Sonnet 35: Such civil war is in my love and hate

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, Authorizing 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 'gainst myself a lawful plea commence. Such civil war is in my love and hate That I an accessory needs must be To that sweet thief which sourly robs from me.

William Shakespeare

Sonnet 35: Such civil war is in my love and hate

December 2012


Have you ever engaged in a heated internal dialogue with someone who has hurt you, or that's how you feel anyway? When you are convinced that you try to excuse them, bringing in all kinds of rational reasons to do so, and yet feel that you are sinking deeper and deeper into a cyclic, aggressive dialogue... with whom? Is it still that person? Or is it you yourself? Defending yourself from the wound, or mounting an attack against yourself?

That's what this sonnet is about, so read it with me, and we'll see how Shakespeare deals with this, witnessing these struggles within himself and distilling them into a poem. As Anna Akhmatova once wrote, if only you knew what junk poems grow from...

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.

The first quatrain: on its surface, a sensible, reasonable voice of forgiveness. And yet, it's filled with platitudes, with borrowed, commonplace arguments, way too proverbial to sound genuine. What's more, the friend's unnamed fault is actually growing worse with every added metaphor, so that the thorn of the first one transforms into the loathsome canker of the last.

This quatrain forms the first layer of the painting's structure: a bouquet of red roses, as banal and commonplace depiction of love as can be.

All men make faults

– so begins the second quatrain, seemingly continuing in the same vein of proverbial excuses.

But notice the verb, make: the neutral way way to continue would be "all men have faults"; this contrast between the actual and the expected, a first hint that the speaker of the sonnet begins to grasp that he is in the process of making, or at least exaggerating, his friend's fault. But he furiously turns this insight into a passionate accusation against himself for defending the friend, mounting participle after participle in a chaotic, frantic, disturbingly ambiguous syntax:

All men make faults, and even I in this,
Authorizing thy trespass with compare,
Myself corrupting, salving thy amiss,
Excusing thy sins more than thy sins are;

There are several things to note here:

  • First, "even" in the first line has a meaning slightly different than it would have in the modern English: it doesn't imply that the speaker is least likely to be at fault, just emphasizes the turn of attention towards oneself.

  • "Authorizing" in the next line should be stressed on the second syllable, to fit into the rhythm of the poem.

  • And finally, and most importantly: the pronouns in the last line are highly controversial: in different editions of the sonnets, you will find all possible combinations of "thy", "their" and "these" in both places. I prefer this version, "excusing thy sins more than thy sins are", because it aligns best with the speaker's analysis of his own internal conversation: the way he "excuses" the friend's sins makes them into something more than they actually are.

All in all, by the end of the quatrain, the speaker is left more hurt, and his friend, more guilty, than they were at the beginning. The quatrain ends abruptly, as though from the lack of breath after climbing the staircase of participles. This quatrain's frantic syntax gives my painting its overall rhythms and movement.

For to thy sensual fault I bring in sense..

Sense; a word which might just claim the first place in the world-wide championship for the most self-contradictory meaning, here highlighted by its opposition with sensual.

Does the speaker mean that what we have heard so far was the voice of reason, an intellectual construct opposed to sensuality? Would this reading be sensible? Or is it the same "sense" that forms the stem of "sensual"? His capacity to feel? One or all of his senses? Like a little crystal ball, this word pulls in and pushes out into plain sight all internal contradictions reflected in the poem.

In the painting, it translates into somewhat tortured attempt at plain black-and-white geometry, which breaks and transforms the space around the roses.

In the poem, the mention of "sense" triggers a chain of legal metaphors, an imaginary court in which nobody knows who is the defendant, who is the accuser, and, most conspicuously, who is the judge; but court proceedings aren't strong enough a metaphor, and the quatrain ends in civil war within the speaker's mind and soul:

For to thy sensual fault I bring in sense –
Thy adverse party is thy advocate –
And 'gainst myself a lawful plea commence.
Such civil war is in my love and hate

That I an accessory needs must be
To that sweet thief which sourly robs from me.

The last sentence of the sonnet crosses the structural boundary in the sonnet's structure. And yet, the poem ends with a rather weak contrast between sweet and sour, which sounds almost like a (sour) reconciliation after everything we have heard. I am an accessory to my sweet thief: not because I defend him, but because I hurt myself even more than he did.

Here is Polly Frame reading this sonnet, although she does break its rhythms with stressing some words "properly", but not like the poem wants them to be stressed.