Edmund Spenser

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In "Sonnet 35," what does the speaker long for even though it causes him pain?

In "Sonnet 35" the speaker longs for his beloved, even though she causes him pain. Or to be more precise he suffers because he can never get enough of his beloved. That's why he pines for her, and why his hungry eyes can never achieve contentment. Nothing else can compare to her, and this causes the speaker even deeper pain as there's nothing with which he can distract himself.

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"Sonnet 35" is undoubtedly a love poem. But it deals primarily with the pain of longing that is so often a part of being in love. The speaker cannot help but long for his beloved, even though it causes him considerable emotional pain. And no matter how much his hungry eyes feast upon the glorious sight of his lady love, they can never be satisfied.

The speaker's pain is heightened by the fact that nothing else in this life can compare to his beloved. Everything pales in comparison with her to the point that it all becomes completely irrelevant:

Of that fair sight, that nothing else they brook, But loathe the things which they did like before, And can no more endure on them to look.

All this world’s glory seemeth vain to me, And all their shows but shadows, saving she.

The world is unreal by comparison to the speaker's beloved. It's as if she's a Platonic Form, a timeless, prefect idea of Beauty to which everything else is nothing but a pale shadow. The speaker is so fixated on his beloved and all she represents that there's nowhere else for him to turn. His fixation begets his deep emotional suffering.

Much of the speaker's emotional pain derives from the fact that he's caught between a rock and a hard place. He cannot help but look upon his beloved. But at the same time, the more he looks, the more pain he feels at not being satisfied. He can never get enough of her, and the realization pains him deeply.

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Essentially, the speaker longs for the "she" referenced as the very last word in the last line of the poem. "She" is the "object of [his eyes'] paine," without the sight of whom he cannot feel content. When he looks on her, his eyes "pine" for her but when he cannot look on her, they "complaine." In fact, he says, they cannot "lyfe sustayne"; he feels, in other words, that he will die if he cannot look at her. At the same time, looking at her more makes him feel "starv'd," as though, the more he looks, the more he feels the need to look. The speaker does not even seem to like to look at the things that he used to enjoy looking at; now, those things seem unendurable and loathsome to him in comparison. "All this worlds glory seemeth vayne to [him]" because everything pales when contrasted with this woman.

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In the opening lines of Spenser’s “Sonnet XXXV,” the speaker states,

My hungry eyes, through greedy covetise

Still to behold the object of their pain.

He speaks of an unrequited love: a woman who, when she is near him and his eyes may look upon her, causes him to “pine” for her, and yet, when she is absent, his eyes “complain” at being deprived of her image. The pain he speaks of is the unendurable longing he feels for the object of his desire; when he sees her, he laments,

Yet are mine eyes so filled with the store
Of that fair sight, that nothing else they brook,
But loathe the things which they did like before,
And can no more endure on them to look.

So, in her presence everything else that surrounds the speaker becomes loathsome to him; nothing in the world has the right to exist, in his eyes, but the woman he adores, yet she is unavailable to him, and the limitations of his relationship with her—that is, being only able to look upon her, and nothing more—cause him great pain. He longs to see her, her figure is the only thing in the world that is fair and good to him, and yet even the simple act of seeing her distresses him, for he cannot have her. “So plenty makes me poor,” he states, comparing himself to Narcissus, who starved to death, so absorbed was he in his own reflection. In a similar manner, the speaker is starved of all happiness and pleasure, so absorbed is he in this unnamed woman’s presence: a love as unattainable as a reflection in a pond.

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The speaker in Spenser's Sonnet 35 longs to "behold the object" of his eyes' pain.  In other words, he longs to see the woman he covets even though the sight of her makes him hurt all the more.  He knows he can never have her, so when he sees her, he is in pain.  Yet, he cannot help to look at her because she is so beautiful.  He compares himself to Narcissus, the young man in Greek mythology, who also destroyed himself by viewing an adored object.  In Narcissus' case, it was his own reflection; in the speaker's case, the adored one is the woman.  It is a beautiful sonnet of pained unrequited love.  If you've ever had a crush on someone that you knew would never love you back, you will be able to relate to the words of the speaker.

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