[What follows is a record of the emails that were sent to our Sonnets group.]

Sonnet 141

Welcome back, Sonneteers.

Oh dear, oh dear: Shakespeare still cannot account to himself for his passion for his mistress:

In faith, I do not love thee with mine eyes,
For they in thee a thousand errors note;
But ’tis my heart that loves what they despise,
Who, in despite of view, is pleas’d to dote;
Nor are mine ears with thy tongue’s tune delighted;
Nor tender feeling, to base touches prone,
Nor taste, nor smell, desire to be invited
To any sensual feast with thee alone:
But my five wits nor my five senses can
Dissuade one foolish heart from serving thee,
Who leaves unsway’d the likeness of a man,
Thy proud heart’s slave and vassal wretch to be:
     Only my plague thus far I count my gain,
     That she that makes me sin awards me pain.

One would like to know a lot more than we do about the mistress that made Shakespeare feel this way, and the real nature of the relationship they had. There’s an ample measure of self-disgust here, but there so often is; there’s that ambivalence that has marked most of the Dark Lady sonnets; and there’s that continuing sense that love, for Shakespeare, was pain — whether it’s the sublimated, spiritual love he has for the young man, or the rawly sexual, uninhibited desire he has for his mistress. On this occasion, at least, he is not visibly wracked with jealousy, as he typically is whether the subject is his young man or his young woman. A gloss:

Q1 It isn’t my eyes that draw me to you: they note all of your (many) faults; yet my heart is still drawn to you

Q2 My senses of hearing, touch, taste and smell are all likewise disappointed, and cannot account for my desire for you

Q3 My senses, and my wits, are all at a loss for why my foolish heart lusts after you

All I gain is a plague: you just cause me pain

It’s a rough one for his mistress, and the contrast is yet again palpable with how his anguish expressed itself towards the young man, who could do no wrong (even when he did). I don’t find questions of Shakespeare’s sexuality very interesting (‘is he gay, straight, or bi?’), since I think it’s merely the hunt for a handy label that would distract us from what is more interesting, which is to say the range and characters of his desires. And what comes through repeatedly is that the desires he most identified with were those sublimated, quasi-Platonic desires that were aroused in him by a young man; he also experiences desire for women (as evidenced by the above sonnet), but he struggled to integrate those desires into his personality, and was frequently left baffled by them.

In an attempt to make sense of this, allow me to introduce a distinction between the sexual and the erotic. Erotic desire is the experience of electricity in the presence of someone, which lends contact with them a certain magic. Sexual desire, by contrast, is the desire to fulfil one’s sexual impulses. These two kinds of desire frequently accompany one another, but they don’t have a necessary connection. I have frequently use the word ‘sublimated’ to describe Shakespeare’s love for the young man, but I don’t actually think that erotic desire is merely a sublimation of sexual desire; I think it is the product of distinct — although related — psychological forces. Shakespeare’s two loves — the young man, his mistress — each tend to embody these two different forms of desire. Shakespeare is absolutely besotted with the young man, but this rarely expresses itself in a sexual way (the episode when the young man sleeps with the mistress is the major exception); similarly, Shakespeare’s desire for his mistress is intensely sexual but he doesn’t seem to feel very much else for her.

I’ve learned from Burrow that, structurally, this sonnet plays with the form of the gradus amoris, in which the lover sees his beloved, then hears her, then touches her, and so forth. It’s a kind of progress of seduction; and Shakespeare employs it here only to reject it: if only, he says, I didn’t have to see/hear/touch/smell/taste or think about my mistress! Oh dear.


Sonnet 142

Sonneteers, good morning.

Shakespeare beseeches his mistress to take pity on him:

Love is my sin, and thy dear virtue hate,
Hate of my sin, grounded on sinful loving:
O, but with mine compare thou thine own state,
And thou shalt find it merits not reproving;
Or, if it do, not from those lips of thine,
That have profan’d their scarlet ornaments
And seal’d false bonds of love as oft as mine,
Robb’d others’ beds’ revenues of their rents.
Be it lawful I love thee, as thou lov’st those
Whom thine eyes woo as mine importune thee:
Root pity in thy heart, that, when it grows,
Thy pity may deserve to pitied be.
     If thou dost seek to have what thou dost hide,
     By self-example mayst thou be denied.

It’s a strong opening: ‘Love is my sin’; and it’s followed by an excoriation of Shakespeare’s mistress for failing to take pity on him — that ‘pity’, in the context of a love sonnet, also means ‘acquiesce to my advances’, adds a frisson. A gloss:

Q1 My sin is love, whereas your most cherished virtue is hate — of my sin (but I only sin because I love); if you compare my position to yours, you’ll find that you shouldn’t be so high and mighty

Q2 If it does deserve reproof, it’s not from your lips — which have so often sworn false love-oaths and led others into temptation

Q3 Let it be as acceptable for me to love you as it is for you to evidently love those you cast your gaze on; let pity grow in your heart, and then you’ll also be worthy of pity

C But if you refuse pity to me, I can only hope it’s refused to you in turn

It’s a bitter turn at the end, and the whole thing is pretty acerbic. Shakespeare accuses his mistress of being false in her declarations of love, of tempting others to break their marriage-bonds, and of behaving nonetheless as though she were superior to his abjection. Is it fair? Who knows; but it’s not hard to suppose that Shakespeare’s imagination often interposes itself between him and reality (as the sonnets sometimes indicate).

The lines I find most curious are ‘And seal’d false bonds of love as oft as mine, / Robb’d others’ beds’ revenues of their rents.’ What is Shakespeare acknowledging when he says that her lips ‘seal false bonds of love’ as often as his do? How often is he doing this? Is this, and the subsequent line, an acknowledgement of the fact of his marriage — and adultery?


Sonnet 143

Sonneteers, good morning.

I confess that I am very taken with this one:

Lo, as a careful housewife runs to catch
One of her feather’d creatures broke away,
Sets down her babe, and makes all swift dispatch
In pursuit of the thing she would have stay;
Whilst her neglected child holds her in chase,
Cries to catch her whose busy care is bent
To follow that which flies before her face,
Not prizing her poor infant’s discontent:
So runn’st thou after that which flies from thee,
Whilst I thy babe chase thee afar behind;
But if thou catch thy hope, turn back to me,
And play the mother’s part, kiss me, be kind:
     So will I pray that thou mayst have thy “Will,”
     If thou turn back and my loud crying still.

It’s formally elegant, it contains a charming narrative, and its central image — Shakespeare as a toddler, running after his mother — is cute, amusing, and thereby also more sympathetic. The gist is pretty much the same as yesterday’s — ‘take pity on me!’ — but its mode of expression is very different, and much more effective.

Structurally it falls nicely into two parts. First, the octave (Q1 + Q2) gives a narrative, in which a mother puts down her small child to chase an escaping chicken, while the child cries and runs after her. Second, the sestet (Q3 + C) draws an analogy (Shakespeare is the child, his mistress is the mother, and the chicken is her other lover or prospective lover) and commends a course of action (comfort me!).

This kind of extended analogy — in the form of ‘As…’ (line 1) leading to ‘So…’ (line 9) — is very ancient, and one finds it very frequently in Homer. Part of the effectiveness of this device lies in its accretion of specific detail, which invites the reader to look for further parallels than a bare comparison would do. By way of comparison with this sonnet, here’s the same device as employed by Homer in the Iliad, from a recent translation/version by Alice Oswald (Memorial, p. 32). Highlighting the power of this poetic device, in her rendition she translates all and only the deaths and the analogies; the result is riveting, brutal and short:

As if it was June
A poppy being hammered by the rain
Sinks its head down
It’s exactly like that
When a man’s neck gives in
And the bronze calyx of his helmet
Sinks his head down

Contrast the effect of this with merely stating that ‘someone’s head slumped like a poppy’.

Similarly, Shakespeare manages to contain an awful lot in a mere 14 lines. So much is suggested. For instance, the chicken the mother is chasing is probably the family’s dinner — what are they to do without it? How does this compare to Shakespeare’s mistress’s need/desire for the one she chases? On the other hand, an escaping chicken is quite a comic image: does Shakespeare see his mistress’s pursuit, and the one she is pursuing, in a comical or absurd light?

Where it was hard to feel any sympathy for Shakespeare in yesterday’s sonnet, this one feels different. Perhaps it’s partly the way he pictures himself as a little boy, but there’s also something quite sad in the way he introduces the final part of the sonnet (from line 11). He urges his mistress to turn around and pity him, and he prefaces it with ‘But if thou catch thy hope…’ — and we know full well that he does not think that his mistress’s hope is him.


Sonnet 144

Good morning, Sonneteers.

This one serves as a kind of overview of Shakespeare’s sad ménage à trois:

Two loves I have of comfort and despair,
Which like two spirits do suggest me still:
The better angel is a man right fair,
The worser spirit a woman colour’d ill.
To win me soon to hell, my female evil
Tempteth my better angel from my side,
And would corrupt my saint to be a devil,
Wooing his purity with her foul pride.
And whether that my angel be turn’d fiend
Suspect I may, yet not directly tell;
But being both from me, both to each friend,
I guess one angel in another’s hell:
     Yet this shall I ne’er know, but live in doubt,
     Till my bad angel fire my good one out.

It’s a bald statement of the fundamental contrast one sees between the sonnets addressed to the young man, and the sonnets addressed to his mistress. Shakespeare’s love for the young man is more or less spiritualised, fitting for love of an angel; his love for his mistress is base and (in his word) sinful, fitting for love of a devil. It’s funny that none of the three primary characters in the Sonnets comes off very well, but the one I feel most sympathetic for is the mistress, despite the depiction of her being the most critical. Shakespeare’s self-portrait is hardly flattering; the apparent praise of the young man makes him sound deeply unappealing; but the dark colours with which Shakespeare paints his mistress seem so absurd that they just don’t stick.

A gloss of this one:

Q1 I have two loves: one, which comforts me, is for a man who is an angel; the other causes me despair, and is for a female devil

Q2 My evil love has tempted my angelic love from my side, in an attempt to draw me into hell; she tempts him to be a devil

Q3 But I don’t know if he has become a fiend: I can only suspect, only guess at what they’re up to

C I will never know, until she releases him

A few things. First, the idea that Shakespeare’s love for the young man brings him comfort is a lie: as we saw, every so often it made him happy, but it frequently caused him deep distress; even the times when it brought him comfort, this seemed to be rooted in self-deception as much as anything else.

Second, I note that ‘hell’ was an Elizabethan slang term for ‘vagina’, and invite you to re-read the sonnet with that in mind.

Third, in Q3 Shakespeare acknowledges that he has to ‘guess’ that the young man has been tempted into the devil’s ‘hell’. Does this mean that he doesn’t actually know that they have slept together, but only supposes it? As I noted recently, there have been allusions in the past that suggest that Shakespeare doesn’t always draw a distinction between appearance and reality, and that often his grief is based on surmise. Could this be an open acknowledgement?

And what does he mean by ‘to win me soon to hell’ (line 5)? ‘Hell’ in this line must mean ‘misery’ rather than the other, unless we are to suppose that his mistress was trying to tempt Shakespeare by seducing the young man — an idea that Shakespeare has toyed with, admittedly, although I find it unlikely.


Sonnet 145

Sonneteers, good morning.

One of the famous ones today:

Those lips that Love’s own hand did make
Breath’d forth the sound that said “I hate,”
To me that languish’d for her sake:
But when she saw my woeful state,
Straight in her heart did mercy come,
Chiding that tongue that ever sweet
Was used in giving gentle doom;
And taught it thus anew to greet;
“I hate” she alter’d with an end,
That follow’d it as gentle day
Doth follow night, who, like a fiend,
From heaven to hell is flown away;
     “I hate” from hate away she threw,
     And sav’d my life, saying “not you.”

There are two notable things here. First, it is not in pentameter but in tetrameter (i.e. it has 4 beats per line, not 5). Second, it contains what is almost certainly a pun on the name of Shakespeare’s wife, Anne Hathaway, in line 13: ‘hate away’ (apparently the pronunciation of the time made these two quite close in sound).

The best guess is that this is quite an early sonnet, pre-dating all of the others by quite some margin. (There is some contention that the final sonnets, 153 and 154, are even earlier, but we’ll discuss that when we get to them.) A common surmise is that Shakespeare wrote this during his courtship with Anne, which (famously) involved a marriage that occurred only six months or so before the birth of their first child. Later, Shakespeare works it into a sequence of sonnets he’s working on, and thus it gets published.

I found this one a bit cryptic to begin (why on earth does she say ‘I hate not you’?), but I think the bit of context we have to supply ourselves it that this is the end of an argument. They have been fighting, and she (Anne, or his mistress) is about to tell him that she hates him, but then she spots his wretched state, and suddenly — midsentence, it seems — relents. Shakespeare is so relieved he feels like his life has been spared.