy bravery in their rotten smoke?" He did not wear his cloak, because he thought the weather would turn out to be pleasant and sunny.

However, contrary to the speaker's predictions, the clouds gathered and turned his fair weather prediction into a false guess. Their "rotten smoke" of the bank of clouds gave the speaker a drenched face and set of clothing, and he was not happy about this moist outcome.

Second Quatrain: Forgiving the Sun's Behavior

’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:

The speaker next opens up that he now is required to address the sun: "’Tis not enough that through the cloud thou break, / To dry the rain on my storm-beaten face." The sun has finally cut between the clouds, and the warm orb is now relieving the wet speaker's "storm-beaten face."

However, the speaker does not immediately forgive the sun's behavior, because although the star is now drying off the speaker's face, the speaker is still smarting as he considers himself injured by the earlier drenching: the "salve" is healing the "wound" but "cures not the disgrace."

The clever speaker has been put out by the rain. And worse it is that he had thought the weather would remain clear. He is mightily offended that the sun had permitted him to remain unprepared by failing to take his cloak along with him.

Third Quatrain: The Sun's Confession

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.

The speaker now ribs the sun again, as he suggests that in spite of the fact that the offending sun has confessed wrongdoing and attempted to give the speaker recompense, "the offender’s sorrow lends but weak relief / To him that bears the strong offence’s cross." It never aids the victim that the offender may confess sorrow over a misdeed; the victim continues to suffer because of the offender’s negligent actions.

The Couplet: Shining Forth

Ah! but those tears are pearl which thy love sheds,
And they are rich and ransom all ill deeds.

However, in the couplet, the speaker capitulates, taking back his abrasive upbraid because he now realizes that the daystar as well as all the weather's behavior has resulted in "tears" of "pearl." Rain affords richness to the land, assisting with the earth's fertility. The sun’s involvement in the entire creative process "ransom[s] all ill deeds."

Again, a Weather Metaphor

Noticeably, the speaker once more employs the extended metaphor of weather using the sun and clouds to create a little drama, featuring and constantly evoking the activity involved in the speaker's talent as a writer.

The speaker had thought when he first set out to create his poem that his muse was with him and shining on him with intensity. Thus the speaker traveled forth into the writing process with a cheerful composure, failing to realize that his muse would soon stop shining and allow the darkening clouds of doubt and frustration to gather, as he attempted to compose.

However, the speaker's creative juices begin to flow again, but he still was not amused that his muse would feign to abandon him so easily; therefore, he scolds the muse and protests that has been aggrieved by her. But then, the speaker finally admits that all's well that ends well, and even the muse’s capricious moments are capable of eventually composting the plowed garden of the speaker's inspiration.

A Brief Overview: The 154-Sonnet Sequence

Scholars and critics of Elizabethan literature have determined that the sequence of 154 Shakespeare sonnets may be classified into three thematic categories: (1) Marriage Sonnets 1-17; (2) Muse Sonnets 18-126, traditionally identified as the "Fair Youth"; and (3) Dark Lady Sonnets 127-154.

Marriage Sonnets 1-17

The speaker in the Shakespeare “Marriage Sonnets” pursues a single goal: to persuade a young man to marry and produce beautiful offspring. It is likely that the young man is Henry Wriothesley, the third earl of Southampton, who is being urged to marry Elizabeth de Vere, the oldest daughter of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.

Many scholars and critics now argue persuasively that Edward de Vere is the writer of the works attributed to the nom de plume, "William Shakespeare." For example, Walt Whitman, one of America's greatest poets has opined:

Conceiv'd out of the fullest heat and pulse of European feudalism — personifying in unparalleled ways the medieval aristocracy, its towering spirit of ruthless and gigantic caste, with its own peculiar air and arrogance (no mere imitation) — only one of the "wolfish earls" so plenteous in the plays themselves, or some born descendant and knower, might seem to be the true author of those amazing works — works in some respects greater than anything else in recorded literature.

For more information regarding Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, as the real writer of the Shakespearean canon, please visit The De Vere Society, an organization that is "dedicated to the proposition that the works of Shakespeare were written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford."

Muse Sonnets 18-126 (Traditionally classified as "Fair Youth")

The speaker in this section of sonnets is exploring his talent, his dedication to his art, and his own soul power. In some sonnets, the speaker addresses his muse, in others he addresses himself, and in others he even addresses the poem itself.

Even though many scholars and critics have traditionally categorized this group of sonnets as the "Fair Youth Sonnets," there is no "fair youth," that is "young man," in these sonnets. There is no person at all in this sequence, with exception of the two problematic sonnets, 108 and 126.

Dark Lady Sonnets 127-154

The final sequence targets an adulterous romance with a woman of questionable character; the term “dark” likely modifies the woman’s character flaws, not her skin tone.

Three Problematic Sonnets: 108, 126, 99

Sonnet 108 and 126 present a problem in categorization. While most of the sonnets in the "Muse Sonnets" do focus on the poet's musings about his writing talent and do not focus on a human being, sonnets 108 and 126 are speaking to a young man, respectively calling him "sweet boy" and "lovely boy." Sonnet 126 presents an additional problem: it is not technically a "sonnet," because it features six couplets, instead of the traditional three quatrains and a couplet.

The themes of sonnets 108 and 126 would better categorize with the "Marriage Sonnets" because they do address a "young man." It is likely that sonnets 108 and 126 are at least partially responsible for the erroneous labeling of the "Muse Sonnets" as the "Fair Youth Sonnets" along with the claim that those sonnets address a young man.

While most scholars and critics tend to categorize the sonnets into the three-themed schema, others combine the "Marriage Sonnets" and the "Fair Youth Sonnets" into one group of "Young Man Sonnets." This categorization strategy would be accurate if the "Muse Sonnets" actually addressed a young man, as only the "Marriage Sonnets" do.

Sonnet 99 might be considered somewhat problematic: it features 15 lines instead of the traditional 14 sonnet lines. It accomplishes this task by converting the opening quatrain into a cinquain, with an altered rime scheme from ABAB to ABABA. The rest of the sonnet follows the regular rime, rhythm, and function of the traditional sonnet.

The Two Final Sonnets

Sonnets 153 and 154 are also somewhat problematic. They are classified with the Dark Lady Sonnets, but they function quite differently from the bulk of those poems.

Sonnet 154 is a paraphrase of Sonnet 153; thus, they carry the same message. The two final sonnets dramatize the same theme, a complaint of unrequited love, while outfitting the complaint with the dress of mythological allusion. The speaker employs the services of the Roman god Cupid and the goddess Diana. The speaker thus achieves a distance from his feelings, which he, no doubt, hopes will finally liberate him from the clutches of his lust/love and bring him equanimity of mind and heart.

In the bulk of the "dark lady" sonnets, the speaker has a been addressing the woman directly, or making it clear that what he is saying is intended for her ears. In the final two sonnets, the speaker is not directly addressing the mistress. He does mention her, but he is speaking now about her instead of directly to her. He is now making it quite clear that he is withdrawing from the drama with her.

Readers may sense that he has grown battle-weary from his struggle for the woman’s respect and affection, and now he has finally decided to make a philosophical drama that heralds the end of that disastrous relationship, announcing essentially, "I’m through."

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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