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

Sonnet 151

Good morning, Sonneteers.

I’m quite fond of this one:

Love is too young to know what conscience is;
Yet who knows not conscience is born of love?
Then, gentle cheater, urge not my amiss,
Lest guilty of my faults thy sweet self prove:
For, thou betraying me, I do betray
My nobler part to my gross body’s treason;
My soul doth tell my body that he may
Triumph in love; flesh stays no farther reason,
But rising at thy name doth point out thee
As his triumphant prize. Proud of this pride,
He is contented thy poor drudge to be,
To stand in thy affairs, fall by thy side.
     No want of conscience hold it that I call
     Her “love” for whose dear love I rise and fall.

There are two intertwined layers here: on one level, this is a sonnet about the competing claims of body and soul, and what really matters; on the other, it’s a particularly bawdy piece of innuendo — the ‘con’ in ‘conscience’ echoes the French con, a vulgar term for a lady’s parts (change the vowel and add a ‘t’ at the end for its modern equivalent), yielding something like ‘carnal knowledge’.

These two layers are particularly fruitful in the opening lines. The word ‘love’ itself plays on both love as emotion, and cupid as the embodiment of love. So the first two lines could mean: ‘Love (cupid) is too young and innocent to know what lust is; yet who doesn’t know that lust is born of love?’ On the other hand, it could be a good (albeit cryptic) epigram about our sense of right and wrong, which we could gloss thus: ‘Love is too basic a feeling to distinguish right from wrong; but it is on the basis of love that we learn to distinguish them.’ There might also be an echo of the story of Eve and the apple lurking in there: innocent Eve is tempted (seduced?) to eat the apple of knowledge, from which act derives our knowledge of good and evil.

My desire to read the sonnet philosophically falls apart somewhat after Q1, though, although Shakespeare’s broadly Neoplatonic suspicion of the flesh and affirmation of the spirit still shines through. Q2 essentially says that, while his mistress might betray him physically, he is himself betraying his own soul with his body by pursuing his lustful urges (and, by extension, feeling jealous of his mistress’s other amorous pursuits). His soul tells his body that it could ‘triumph in love’, for which read love in its sublimated, spiritual form, as opposed to lust/’conscience’. Q3 follows immediately on the heels of Q2 (note that lack of decisive punctuation separating them — it is a mere comma that feeds from one to the other), and the bawdiness is about as explicit as it can be, with talk of the body ‘rising’ and ‘standing in thy affairs’; essentially, the body is rebelling against the soul, and feels itself triumphant in its own domain.

Then C is again ambiguous. It could mean, ‘It isn’t for want of carnal knowledge that I call her “love”‘ — i.e., when he refers to her as his love it isn’t because he’s pining at a distance. Or it could mean, ‘It isn’t because I lack moral sense that I refer to her as “love”‘. ‘Rise and fall’ continues the innuendo, while also referring to his spiritual and psychological tribulations.

All in all it manages to be both amusing and conceptually interesting.


Sonnet 152

Sonneteers, good morning.

This is the last sonnet of the Dark Lady sequence, and in a way represents the culmination of the whole series. The last two sonnets, 153 and 154, form a coda, and we’ll discuss them together tomorrow — but they are more of a reflection on the sonnets as a whole, where this one is both emotional climax and nadir.

In loving thee thou know’st I am forsworn,
But thou art twice forsworn, to me love swearing;
In act thy bed-vow broke, and new faith torn,
In vowing new hate after new love bearing.
But why of two oaths’ breach do I accuse thee,
When I break twenty! I am perjur’d most;
For all my vows are oaths but to misuse thee,
And all my honest faith in thee is lost:
For I have sworn deep oaths of thy deep kindness,
Oaths of thy love, thy truth, thy constancy;
And, to enlighten thee, gave eyes to blindness,
Or made them swear against the thing they see;
     For I have sworn thee fair; more perjur’d I,
     To swear against the truth so foul a lie!

Possibly this is giving us new information about Shakespeare’s mistress, in its suggestion (line 3) that she is breaking a ‘bed-vow’ in swearing she loves him — is she married? Apparently. (He definitely is.) A gloss:

Q1 You know I’m forsworn by loving you, but you’re doubly so: you break your bed-vow, and you lie when you say you love me (when really you hate me)

Q2 But then why do I accuse you of breaking two oaths, when I break so many more? All my oaths concerning you are lies, and my honesty is lost in you

Q3 For I have sworn that you are kind, loving, true, constant, and fair — I’ve even made my eyes pretend not to see what they do

C In swearing you fair I told a foul lie against truth itself

The construction of this sonnet is intricate and, I think, marvellous. Its theme is announced in its opening line: being forsworn. But then it has two parts. The first, consisting of Q1, is about the conventional ways in which one can be forsworn. It focuses on Shakespeare’s mistress, and makes two accusations: she breaks vows, and she tells lies. Both are offences against the truth, but truth in an outward-facing, social sense. Telling someone something carries a warrant that what one says is true; swearing a vow carries a social warrant that what one says will remain true.

Then begins the second part, and it consists in a journey inwards. Shakespeare recognises that the ways in which he is forsworn cannot be limited to just his own violation of his marriage oath; he finds himself constantly telling lies, too, about the virtues of his mistress. But these lies have not only been to other people: at line 11, the deepest self-accusation begins: Shakespeare has lied to himself, by demanding that his eyes tell him falsehoods. He is not only forsworn socially; he is forsworn against himself. This is an offence against truth in its deepest and most inward sense. In Hamlet (1.3), Polonius gives his son the following advice: ‘This above all: to thine own self be true, / And it must follow, as the night the day, / Thou canst not then be false to any man.’ If Shakespeare cannot be true to himself, how can he possibly be true elsewhere?

Line 7 is a puzzle: ‘For all my vows are oaths but to misuse thee’. I’ve rendered it in the gloss as an admission that his vows concerning his mistress are lies, but I wonder if there’s a deeper layer of self-accusation there. As we’ve seen, Shakespeare at least some of the time tries to hold himself to a fairly puritanical form of spiritualism (which I’ve associated with the Neoplatonism of his time), in which the body and its desires are (at best) bad, or (at worst) evil; and he frequently sets up a conflict between the two. (You’ll recall the most vivid expression of this, in 129: ‘The expense of spirit in a waste of shame / Is lust in action’.) I think I can hear this in line 7: Shakespeare is forever swearing vows to himself that he won’t touch his mistress again, yet somehow all roads lead to Rome: he is inexorably led — as though bound by an oath — back to ‘misusing’ her.

So there we go. The most famous sequence of love poetry in world literature ends with its narrator divided against himself by desire: and I really don’t think one can overstate just how much significance he attaches to this accusation that he is self-forsworn. I commented at the very beginning of these sonnets (back in April!) that the opening of the sequence was surprising; it seems fitting that its end should be, too.

Expect one last commentary from me tomorrow!


Sonnets 153 + 154

Sonneteers, good morning — one last time.

Today brings us to the end of the Sonnets: how bittersweet that is! I will be glad to have a rest, but sad to lose my daily contact with Shakespeare and with all of you.

I propose to do the final two sonnets together, as they are more intimately linked than any other pair. So, here they are:

Cupid laid by his brand and fell asleep:
A maid of Dian’s this advantage found,
And his love-kindling fire did quickly steep
In a cold valley-fountain of that ground;
Which borrow’d from this holy fire of Love
A dateless lively heat, still to endure,
And grew a seething bath, which yet men prove
Against strange maladies a sovereign cure.
But at my mistress’ eye Love’s brand new-fired,
The boy for trial needs would touch my breast;
I, sick withal, the help of bath desired,
And thither hied, a sad distemper’d guest,
     But found no cure: the bath for my help lies
     Where Cupid got new fire, my mistress’ eyes.

The little Love-god lying once asleep
Laid by his side his heart-inflaming brand,
Whilst many nymphs that vow’d chaste life to keep
Came tripping by; but in her maiden hand
The fairest votary took up that fire
Which many legions of true hearts had warm’d;
And so the general of hot desire
Was sleeping by a virgin hand disarm’d.
This brand she quenched in a cool well by,
Which from Love’s fire took heat perpetual,
Growing a bath and healthful remedy
For men diseas’d; but I, my mistress’ thrall,
     Came there for cure, and this by that I prove,
     Love’s fire heats water, water cools not love.

What immediately strikes one is that they are variants on a single theme; even more than this, they almost seem to be two different drafts of the same sonnet. Their source material is an ancient fable, which I here reproduce in the translation I find in Burrow’s commentary to 153:

Beneath these plane trees, detained by gentle slumber, Love slept, having put his torch in the care of the Nymphs; but the Nymphs said to one another, “Why wait? Would that together with this we could quench the fire in the hearts of men.” But the torch set fire even to the water, and with hot water henceforth the Love-Nymphs fill the bath.

Because both sonnets are mostly composed of a paraphrase of this fable, Edmondson and Wells (in their recent edition of the Sonnets) propose that these two sonnets are probably based on school exercises, and thus the earliest in the whole collection, and print them first in their ‘chronological’ ordering. (I have grave doubts about their whole enterprise, but I shan’t go into that.) Without disputing that Shakespeare may well have encountered this fable at school, and perhaps even translated it then (although there is also a contention abroad that Shakespeare encountered this fable much later, in the 1600s, in a Latin edition of the Greek Anthology in which it appears), both sonnets are also patently a part of the Dark Lady sequence: 153 introduces his mistress’s eyes at line 9, which have been the symbol of her desirability to him all the way through this sequence; and 154, while it doesn’t mention her eyes, still concludes with his mistress (line 12 and on). Even if we grant (something we are not compelled to) that they are based on school exercises, they have clearly been revised as part of the Sonnets.

The more interesting questions are: What do these sonnets mean? And why do they conclude the sequence? Looking to their source, the fable is about the inextinguishable fires of love: Cupid falls asleep near the nymphs, who are devotees of the virgin goddess Diana (Artemis). They try to extinguish the flame he carries, and instead manage to set fire to fountain in which they submerge it. The lesson, as the final line of 154 puts it, is that ‘Love’s fire heats water, water cools not love’.

A popular reading of these sonnets is as an allusion to Shakespeare’s own experience of venereal disease, and the hot baths that were apparently popular as a cure. Perhaps this is true, but I don’t think it’s a very interesting reading; it strikes me as the kind of reading one comes up with if one treats these sonnets in isolation, rather than as the culmination of the series. And what we have seen, again and again, through both the Young Man and Dark Lady sequences, is that no quantity of cold baths, literal or figurative, has been enough to cure Shakespeare of the throes of love: his love always sets fire to them. No matter how many times he swears himself off it, he comes back for more. His passions are, in the end, deeper than his reason, and thus he is ruled by them even against his will (or should I say, against his Will).

The young man isn’t mentioned or obviously alluded to in this pair of sonnets, but I wonder whether there isn’t still a connection here. Among the cold baths Shakespeare has tried in order to free himself of his burning love is the spiritualised, asexual love he declared over and over in his sonnets to the young man, some of which seem to have been contemporaneous with the sonnets to his mistress. He has continually tried to assert the primacy of the spiritual over the bodily, and the superiority of transcendence (through reproduction, through self-abnegating love, through memento mori, through poetry) over immanence (which he equates with lust, age, and decay). But it has never worked, and the restlessness of his spirit in the shackles of his self-declared spiritualism has been palpable all of the way through — it has perhaps been the dominant theme of the whole of the Sonnets.

Thank you all for joining me on this journey, and it would be a pleasure to do something similar again sometime.