‘Sonnet 70,’ also known as ‘That thou art blamed shall not be thy defect,’ is number seventy of one hundred fifty-four sonnets that the Bard wrote over his lifetime. It is part of Shakespeare’s famous Fair Youth sequence of sonnets. These start with sonnet number one and run all the way through sonnet one hundred twenty-six. These poems are devoted to a young, beautiful man whose identity remains unknown to this day. There has been a great deal of speculation about who this young man could possibly be, but no single identity has ever been decided upon.
‘Sonnet 70’ explores themes of beauty, gossip/slander, and temptation. It presents the reader with a striking contrast in content with previous sonnets, even ‘Sonnet 69’ which came before it.
The speaker informs the youth that no matter what he does there are always going to be people who speak poorly of him, simply because he is so beautiful. There is nothing that the youth has done or could do to change their minds. It is their habit, the ill-meaning folk of the world, to try to tear down that which is above them. The speaker goes on to praise the youth, telling him that his strength in the face of various temptations is impressive.
‘Sonnet 70’ by William Shakespeare is a fourteen-line, single stanza poem. It is structured in the form that has become synonymous with the poet’s name. The English or Shakespearean sonnet (sometimes also known as the Elizabethan) is made up of three quatrains, or sets of four lines, and one concluding couplet, or set of two rhyming lines. The poem follows a consistent rhyme scheme that conforms to the pattern of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG and it is written in iambic pentameter.
Iambic pentameter 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 (known as a couplet) are a rhyming pair. They often bring with them a turn or “volta” (in Italian) 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 70’. These include but are not limited to alliteration, metaphor, and enjambment. The first of these, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “fair” and “flies” in lines two and three as well as “present’st,” “pure,” and “prime” in line eight.
A 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. For example, in the fourth line the speaker compares the suspicions of those who slander the Fair Youth to a dark crow flying through the sweet air of heaven.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It 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 five and six.
That thou art blamed shall not be thy defect,
For slander’s mark was ever yet the fair;
The ornament of beauty is suspéct,
A crow that flies in heaven’s sweetest air.
In the first quatrain of ‘Sonnet 70,’ the speaker begins by consoling the Fair Youth. He tells him that although mean people might say slanderous things against him that this has always been the case for the “fair”. The most beautiful among humankind is always being insulted and put upon by those who are lesser. Their words won’t in reality be held against the youth as everyone knows they’re not true.
Shakespeare uses a metaphor to compare the suspicion with which common people regard beautiful people to a “crow that flies in heaven’s sweet air”. Its blackness is a symbol of that suspicion.
So thou be good, slander doth but approve
Thy worth the greater, being wooed of time;
For canker vice the sweetest buds doth love,
And thou present’st a pure unstainèd prime.
In the next four lines, the speaker goes on to say that as long as “thou,” or anyone like the Fair Youth, is “good” then slander will always be a part of life. Its existence is just another reason to know that “Thy worth” is “greater”.
In line seven the speaker mentions a “canker,” or a worm. It is used as a metaphor to describe how vice loves to destroy goodness. The worm loves to eat the “sweetest buds”. The youth falls directly into the category that attracts the vices of others. There is nothing he can do about it but take it as a compliment.
Thou hast passed by the ambush of young days,
Either not assailed, or victor being charged;
Yet this thy praise cannot be so thy praise,
To tie up envy evermore enlarged.
If some suspéct of ill masked not thy show,
Then thou alone kingdoms of hearts shouldst owe.
In the third quatrain of ‘Sonnet 70,’ the speaker says that the youth has passed the “ambush of young days”. He has, contrary to what other sonnets have stated, managed to avoid the temptations that usually doom young men. He has either, the speaker suggests, not been tempted or been victorious in his fight against that temptation. This is an interesting statement, especially considering the numerous sonnets in which the speaker condemns the youth’s poor behavior, unfaithfulness, and common companions. The previous sonnet, ‘Sonnet 69,’ is a perfect example of this.
“Yet,” the speaker says, the “praise” that he has given the youth should not inflate his reputation further and therefore keep the envious, slanderous people away from him. They’re always going to be there. In the last two lines, the speaker says that if the youth’s beauty did not have some “ill” or evil to it, then he’d be the most loved person in the world. All the kingdoms of the heart would belong to him.