This page contains my interpretations for a selection of the sonnets, along with a brief comparison of my meanings with the traditional academic interpretation. In most cases there is a wide gap, and it is this difference that I am referring to as the desecration of Shakespeare.
The reader is encouraged to make up their own mind. I am not going to discuss all 154 sonnets in detail, just those that resonate most with me. It seems likely that the sonnets are a compilation from multiple authors, and the fact that some sonnets seem “better” to me than others may indicate that I find the style of one particular author more pleasing than the others. The last two sonnets appear out of place and many scholars believe they were a late inclusion and not from the same source as the other material.
A good website listing each of the sonnets and their traditional interpretation can be found here.
The traditional view from English scholar’s is that sonnets 1 – 126 are dedicated to a young man, and the last 25 (sonnets 127 – 152) to the dark woman. The final two sonnets are dedicated to Cupid and are based on a Greek Anthology poem by Marcianus Scholasticus from around the 5th century. They do not appear to be authored by the same person or group as sonnets 1 – 152. The rival poet turns up in sonnets 76 – 86 and 100 – 103. The first 17 are about procreation, encouraging the young man to marry and have children. Sonnets 18 – 26 are a tribute to the youth; sonnets 27 -32 about a sorrowful period of separation from the youth, with more lamenting about absence in 36-39 and 43-47. The dark lady turn up in sonnets 33-35 and 40-42. The loss of the youth in sonnets 48 – 55, and loneliness in 56-58 and 61. Reflections on time and beauty in 59, 60, and 62-65 and on corruption in the world in 66-70 and 94-96. Contemplation of death in 71-74 and sonnet 81.
Do the sonnets follow a particular order?
Thomas Thorpe, the publisher, was probably responsible for collating the Sonnets, not the poet himself. The fact that two sonnets on the subject of time appear at numbers 12 and 60, and that other poems on similar themes are grouped together seems to indicate that some thought went into the arrangement of the sonnets even if it were not done by the poet himself.
That there are groupings of sonnets following a similar theme suggests that there could have been several persons involved, perhaps challenging each other to create the best composition. There were rival poets during this period and they often tried to out-do each other. Why not some friendly rivalry within a small group? “Let’s all create a sonnet about time, and meet here again here next week to recite our compositions“. As we read the sonnets there is some evidence of different styles and perhaps the one’s I am most drawn to are those by one particular poet.
It does seem odd that if a group of poets were composing and competing with each other, why would they put all their time and effort in to 127 sonnets on the same subject (ie the youth)? Artists today and throughout the ages demonstrate their ability by painting or singing or writing about a broad range of subjects. Even if they all were written by one poet, it would be very odd that the entire collection was solely about one young man and one dark lady. Even the traditional interpretations acknowledge that some of the sonnets are reflections on time and worldly corruption, and other do seem to be deeply religious. They just seem to be randomly interspersed among those thought to be directed towards the youth or the dark lady.
As I pointed out previously in the introduction, there is no specific evidence that the poet is writing about a young man, or a dark lady. Only one is specifically addressed to his “sweetheart“, and that sonnet does not hint in any way that she is dark-skinned or a prostitute.
I believe that the general theme of the sonnets is about a religious search for God or a spiritual quest. A bit like the quest for the Holy Grail. The theme of a spiritual quest is similar to the teachings from the occult Tarot, which was popular at the time. The sonnets represent the thoughts of the poet (or a group of like-minded men) over a period of time. Beginning with reflections on our mortality and the inevitability of time, there are tributes to God, immortality, feelings of sorrow and suffering along the way and the pull of worldly distractions and temptation. References to darkness and suffering perhaps draw inspiration from descriptions in a contemporary work Dark Night of the Soul. Shakespeare’s repressed Catholicism is also there, but carefully veiled to avoid any trouble with the church establishment at the time.
Read them yourself and arrive at your own conclusion.
TO . THE . ONLIE . BEGETTER . OF .
THESE . INSUING . SONNETS .
W. H. ALL . HAPPINESSE .
AND . THAT . ETERNITIE .
OUR . EVER-LIVING . POET .
THE . WELL-WISHING .
ADVENTURER . IN .
This dedicated has puzzled scholars for centuries. It is likely that TT was the publisher Thomas Thorpe who put together this unauthorised compilation of sonnets. It is most likely that Mr W. H. is William Herbert (Earl of Pembroke), but this is not unanimously agreed. The traditional view is that Thomas Thorpe (the well-wishing adventurer in undertaking this risky venture of publishing the poems) is presenting the sonnets to Mr W. H. (the only begetter), and wishing him happiness and that eternity promised by having his memory preserved forever in these verses.
The dedication indicates that W.H. (probably William Herbert or perhaps William Holme) is the inspiration behind the sonnets. Whether that means that he encouraged their production, or that he encouraged their recital, or whether he acquired the sonnets from Shakespeare to publish, or whether he financed their publication in some way – we cannot be sure.
What is clearer is the reference to eternity promised by the poet. Shakespeare was deeply religious, and his collection of poems was intended to help the adventurer (the passionate pilgrim) on their spiritual quest for immortality (which is the ultimate goal of the spiritual search, one that very few ever attain).
The first collection of 20 poems published by Shakespeare some 10 years earlier in 1599 was entitled The Passionate Pilgrim. The passionate pilgrim is the adventurer, the reader (ie you and me) who read the sonnets in order to find inspiration on our spiritual journey.
The “well-wishing adventurer” is also symbolised by The Fool in the Tarot cards – the first and most important card. Widely misunderstood as the joker card, the original Tarot meaning of the Fool card was the unlimited life-force energy (prana, qi), all the creative potential of the universe, also referred to as eternal youth.
The Fool is the Eternal Youth or youthfulness that keeps recurring throughout the sonnets, showing confidence and joyful aspiration. That is a great way to begin any journey or quest, especially a spiritual quest.
From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty’s rose might never die,
But as the riper should by time decease,
His tender heir might bear his memory:
But thou contracted to thine own bright eyes,
Feed’st thy light’s flame with self-substantial fuel,
Making a famine where abundance lies,
Thy self thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel:
Thou that art now the world’s fresh ornament,
And only herald to the gaudy spring,
Within thine own bud buriest thy content,
And, tender churl, mak’st waste in niggarding:
Pity the world, or else this glutton be,
To eat the world’s due, by the grave and thee.
churl – non-servile peasant or countryman, a common person
This is said to be the first of 17 sonnets exhorting Shakespeare’s youthful friend to get a wife and have children. Instead of wasting his energy in masturbation (feed’st thy light’st flame with self-substantial fuel) he should find a woman (where abundance lies) and create offspring, as it is his duty to the world to do so.
We begin by reflecting on how we commonly view the world. We are born, we grow, we eat and procreate, and then we die. This sonnet is sound advice for everyone. Whether Shakespeare is addressing this to a particular person, himself, or as general advice for us all, we are told to conserve our energy for things that matter in life. In the second line we are confronted with the desire for eternity again (beauty’s rose might never die) – ie to attain immortality. Instead of wasting our valuable vital energy on frivolous activities and satisfying our appetites, we should consider our inner self (contracted to thine own bright eyes, the eyes being the windows to the soul) and not over-indulge. Mak’st waste in niggarding is suggestive of asceticism, a way of life encouraged by almost all religious schools. Most of us are unlikely to achieve immortality, so the heir we leave behind is our legacy, which may be our children, or it may be the result of how we have conserved and channelled our inner energies into some artistic work like poetry or music. If our ultimate aim is along the spiritual path then we definitely need to conserve our vital energy and use it wisely.
When I do count the clock that tells the time,
And see the brave day sunk in hideous night;
When I behold the violet past prime,
And sable curls, all silvered o’er with white;
When lofty trees I see barren of leaves,
Which erst from heat did canopy the herd,
And summer’s green all girded up in sheaves,
Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard,
Then of thy beauty do I question make,
That thou among the wastes of time must go,
Since sweets and beauties do themselves forsake
And die as fast as they see others grow;
And nothing ‘gainst Time’s scythe can make defence
Save breed, to brave him when he takes thee hence.
sable – black (ie sable curls = black hair)
erst – formerly
bier – cart used for carrying wheat (and also for carrying coffins at funerals)
This is a sonnet about time, and some scholars point out the significance of this as the 12th sonnet (12 hours on a clock), and the 60th sonnet which is on the subject of time passing in minutes. This is considered to be a sombre sonnet stating the inevitability of time, and urging the youth to create children to succeed him when he dies, so as to defeat the inevitable results of time.
Another reflection on the inevitability of time. It is a tribute to the great god or goddess of time – in the Hindu tradition this is Siva with his consort Kali who really is depicted as a Dark Lady. In fact, Kali literally means “time” in Sanskrit. Procreation is suggested as the method of achieving immortality by way of offspring. The ultimate goal of the spiritual path is to achieve immortality; a term which is widely misunderstood. Although Jesus is reported to have risen from the dead in physical form, biological immortality does not currently seem possible. Many religions hold that the soul is immortal, and immortality implies a purified soul and the ability for it to separate consciously from the physical body and continue its journey.
In ancient Egypt the Ankh was a symbol of immortality.
When I consider every thing that grows
Holds in perfection but a little moment,
That this huge stage presenteth nought but shows
Whereon the stars in secret influence comment;
When I perceive that men as plants increase,
Cheered and checked even by the self-same sky,
Vaunt in their youthful sap, at height decrease,
And wear their brave state out of memory;
Then the conceit of this inconstant stay
Sets you most rich in youth before my sight,
Where wasteful Time debateth with decay
To change your day of youth to sullied night,
And all in war with Time for love of you,
As he takes from you, I engraft you new.
The scholarly view is that this sonnet is again about the immortalization of Shakespeare’s friend (the youth) in his verse thereby saving him from the ravages of all-consuming time (engrafting him new).
In this contemplative verse Shakespeare is observing how all living things in creation (including mankind) are subject to the cycle of birth, followed by vigorous growth, than a period of stability (adult life), and ultimately decline and death. He begins by observing the Universe (every thing), and then addresses God: “Sets you most rich in youth before my sight”. This “you” is not a young man or woman; Shakespeare is observing the eternal youthfulness, the immortal, unchangeable life-force behind all creation. After a period of stability (wear their brave state out of memory), time and decay set in. This description is similar to the Hindu trinity of Brahma (the creator), Vishnu (the preserver) and Siva (the destroyer – also the God of time as mentioned earlier). This eternal cycle is again summarized in the last two lines, understanding that the “I” refers to the vital life-force which the poet feels flowing through his veins and pen. “As he takes from you, I engraft you new”. Shakespeare doesn’t engraft anyone new – the force of spirit pervading the universe is what creates new life. You can refer to this life-force as “spirit” or “God“. The poem is a tribute to God and an encouragement to the reader to remember and reflect on God through whatever form is appropriate.
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed,
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course untrimmed:
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st,
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
As with the previous sonnets, this is supposed to be the immortalization of Shakespeare’s friend, the “youth”, in his eternal verse thereby saving the youth from destructive time. The boy is said to be more lovely than a summer’s day.
This is one of the best known of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Like sonnet XV we have just reviewed, this is a sonnet praising God. The pronouns can be confusing. The “thee” used in the first and last lines is referring to a person, whereas “Thou” is referring to God. No person enjoys eternal youthfulness. The earlier sonnets I and XII on the subject of time stated this quite clearly. Time is going to ruin and ultimately destroy any human being. That which lives eternally is the vital life force or spirit which is responsible for all creation in the universe (it can also be called God). It is that eternal creative life-force permeating the universe that gives life to all of us. We all enjoy it for a while, and when it leaves us we die. The closer we can connect with and allow this energy to manifest through us, the more fulfilling and enjoyable will we find life. The eternal youthful energy of creation can be seen manifesting through many forms in creation, including people.
Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed,
The dear repose for limbs with travel tired;
But then begins a journey in my head
To work my mind, when body’s work’s expired:
For then my thoughts–from far where I abide–
Intend a zealous pilgrimage to thee,
And keep my drooping eyelids open wide,
Looking on darkness which the blind do see:
Save that my soul’s imaginary sight
Presents thy shadow to my sightless view,
Which, like a jewel hung in ghastly night,
Makes black night beauteous, and her old face new.
Lo! thus, by day my limbs, by night my mind,
For thee, and for myself, no quiet find.
The poet has been separated from his beloved youth, and is reflecting that after a hard days work the thoughts of his young friend are keeping him awake.
Once again I propose that the subject of the sonnet, the person to whom his mind begins a pilgrimage, is none other than God. Do we ever say that we are undertaking a pilgrimage after another person? We may woo or pursue or serenade a person to gain their affections, but it would be odd to say we are making a pilgrimage for their love. A pilgrimage suggests religious intention. After a day engaged in worldly activities he reflects how fruitless and unsatisfying everything is, and is reminded of his greater purpose which is his spiritual quest. The passionate pilgrim finds this period of meditation or reflection (the soul’s imaginary sight during his zealous pilgrimage) revitalising (“makes black night beauteous and her old face new”). People on the spiritual path typically spend their daylight hours at work, and their late night or early morning hours in meditation or similar spiritual practices. By day we work the physical body, and at night we work our minds in meditation.
When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts my self almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
bootless – aimless, achieving nothing
haply – by chance
Shakespeare is feeling troubled and depressed, but when he reflects on the love of his young friend he finds compensation for his grief. Scholars remain uncertain of the cause of Shakespeare’s troubles. Some interpret the reference to “my outcast state” as a complaint against the pressure to reject his Catholic upbringing and become a Protestant. If Francis Bacon wrote the sonnets there were several events in his life that could have resulted in such feelings of dejection.
When one is feeling really low and depressed there are few things in the physical world that can bring consolation. Material items, entertainment, food and drink and the company of others can all fail to improve ones mood. Shakespeare he may even have found the playhouse unbearable. Even for Francis Bacon, his normal interests in science and philosophy would have done little to raise his spirits – “With what I most enjoy contented least.” For a person on a spiritual path, thinking on “Thee” is bringing God to mind, and this can change ones mood completely. This could mean engaging in meditation or contemplative prayer, and proper practice can alter the chemical state and hormonal balance in the body. In particular, the serotonin balance in the brain can be restored, resulting in you feeling happy and contented again. The last lines are saying that when he achieves this happy state, it is better than anything else.
Full many a glorious morning have I seen
Flatter the mountain tops with sovereign eye,
Kissing with golden face the meadows green,
Gilding pale streams with heavenly alchemy;
Anon permit the basest clouds to ride
With ugly rack on his celestial face,
And from the forlorn world his visage hide,
Stealing unseen to west with this disgrace:
Even so my sun one early morn did shine,
With all triumphant splendour on my brow;
But out, alack, he was but one hour mine,
The region cloud hath mask’d him from me now.
Yet him for this my love no whit disdaineth;
Suns of the world may stain when heaven’s sun staineth.
Shakespeare has been rejected or hurt by the youth, but is ready to forgive him (as stated in the last two lines). The lines “Even so my sun … did shine … on my brow” are interpreted to mean that the youth was in his presence for a short period but is now gone. It has also been suggested that perhaps someone in authority may have bestowed a great honour on Shakespeare (as a crown would rest on the top of the head), and then taken it away. Some interpret the last line to mean that the youth (a play on the word “sun” and “son”) has become infected with venereal disease (stained) and has passed the infection to others.
This sonnet is one of several speaking directly about meditation or a similar practice such as contemplation or silent prayer (as it is called in Christian traditions). The sun that shone on the poets’ brow for one hour one morning was not the physical star in the sky but the light that appears at the third-eye chakra point (or ajna centre) on the forehead between the eyes. This light that appears in the kutastha is the result of the pituitary gland releasing serotonin, which stimulates the optic nerves and light is seen even though the eyes are closed. As soon as meditation is over the thoughts and activity in the head takes over, ie the region cloud masks the spiritual experience. This sonnet reminds the student that just as the physical sun is always there but can be covered by clouds, so the spiritual light is always there but we become cut off from it when life gets busy and we become engrossed in worldly activities. The poet forgives himself for this in the last two lines, acknowledging that just as the physical sun can be masked by clouds, our connection to our inner spirit is going to be interrupted. The real sun is always there, and so is our inner peace – we just need to reconnect with it to find it again. Watching a sunrise is a beautiful emotional experience, and the experience of this inner light brings a similar peace and blissful experience to the meditating student.
Why didst thou promise such a beauteous day,
And make me travel forth without my cloak,
To let base clouds o’ertake me in my way,
Hiding thy bravery in their rotten smoke?
‘Tis not enough that through the cloud thou break,
To dry the rain on my storm-beaten face,
For no man well of such a salve can speak,
That heals the wound, and cures not the disgrace:
Nor can thy shame give physic to my grief;
Though thou repent, yet I have still the loss:
The offender’s sorrow lends but weak relief
To him that bears the strong offence’s cross.
Ah! but those tears are pearl which thy love sheds,
And they are rich and ransom all ill deeds.
This sonnet is considered a sequel to number 33. The youth has in some way offended the poet, but Shakespeare is full of forgiveness.
If the poet was in fact Francis Bacon, Edward Johnson provides an alternative analysis based on events in the life of Francis Bacon relating to the bribery charges laid against him shortly after he obtained the office of Lord Chancellor (the beauteous day). The offender, King James, urged Bacon to plead guilty to the bribery charges and resign office. Bacon was briefly imprisoned, fined £40,000 (which was never collected), and immediately pardoned by the king. This could be a plausible explanation for this sonnet if Bacon was indeed the author, though these events in Bacon’s life occurred in 1621 and this date is after the sonnets were first published.
The passionate pilgrim is progressing in spiritual practices but finding that events are causing him pain, which he believes shouldn’t happen because he is carrying out God’s Will! Why do we believe that if we do good deeds in the name of God, things will never go wrong? In fact, the journey laid out in The Dark Night of the Soul explains that long periods of pain and suffering will be experienced as the soul moves through purgatory. Some consider this as God’s way of testing the student. In the end the student knows that the rewards will be worth it, but in the middle of the storm it is little consolation. Bearing the “strong offence’s cross” has strong religious connotations (especially Catholic), reminding the reader of the crucifixion of Jesus. What are these tears of pearl from God? This appears to be a direct reference to the tears of sorrow from Our Lady of Seven Sorrows (rosary beads may sometimes be pearls or referred to as pearls), the Virgin Mary or Black Madonna. The message to the student on their spiritual path when things go wrong is to remain steadfast in their practices and know that ultimately everything will work out fine.
What is your substance, whereof are you made,
That millions of strange shadows on you tend?
Since every one hath, every one, one shade,
And you but one, can every shadow lend.
Describe Adonis, and the counterfeit
Is poorly imitated after you;
On Helen’s cheek all art of beauty set,
And you in Grecian tires are painted new:
Speak of the spring, and foison of the year,
The one doth shadow of your beauty show,
The other as your bounty doth appear;
And you in every blessed shape we know.
In all external grace you have some part,
But you like none, none you, for constant heart.
Fortunately, this is one sonnet that the scholars cannot attribute to youths or black-skinned prostitutes. The scholarly explanation is that this is indeed a spiritual sonnet along the lines of Neo-Platonic metaphysics. Book VII of Plato’s Republic contains the famous allegory of the cave, which explains that our experiences are but shadows of reality cast by the light of God reflecting off the perfect idea forms of the inner causal world.
This time the scholarly interpretation is spot on, and it is hard to interpret this sonnet in any other way. Whereas the scholars view this sonnet as being out of place, in my interpretations it is another sonnet in keeping with the theme about spiritual pursuits and God.
The terms “you” and “your” in this Sonnet is Shakespeare addressing God – or more accurately the perfect idea forms of God in the causal world, which is the source or pattern for all creation. The physical world is composed of lifeless matter. It is brought to life by the energy of the subtle or spiritual world – the vital life-force energy of youthfulness which is frequently mentioned in the sonnets. All forms in the physical world and all laws governing energy movements are contained in perfect idea structures in a motionless causal world, which is a direct emanation from God. Venus and Adonis are the perfect physical female and male forms. These form the pattern for the human race, and humankind is likely to have several hundred thousands years of existence on this planet, yet this is temporary and impermanent in comparison to the eternal existence of God. This sonnet is in praise of the causal aspects of God the creator – perfection, unchanging and eternal – the ultimate source of everything in the universe.
Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme;
But you shall shine more bright in these contents
Than unswept stone, besmear’d with sluttish time.
When wasteful war shall statues overturn,
And broils root out the work of masonry,
Nor Mars his sword, nor war’s quick fire shall burn
The living record of your memory.
‘Gainst death, and all oblivious enmity
Shall you pace forth; your praise shall still find room
Even in the eyes of all posterity
That wear this world out to the ending doom.
So, till the judgement that yourself arise,
You live in this, and dwell in lovers’ eyes.
broils – quarrels, tumults
For the English scholars this is back to the familiar theme – the poet attempting to keep the love of his friend (the youth) alive forever through the lines of his verse.
Edward Johnson states that Francis Bacon wrote these sonnets in praise of the God Apollo (the Greek God of the sun, and patron of poetry). He also cites the following statement from the writings of Francis Bacon as evidence that Bacon was the real author of the sonnets, as it closely parallels the thoughts and words of this sonnet:
“The monuments of wit will survive the monuments of power: the verses of the poet endure without a syllable lost, while state and empires pass many periods”.
The scholars seem to have already forgotten the subject matter of sonnet 53. This sonnet is a bold tribute in praise of that eternal, youthful creative energy of God (as depicted in The Fool Tarot card, the Hindu Goddess Kali, etc.) – constant, eternal and ever loving. The sonnet is saying that the most enduring of man-made creations such as stone statues inlaid with gold (a metal that does not rust or degrade with time) are outlasted by verses written on paper and committed to memory. How can this sonnet be addressed to a human boy when the second to last line states: “till the judgement that yourself arise”? Isn’t God the person responsible for the final judgement? When one looks upon a statue of the Black Madonna, one of the emotions evoked is love – love of God, and awareness of love in everything in creation. That eternal love is what dwells in lover’s eyes.
Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore,
So do our minutes hasten to their end;
Each changing place with that which goes before,
In sequent toil all forwards do contend.
Nativity, once in the main of light,
Crawls to maturity, wherewith being crown’d,
Crooked eclipses ‘gainst his glory fight,
And Time that gave doth now his gift confound.
Time doth transfix the flourish set on youth
And delves the parallels in beauty’s brow,
Feeds on the rarities of nature’s truth,
And nothing stands but for his scythe to mow:
And yet to times in hope, my verse shall stand
Praising thy worth, despite his cruel hand.
The scholars note that this sonnet about time has references to “minutes”, and has been placed at the sixtieth position in the collection. They don’t believe that this is co-incidental. It is said to be a meditation on mortality, and the Thirteenth Tarot card has been used to illustrate it (noting that the real meaning of the Death tarot card is transformation, rather than physical death of the body).
It is very hard to deduce any reference to the youth or th dark lady in this sonnet, and once again the scholars are actually on the right track. This is a reflection on the mortality of life and ending with the poet praising God (“praising thy worth“) despite the seemingly cruel ways in which nature works, destroying the old (but yet replacing them with new and beautiful forms). This sonnet is full of optimism and hope.
That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed, whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well, which thou must leave ere long.
This popular sonnet is often the subject of critical analysis in schools and colleges, which they believe is one of the finest examples of all the sonnets. Shakespeare is lamenting the onset of age (though he likely to have been only in his mid-thirties when it was written). He is comparing himself to a withered tree, his youthfulness dying like the embers of a fire, and preparing for death.
This is a reflective poem, in this case “thou” is referring to another observing the poet. This could be a friend, or it could be that God is the observer. The sonnet is clearly not about his physical death as the lines “black night doth take away” and “Death’s second self” reveal. Sleep is “death’s second self“. Something is dying, which the scholars interpret to be Shakespeare’s youth and passion. Yet we are only halfway through the sonnets and some of the finest are still to come, so clearly his passion hasn’t yet faded!
This is a description of the passionate pilgrim’s journey into the Dark Night of the Soul (as the following sonnets will also show). It is the ego that is dying. The process of transformation first destroys that which is no longer required, making way for new growth – “Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by”. This is a phase that will happen to the serious student on any genuine spiritual path. That divine force, which gives us life as we grow from embryo to adulthood, is also responsible for destroying that in us that is no longer useful when it has served its purpose. To the passionate pilgrim on an inner spiritual journey, it is the ego that is being destroyed, which ultimately leads to closer communion with God (hence “makes they love more strong”). The last line reminds us that the physical body is still very important and must be cared for because it is very necessary for us on life’s journey.
Some glory in their birth, some in their skill,
Some in their wealth, some in their body’s force,
Some in their garments though new-fangled ill;
Some in their hawks and hounds, some in their horse;
And every humour hath his adjunct pleasure,
Wherein it finds a joy above the rest:
But these particulars are not my measure,
All these I better in one general best.
Thy love is better than high birth to me,
Richer than wealth, prouder than garments’ cost,
Of more delight than hawks and horses be;
And having thee, of all men’s pride I boast:
Wretched in this alone, that thou mayst take
All this away, and me most wretched make.
The poet is relaxing with the knowledge that the youth loves him. His last remaining concern is that the love he now has can be lost at the whim of the youth.
This poem clearly places love above wealth and fleeting pleasures. To Shakespeare the object of his love is worth far more than status, wealth, or sporting activities. So whose love is Shakespeare referring to – the youth, his mistress, King James, the Earl of Pembroke – or perhaps God? The last two lines appear strange – the fear that the beloved will take their love elsewhere. In the case of God, God’s love pervades the creation and does not disappear on a whim or because somebody misbehaves. The fear of the poet is that he may lose that connection with God and the emotional contentment and satisfaction they are currently feeling. This is a common fear for spiritual students. They are making steady progress and are feeling the connection with God, but they can lose this connection for a period of time. The passionate pilgrim should have no such fear – once fixed in regular spiritual practice the connection with God is strong and any interruption is usually temporary.
How like a winter hath my absence been
From thee, the pleasure of the fleeting year!
What freezings have I felt, what dark days seen!
What old December’s bareness everywhere!
And yet this time removed was summer’s time;
The teeming autumn, big with rich increase,
Bearing the wanton burden of the prime,
Like widow’d wombs after their lords’ decease:
Yet this abundant issue seemed to me
But hope of orphans, and unfathered fruit;
For summer and his pleasures wait on thee,
And, thou away, the very birds are mute:
Or, if they sing, ’tis with so dull a cheer,
That leaves look pale, dreading the winter’s near.
The English scholars see these next two sonnets as a movement into a period of separation between Shakespeare and his friend the youth. This period is compared to the coldness and bareness of winter, yet there is hope that the two will again be reunited.
The separation painted by the allegory of summer and winter is between the poet (or pilgrim) and God. Such pain is well known to any who have seriously embarked on a spiritual path. The loss of connection with God feared in sonnets 73 and 91 has come to pass. Meditation has been proceeding well and for a time one can feel a connection with God. Then begins a period where things don’t seem to go so well. An excellent description of this phase is contained in the the previously referenced Dark Night of the Soul. Oblivious to all else, the passionate pilgrim feels unfulfilled without the presence of God. Nothing else matters; nothing else brings cheer. Know that that this period is just a passing phase – be patient, keep up the practise, and the connection (summer) will return.
From you have I been absent in the spring,
When proud pied April, dressed in all his trim,
Hath put a spirit of youth in every thing,
That heavy Saturn laughed and leapt with him.
Yet nor the lays of birds, nor the sweet smell
Of different flowers in odour and in hue,
Could make me any summer’s story tell,
Or from their proud lap pluck them where they grew:
Nor did I wonder at the lily’s white,
Nor praise the deep vermilion in the rose;
They were but sweet, but figures of delight,
Drawn after you, you pattern of all those.
Yet seemed it winter still, and you away,
As with your shadow I with these did play.
heavy Saturn – astrologically associated with old age and melancholy humour
This continues the theme of sonnet 97, lamenting a period of separation from the youth.
There are references here to the causal, eternal forms of God: “drawn after you, you pattern of all those”. How can this possibly be a reference to a young man? The poet states how the period of separation leads to longing, where the common earthly pleasures have little meaning. Through this longing the pilgrim can become introverted, losing connection with the outer world. To others they seem lost in thought and absent-minded. Having once felt the presence of God, the longing for that presence again is desired more than anything else. The seeker can do nothing more than continue the spiritual practices and mingle with other people in worldly activities that bring joy to their friends; but these things do bring joy to the spiritual pilgrim. The student knows that God is everywhere and in everything, but does not feel the presence: “As with your shadow I with these did play.” In both these sonnets God hasn’t gone anywhere. The separation arises from within, due to our own thoughts, feelings and karmic tendencies. The length of this period of separation (or purgatory) varies, and I refer the reader again to The Dark Night of the Soul by St John of the Cross.
Since I left you, mine eye is in my mind;
And that which governs me to go about
Doth part his function and is partly blind,
Seems seeing, but effectually is out;
For it no form delivers to the heart
Of bird, of flower, or shape which it doth latch:
Of his quick objects hath the mind no part,
Nor his own vision holds what it doth catch;
For if it see the rud’st or gentlest sight,
The most sweet favour or deformed’st creature,
The mountain or the sea, the day or night,
The crow, or dove, it shapes them to your feature.
Incapable of more, replete with you,
My most true mind thus maketh mine eye untrue.
The poets mind has been invaded by images of thoughts of the youth so that everything he sees is transformed into the image of the youth in one way or other.
Once again “you” refers to the image of God held in the poets mind and heart. As students advance on the spiritual path and their meditation becomes deep and intense, when they emerge they can still see an image of God in their third eye, and everywhere they look they are reminded of God. Similarly, a person can be so infatuated with another that everywhere he or she looks they see the face or eyes of their lover. Quoting from a modern rock song:
“But Angie, I still love you, baby,
Everywhere I look I see your eyes.” (Angie, Rolling Stones, 1973)
This is a good example of verse that can be interpreted at multiple levels depending on the object of attention of the person. Everything seems to be coloured by that on which the attention dwells. This may be an inanimate object like a tree or a vintage car, an animal, a person, or God.
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
bark = a type of sailing ship
sickle = implement used for cutting grass
The common view is that this is a poem praising love in its most ideal form. This poem has been a popular choice at marriage ceremonies. Scholars say that this is a poem about Platonic love between two men, because marriage between Shakespeare and his youth was impossible.
This is a poem about love not marriage – the word “marriage” in the first line refers to a bond between like-minded people, which will survive all the vicissitudes of life. The line “… though rosy lips and cheeks, Within his bending sickle’s compass come” suggests that true love is above the attractions of flesh or lust. Whilst this unconditional bond of love could exist between a man and a woman, it could also exist between brother Masons, between family members, between guru and disciple, or with God. In this sonnet the quality of love is more like an intellectual bond between two like-minded individuals, which will endure not matter what happens between them over time. (Consequently, it would not be one that I would recommend for wedding ceremonies between a man and a woman).
In the old age black was not counted fair,
Or if it were, it bore not beauty’s name;
But now is black beauty’s successive heir,
And beauty slandered with a bastard shame:
For since each hand hath put on Nature’s power,
Fairing the foul with Art’s false borrowed face,
Sweet beauty hath no name, no holy bower,
But is profaned, if not lives in disgrace.
Therefore my mistress’ eyes are raven black,
Her eyes so suited, and they mourners seem
At such who, not born fair, no beauty lack,
Sland’ring creation with a false esteem:
Yet so they mourn becoming of their woe,
That every tongue says beauty should look so.
We are told that we are now at the beginning of a number of sonnets about his mistress, the dark lady. In this verse he justifies his love for her on the basis that black is symbolic of mourning for the debasement of true beauty (inner beauty), and therefore true beauty is itself dark. (This is the scholarly interpretation, and I have some difficulty in following this explanation).
To those who believe that these poems were written for Mary Fitton, not that her complexion was fair, not dark. Perhaps she dressed in dark clothes, or wore black make-up.
This is another deeply religious sonnet. During Shakespeare’s era images of the Black Madonna or Black Virgin were sweeping across Europe – at least 400 to 500 shrines were erected throughout Europe during this period. This was the New Age phenomenon of the 16th century (“in the old age black was not counted fair”), and particularly important for the repressed Catholic followers like Shakespeare and his family. The origin of the Black Madonna seems to have come out of Africa or the East and is representative of the ancient goddess of creation (similar to the Hindu goddess Kali). The references to the mistress’ eyes being black because the is mourning also recalls the Catholic image of Our Lady of Seven Sorrows. Whilst she appears black and sorrowful to her followers she is still beautiful because of what she represents. The verse laments that most people judge her beauty by the outer form and complexion, not understanding the inner beauty and spiritual symbolism that lies beneath.
The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action: and till action, lust
Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust;
Enjoyed no sooner but despised straight;
Past reason hunted; and no sooner had,
Past reason hated, as a swallowed bait,
On purpose laid to make the taker mad.
Mad in pursuit and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have extreme;
A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind a dream.
All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.
This is interpreted as a strong reaction to sexual urges. As it occurs amongst the sonnets written about the dark mistress rather than the youth, it seems that Shakespeare is experiencing a period of lust towards his mistress. The expense of spirit is the release of inner vitality (or semen) through sexual acts.
Students following any spiritual path are encouraged to conserve sexual energy (refer back to the first sonnet). Not just through refraining from the sexual act, but also through any activity that dissipates the finer spiritual energies. Living a wild social life, partying, gossiping, drinking and taking drugs, etc. are all excellent ways of depleting the vital body energy leaving little for intellectual, artistic or spiritual pursuits. Those who do indulge in these activities may briefly enjoy the experience, but it rarely lasts long and there can be a period of recovery afterwards. Students on most spiritual paths are advised not to indulge in such activities, and many paths promote celibacy (which is often incorrectly interpreted to mean no sexual activity at all). This sonnet is a good reminder for the passionate pilgrims on their spiritual path – don’t throw away all that good work done so far.
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red, than her lips red:
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound:
I grant I never saw a goddess go,
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet by heaven, I think my love as rare,
As any she belied with false compare.
mistress – sweetheart or lover
damasked – linen with finely woven patterns visible from either side, and a variety of deep pink rose
wire – finely spun thread (there was no metal wire in the 16th century!). The black wires are most likely a reference to a hair net, which was popular fashion at the time.
belied – falsely portrayed
A lack-lustre tribute to the Dark Lady, in which he shows that ordinary beauty is important to him. The last lines have puzzled many – “as any she belied with false compare“. It simply means that when his mistress makes statements about their relationship, such as “Our love is like that between Venus and Adonis“, using fantastical or ridiculous comparisons she is of course lying but that is not important.
This is one of the only sonnets in which Shakespeare directly addresses his mistress, who we assume must be his wife or lover (his sweetheart). He states that whilst she is not physically perfect, it is the love they share that is of greatest importance and that this love is a rare thing. Whilst many of the sonnets are directly praising or directing love to God, it is perfectly valid to experience God’s love indirectly through a man or woman. That is how most of us experience love – through our partner. The beauty of that love is not dependent on the physical beauty of the person through whom it flows.
Whoever hath her wish, thou hast thy Will,
And Will to boot, and Will in over-plus;
More than enough am I that vexed thee still,
To thy sweet will making addition thus.
Wilt thou, whose will is large and spacious,
Not once vouchsafe to hide my will in thine?
Shall will in others seem right gracious,
And in my will no fair acceptance shine?
The sea, all water, yet receives rain still,
And in abundance addeth to his store;
So thou, being rich in Will, add to thy Will
One will of mine, to make thy large will more.
Let no unkind, no fair beseechers kill;
Think all but one, and me in that one Will.
overplus – surplus, overabundance
vouchsafe – grant, allow
The first of a pair of sonnets that play on the word “will” to hide sexual innuendos. A number of meanings have been suggested for the word “will”. These include:
1. Wish, desire
2. Carnal desire, lust, sexual longing
3. A future tense as in ‘it will be so”
4. Willfulness, obstinacy, determination
5. A slang term for the male sex organ
6. A slang term for the female sex organ.
7. The name William
The favoured interpretation is sexual desire, hence “Will in overplus” means intense sexual craving. “To hide my will in thine” means the man wishes to place his penis in the woman’s vagina. The sonnet is a plea from a man to have sex with a woman who has had many partners (ie she is likely to be a prostitute). Thus “add to thy Will, One will of mine, to make thy large Will more”, means “please have sex with me as you do with so many other men”. “Think all but one, and me in that one Will” means all penises are the same, so please accept mine.
It still amazes me that after 400 years of analysis the English scholars can see nothing more to this sonnet than sexual innuendos. I have no doubt that Shakespeare was clever enough to write verse capable of being interpreted on multiple levels, and the sexual puns are undoubtedly one valid interpretation. I will spend a bit more time on these pair of sonnets as there are alternative interpretations that are quite profound.
My interpretation of the word “Will” is that it means “Will“! On the spiritual level this union of Wills (and note the capital “W” signifying divine Will, or the Will of God) represents the attainment of spiritual work. The ego is being conquered, and the individual will merges with the Will of God – “not my will, but Thine”. The sincere spiritual student is now performing God’s will. I will also quote from one of the most influential (and also controversial) occultists of the 20th century, Aleister Crowley:
“Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.”
“Love is the law, Love under Will”.
This is an important step for the passionate pilgrim. At the beginning of the journey God was an object of devotion. They passed through the first dark night of the soul overcoming doubts and uncertainty, and with steadfast practice they are now feeling the Will of God acting through themselves – or at least that is the intent. The plea from the pilgrim is to “add to thy Will, One will of mine” (note the capital “W” for divine Will, and the small “w” for the individual will). The dissolution of the ego requires assistance from God but is a personal choice – a decision, an act of individual will to break the separation, and merge with God.
The last two lines are a plea to God. Religious teachings state that assistance is required from the Almighty creator to bring about the final state of realisation. The passionate pilgrim is pleading for God to lift their soul up over the final barrier to enlightenment. This is similar to the final lines from The Tempest, which was the last of Shakespeare’s plays before he retired from the theatre. These lines are reminiscent of Jesus on the cross making his final plea to God for salvation “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” Spoken by Prospero:
Now my charms are all o’erthrown,
And what strength I have’s mine own,
Which is most faint. Now, ’tis true,
I must be here confin’d by you,
Or sent to Naples. Let me not,
Since I have my dukedom got
And pardon’d the deceiver, dwell
In this bare island by your spell;
But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands.
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be reliev’d by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon’d be,
Let your indulgence set me free.
At one level this can be seen as a request from an actor to receive the applause of the audience at the end of the play. On another level, it can be interpreted as Shakespeare requesting a final applause and being allowed to depart from the theatre and enjoy his retirement. On a spiritual level, it can be interpreted as a faithful devotee who has given all to God and is now awaiting the final Ascension or transformation for union with God (which requires Divine Grace).
If thy soul check thee that I come so near,
Swear to thy blind soul that I was thy Will,
And will, thy soul knows, is admitted there;
Thus far for love, my love-suit, sweet, fulfil.
Will, will fulfil the treasure of thy love,
Ay, fill it full with wills, and my will one.
In things of great receipt with ease we prove
Among a number one is reckoned none:
Then in the number let me pass untold,
Though in thy store’s account I one must be;
For nothing hold me, so it please thee hold
That nothing me, a something sweet to thee:
Make but my name thy love, and love that still,
And then thou lovest me for my name is Will.
This sonnet is another witty sexual joke continuing with the play on the word “Will” as a euphemism for Shakespeare’s penis, which he wishes to insert into his mistress (the Dark Lady). The lines “among a number one is reckon’d none …” are interpreted to mean that the mistress has many lovers (ie she is a prostitute). Shakespeare is just one of many people, and is insignificant to her amongst them. In this sonnet it seems that Shakespeare has been rejected (“If thy soul check thee that I come so near”), and he is but one of many lovers she has (“that nothing me …”). He pleads that by being considered just a name, just one of many lovers, that she may then accept his sexual advances.
This is one of the most beautiful and profound sonnets in the entire collection, and also seems one of the hardest for the English scholars to understand in any context other than sex. I shall now reveal the key to understanding this sonnet:
- “Will” doesn’t mean penis; it means “Will”.
- “Love” doesn’t mean sex; it means “love”.
- “Soul” doesn’t mean mistress; it means “soul”.
It may also be useful at this point for the reader to refer back to an earlier discussion in the introduction about John Napier and the discovery of logarithms. Also, the significance of numerals 0 and 1 in the Tarot. I will explain why shortly.
As mentioned in the previous sonnet, the ultimate goal for the passionate pilgrim is the dissolution of the ego and union with God. This is the goal of Yoga practices (Yoga means Union) also referred to as enlightenment, Samadhi, liberation (Moksha), self-realisation or Ascension in the Christian teachings.
However, as every diligent meditation student knows, when the presence of God is felt the experience is not always sweet and wonderful with angels, pure white light and falling rose petals! It can be quite terrifying and not at all what the student was expecting. The student can initially react quite negatively when the Shakti or Kundalini energy is felt for the first time (“thy soul check thee that I come so near”). After pleading for the Grace of God in the previous sonnet, when the student actually experiences it they can get quite a fright! The instruction at the start of the sonnet is for the passionate pilgrim to remember that the experience comes through the Grace of God, which was imparted through love. Don’t give up!
Now we come to the puzzling lines about the number one being reckon’d none (ie zero). Numbers and numerology were very important to members of occult organisations. I generally avoid the whole numerology analysis thing, but it is interesting to note that the number of this sonnet, 136, when the digits are added 3 + 6 + 1 = 10, ie the numerals 1 and 0 which is the subject of this sonnet.
In the introduction we briefly covered the mystical significance of the numbers zero and one. God is unity, one. The creation is represented by zero. Now consider this: “One divided by zero equals zero plus one remainder”. The entire creation comes into manifestation by the sacrifice of God (Purusha), who remains unaffected and undiminished afterwards. Every individual soul (Jiva) is part of Purusha, since nothing in the entire creation came from anything other than Purusha in the first place; yet by having individuality we are in a way all separate from it. Hence both advaita (non-dualist) and dualistic views of God are correct. They are both saying the same thing from different viewpoints.
When is the number one reckoned to be zero? In mathematics the common logarithm of one is zero. This may seem trivial to us now, but 400 years ago John Napier spent 20 years working on his thesis to demonstrate how logarithms could transform numbers and make complex multiplication and division operations a simple matter of addition. This was a major mathematical and scientific breakthrough and an enabler for so much subsequent scientific and technological progress. Napier’s unpublished works were undoubtedly known to the attendees of the School of Night around the time the sonnets were composed. It would have been a vigorously debated discussion topic, controversial and exciting to its members. If indeed Shakespeare (or maybe Francis Bacon) is referring to logarithms, what on earth is the point of stating this in the middle of a sonnet on divine Will?
Here we have a mathematically correct operation symbolising the transformative power of love under Will. Through the operation of logs and anti-logs, we can transform the number one (God) into zero (the creation), and back again. Nothing is lost; both operations are mathematically correct. Logarithms are in this context being used as an analogy for the transformative power of the Will of God. Every soul is indeed part of God (“in thy stores’ account I one must be”) yet we are currently part of creation (“nothing me”), and we may feel insignificant, almost infinitely small (“in the number let me pass untold“), though always inseparably linked to God (“something sweet to thee”).
The key to the anti-logarithm transformation back from creation to divinity (0 to 1), the enlightenment or self-realisation for the spiritual student, is to remember God’s name, the divine Will. This “re-membering” requires effort, such as mantra meditation. Many meditation mantras are based upon chanting Gods name, some common examples being:
- Om Mane Padme Hum (Salutations to the jewel of consciousness which has reached the heart’s lotus)
- Yod Hay Vod Hay (Jewish – YWHW or Jehova, God in the aspect of the Divine Father)
- Ham Sa (I am He)
- Om Namah Sivaya (I bow to Siva)
- Hare Krishna
- Om Tat Sat (Thou are the inexpressible absolute reality)
- Allah Akbar (Islamic – God is Great)
- I Am that I Am (Christian)
- Ra-Neter-Atef-Nefer (Egyptian – The Divine God Ra is Gracious)
Mantra meditation is core practice for students following a spiritual practice. Chanted out loud or silently in the mind with the objective of achieved full union with God – “then thou lovest me, for my name is Will”.
If somebody has not experienced sexual desire for another person they might not understand the clever sexual puns the scholars interpret in these two sonnets – ie having “will in overplus” (feeling horny), hiding “my Will” in thine or adding “my Will” to “thy Will” (placing the penis in the vagina). Similarly, if one has not studied any spiritual path the deeper spiritual meanings may not be apparent and some parts of these sonnets would seem nonsense or meaningless. This is a very clever sonnet that is full of optimism that the passionate pilgrim will be successful in attaining his or her goal.
Lo, as a careful housewife runs to catch
One of her feathered 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.
Apparently the youth has run off with Shakespeare’s mistress, and the poet is trying to get his mistress back. If the lover (a flustered housewife, ie the youth) stops running after the other lover (a chicken, ie the mistress) and comes back to me (Shakespeare, the crying child) I will fulfil your every desire (ie have more sex with the mistress).
The sonnet has nothing to do with Shakespeare’s wife or prostitute. It is another solemn religious sonnet. It is a directive to all students to be careful about worldly distractions diverting us from our real spiritual work. The feathered creatures that fly in front of our faces are the desires and worries of normal life that constantly take our attention. Often, ALL of our attention ALL the time. The babe, the neglected child, is our individual soul; our true self. As in sonnet 146 which we will shortly cover, we are instructed: “within be fed, without be rich no more”. If we remember to devote some time to the nourishment of the inner self (“if thou catch thy hope, turn back to me”) then we will make friends with our inner self and it will work with us towards our enlightenment and ultimately union with God (“thou mayest have thy Will”). Turn the attention inwards and spend some time on inner work (“if thou turn back”), and nourish the self (“my loud crying still”). Sonnet 146 continues this theme.
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 coloured 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 turned 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.
(This sonnet was the second in the original The Passionate Pilgrim collection published in 1599 by William Jaggard).
This outlines the twists and turns of a complicated love triangle between Shakespeare, his male friend and the Dark Lady. Yet it appears that Shakespeare prefers his male companion to that of the Dark Lady. The “fire” in the last line refers to venereal disease, and Shakespeare is concerned that his mistress will pass it on to his male companion.
This is not necessarily an autobiographical statement from Shakespeare, but a commentary on the thoughts and feelings that circulate in the minds of many people and are a constant problem to students on a spiritual path. In this sonnet Shakespeare provides an analogy of two types of love – sexual lust is depicted by the woman (black = coloured ill), and the purer form of love by a (white) male. As the poet notes, they both originate within us and they are just two opposite poles of the same thing. Referring back to the Dark Night of the Soul, the student is now deep into the second night. When we are faced with uncertainty and are being tossed to and fro in this manner it is good to remember that balance can be restored by finding a third point between the two. It is not a matter of destroying the bad angel and encouraging the good angel – they are both part of us, and both aspects need to be embraced. Peace comes when these two aspects are brought into balance and this cannot happen whilst either are being repressed.
Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth,
Foold’d by these rebel powers that thee array
Why dost thou pine within and suffer dearth,
Painting thy outward walls so costly gay?
Why so large cost, having so short a lease,
Dost thou upon thy fading mansion spend?
Shall worms, inheritors of this excess,
Eat up thy charge? Is this thy body’s end?
Then soul, live thou upon thy servant’s loss,
And let that pine to aggravate thy store;
Buy terms divine in selling hours of dross;
Within be fed, without be rich no more:
So shall thou feed on Death, that feeds on men,
And Death once dead, there’s no more dying then.
This is viewed as one of the few religious sonnets in the collection. The lover, tired of endlessly battering at the impregnable walls of the beloved’s chastity, might as a final protest retire to the contemplative and religious life. It is also taken to be a rebuke against fine clothing and extravagance, and offering advice to his mistress on how to change her ways and be a good woman for him.
It is hard to interpret this sonnet in any context other than of religious or spiritual nature. This sonnet exhorts the reader to devote less attention to the physical body (the “servant”), and instead nourish the soul – for example, through contemplation or meditation. Time spent in this way (“buying terms divine”) is nourishment for the soul. There is no point in dressing the physical body in fancy clothes or engaging in trivial activities as death will come to all of us soon enough. Consequently, this investment in the physical body will only be of benefit to the worms that eat the corpse! The final two lines state that a spiritual life is the path to immortality (“Death once dead” = enlightenment), which is the goal of the passionate pilgrim.
My love is as a fever longing still,
For that which longer nurseth the disease;
Feeding on that which doth preserve the ill,
The uncertain sickly appetite to please.
My reason, the physician to my love,
Angry that his prescriptions are not kept,
Hath left me, and I desperate now approve
Desire is death, which physic did except.
Past cure I am, now Reason is past care,
And frantic-mad with evermore unrest;
My thoughts and my discourse as madmen’s are,
At random from the truth vainly expressed;
For I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright,
Who art as black as hell, as dark as night.
physic – a purging medicine that stimulates evacuation of the bowels
This is a scathing attack on the morality of his mistress, the Dark Lady, because she sleeps with other men. The cure for Shakespeare’s illness (venereal disease?) is to abstain from intercourse, but he does not seem to be able to manage this and his physician despairs of him. He is trapped in the black vortex of hell with his mistress.
Spiritually, this can be interpreted in several ways and at first glance this may seem to be a distressing and negative sonnet. He seems to be suffering a passion; he can’t reason with himself and he cannot find a state of rest. He is in turmoil. Turning once again to a passionate pilgrim who’s spiritual work has thrust them deep into the Dark Night of the Soul. This sonnet speaks of the thirst that can come over a student at an advanced stage on the spiritual path. The student is nearing their goal, but their current state is anything but pleasant. Through their efforts they have experienced times of merging with God consciousness. They may have had several strong experiences, but now despite the best efforts they can’t repeat the experience. This results in terrible emotional turmoil. Nothing else satisfies. They cannot get what they want. They have become obsessed with a feverish desire for spiritual enlightenment. This occupies all their thoughts and endeavours, but because the mind is not yet disciplined enough, the spiritual search becomes an activity that blocks the experience the student so desires. Whilst is is quite painful, ultimately the ego will die and union with God will be complete.
It is fitting that this sonnet occurs near the end of the collection, as it really is good news for the pilgrim who is near to their ultimate goal. Unfortunately, the collection appears unfinished as the last few sonnets (with 152 being the last one attributed to Shakespeare) leaving no suggestion that Shakespeare actually reached his goal of enlightenment. It is a very unsatisfactory ending and it feels unfinished.
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 borrowed 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 distempered guest,
But found no cure, the bath for my help lies
Where Cupid got new fire; my mistress’ eyes.
Dian = Diana, Goddess of hunting, and observant of chastity. (Diana is another representation for the Goddess Kali / Hecate / Isis / Sheba / Black Madonna, etc).
Sonnets 153 and 154 are based on a poem in the Greek Anthology attributed to Marcianus Scholasticus (from the 5th century AD). The epigram describes how the sleeping Cupid is robbed of his love-brand (penis, sexual desire) by the Nymphs, who seek to quench it by plunging it in a fountain. The fountain heats up and the brand is not quenched, so that the Nymphs thereafter bathe in hot water. The poet amplifies the poem by bringing in the idea that the fountain becomes a medicinal cure, but he finds that it cannot cure him from the pangs of love. The only cure for that is to bathe in his mistress’ eyes, the very place where Cupid fired his brand initially. Love’s brand is the penis, and the fountain is the female vagina. The lively heat is venereal disease (such as syphilis), and the seething bath a hot tub (or the sulphur spa in Bath, which Shakespeare or Francis Bacon may well have visited), which is used to try to cure the disease.
There is general agreement among the English scholars that these final two sonnets were most likely not written by Shakespeare (or Francis Bacon) at all, but were added by Thomas Thorpe at the time of publication. Edward Johnson also notes that these last two sonnets are not related to the first 152, and states that they are dedicated to Cupid.
So why were these last two Sonnets added? Esoterically, perhaps it was so that there was a total of 154 Sonnets, the sum of the digits being 1 + 5 + 4 = 10, a highly important esoteric number (refer back to Sonnet 136 for a lengthy discussion).
If after all this discussion you still believe Shakespeare was writing about his love for little boys and black prostitutes … well, there really isn’t any hope!