‘Sonnet 34,’ also known as ‘Why didst thou promise such a beauteous day,’ is number thirty-four of 154 sonnets that Shakespeare wrote. It is part of the Fair Youth sequence, numbers one through one hundred twenty-six. This sonnet is part of a short sequence that is generally referred to as the estrangement sonnets. They last from sonnet 33 to 36. They are all concerned with the speaker responding to something unknown, but related to relationships, love, and sex, that the Fair Youth did.
Throughout this poem, the speaker addresses the Fair Youth angrily and with disappointment in his voice. He tells this young person that he has made a big mistake that can’t be reconciled with skin dried from the rainclouds. It is not until the youth begins to cry metaphorical pearls that the speaker forgives him.
‘Sonnet 34’ by William Shakespeare is a fourteen-line “Shakespearean” or English sonnet. The poem is made up of three quatrains, or sets of four lines, and one concluding couplet, or set of two rhyming lines. They follow a consistent rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG and are written in iambic pentameter. This means that each line contains five sets of two beats, known as metrical feet. The first is unstressed and the second stressed. It sounds something like da-DUM, da-DUM.
As is common in Shakespeare’s poems, the last two lines are a rhyming pair, known as a couplet. They often bring with them a turn or volta in the poem. They’re sometimes used to answer a question posed in the previous twelve lines, shift the perspective, or even change speakers.
Shakespeare makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Sonnet 34’. These include but are not limited to examples of metaphors, alliteration, and enjambment. The first of these, metaphor, is a comparison between two unlike things that does not use “like” or “as” is also present in the text. When using this technique a poet is saying that one thing is another thing, they aren’t just similar. In the last lines of ‘Sonnet 34,’ the speaker uses a metaphor to compare the youth’s tears to pearls. They are just as valuable and beautiful to him.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “cloak” and “clouds” in lines two and three and “rich” and “ransom” in line fourteen. Lastly, enjambment. It is another important technique that occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For example, the transition between lines one and two as well as that between lines eleven and twelve.
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 brav’ry in their rotten smoke?
In the first lines of ‘Sonnet 34,’ the speaker begins by asking the Fair Youth a rhetorical question. While he appears to be addressing the sun, he is in fact talking to this beautiful young man who is in this series of sonnets equated to the sun. He asks the youth/the sun why it made the weather appear to be beautiful today. The speaker took the weather at face value and went outside “without [his] cloak”. This ended up being a mistake because the “base clouds,” a phrase which appeared in ‘Sonnet 33,’ overtook him. These terrible and nasty clouds came out and hid the sun. Their “rotten smoke” was all the speaker could see.
‘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.
In the next quatrain of ‘Sonnet 34,’ the speaker adds that obviously it was not enough that the sun eventually returned and dried the rain from his “storm-beaten face”. The original act is still painful to him. “No man,” he says, can speak well of such a “salve”. It does not heal the wounds or “cure” the “disgrace” that previously befell him.
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 offense’s cross.
Ah, but those tears are pearl which thy love sheds,
And they are rich, and ransom all ill deeds.
In the last quatrain of the sonnet, the speaker says that it does not comfort him that the sun/youth is ashamed of his sinful actions. It makes no difference because the speaker has still lost something. The “offender’s sorrow lends but weak relief,” he says.
In the last two lines of the poem the speaker transitions into a new way of thinking. This is known as the turn or volta. Despite his anger and frustration at the Fair Youth for whatever unnamed sin he committed, he can’t stay mad at him. When he sees the young man cry his tears are like pearls to him. They are pearls of love shed in sorrow for the speaker. They are so valuable to the speaker that they make up for all the youth’s “ill deeds”.