Sonnet 70

Shakespeare Sonnet 70

THat thou are blam’d ſhall not be thy defect,                          art
For ſlanders marke was euer yet the faire,
The ornament of beauty is ſuſpect,
A Crow that flies in heauens ſweeteſt ayre.
So thou be good, ſlander doth but approue,
Their worth the greater beeing woo’d of time,                       Thy
For Canker vice the ſweeteſt buds doth loue,
And thou preſent’ſt a pure vnſtayined prime.                         vnſtayned
Thou haſt paſt by the ambuſh of young daies,
Either not aſſayld, or victor beeing charg’d,
Yet this thy praiſe cannot be ſoe thy praiſe,
To tie vp enuy, euermore inlarged,
If ſome ſuſpect of ill maskt not thy ſhow,
Then thou alone kingdomes of hearts ſhouldſt owe.

The number 70 was a climacteric number of particular significance, because it was the number allotted by the psalmist to the human life-span (“The dayes of our age are threescore yeeres and ten” (Ps. 90.10; BCP) and also the year, her seventieth, in which Elizabeth I died, which gave rise to Thomas Wright’s apologia, A Succinct Philosophicall declaration of the nature of Clymactericall yeeres, occasioned by the death of Queene Elizabeth of 1604. 1 The 70th sonnet is followed by a pair of epitaphial sonnets.

Sonnet 70 contines with the insinuations of the previous sonnet, although it opens with the poet absolving the youth of personal blemish (“That thou art blam’d shall not be thy defect”), because the target (“marke”) at which slander aims has always been and still is (“euen yet”) the “faire.” Slander thus always shoots wide of the mark whose inner, that at which bowmen aim, was a black surrounded by a fair outer. (Compare Thomas Adams’ metaphor, “Sin is the white (or rather the blacke marke) my arrow flies at. I trust, he that gaue ayme to my tongue, will also direct, leuell, and keepe my Penne from swaruing.”) 2 Slander maliciously construes “the faire” as dark or the good as bad. Fairness, by apposition “the ornament of beauty” or that which adds to beauty, is made “suspect” or made to fall under false suspicion (“suspect” also keeps its Latinate sense of ‘look upwards’ as at a crow). 3 It is likened to “A Crow that flies in heauens sweetest ayre.” The allusion is to both the corvine locus biblicus, Jeremiah’s claim that the Babylonians have less right judgement than “a crowe that fleeth betwixt heauen and earth” (Bar. 6.53; BB), and to the common proverb of the crow who mistakenly thinks her young fair: “the Crow thinketh her owne birde the fairest.” 4

Provided that the youth remains good (“So thou be good,” compare Sonnet 112.4), slander can only prove or enhance (“approue”) his worth more largely (“the greater”). He or his worth is “woo’d of time,” either his youth is beloved of time or sought out by this present age. A further proverb, “The canker soonest eats the fairest rose,” 5 is the basis for “Canker vice the sweetest buds do loue” (compare Sonnet 35.5, “And loathsome canker liues in sweetest bud” and Sonnet 95.2-3, “like a canker in the fragrant Rose, / Doth spot the beautie of thy budding name”). As the canker worm attacks most often the white or fairest rose causing a stain within, so does vice which is particularly attracted by the youth who presents himself (“present’st;” flowers as they bloomed were said to ‘present’) as a “pure, vnstayned prime,” where “pure” intends chaste, “vnstayned” without spot or immaculate, and “prime” the peak or springtime of youth. He has survived unscathed the hidden snares that lie in wait for youth (“past by the ambush of young daies”). He has remained either unattacked (“not assayld”) or, if attacked (“charged”), has emerged as “victor” (“charged” may also carry the legal sense of an accusation).

Yet any praising of the friend by the the poet (“this thy praise”) cannot be sufficient praise (“cannot be soe thy praise”) to constrain envy (“To tye vp enuy”), which ranges freely and is always set at large (“euermore inlarged”). Envy is a frequent motive for slander and linked to it through the further proverb, “Envy shoots at the fairest mark (or flower).” 6 If it were the case that the suspicion of evil (“suspect of ill”) didn’t mask the youth’s appearance (“show” as in floral display), then he would own (“owe”) by himself “kingdomes of hearts.”


70.1. See Wright, Clymactericall 3, “The dayes of our yeeres are seauentie yeeres.”

70.2. Thomas Adams, The Deuills Banket. Described in foure Sermons. . . Together with Phisicke from Heauen (London: Thomas Snodham, 1614) S4r (135).

70.3. Cooper, Thesaurus “Suspectus . . A looking or beholding vpward.”

70.4. Richard Bancroft, A Suruay of the Pretended Holy Discipline (London: John Wolfe, 1593) 63, “We haue a saying, that the Crow thinketh her owne birde the fairest;” see Tilley C851.

70.5. Tilley C56.

70.6. Tilley E175.