Medieval-Bath

Sonnet 153

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.

Venereal Disease?

In the traditional parsing out of Shakespeare’s sonnets, the Bard’s last two sonnets, 153 and 154, are not lumped in with the Dark Lady sequence, which includes sonnets 127 – 152. However, if one reads between the lines, it quickly become obvious there are double entendres here. Why doubt it? Shakespeare was the master of weaving multiple meanings into lines.

The ‘lively heat’ of a ‘seething bath’ ‘against strange maladies’ that lead to ‘a sovereign cure’ seem to unmistakably refer to one of the two most common Elizabethan cures for syphilis: severely hot baths. (And the references to venereal disease continue in Sonnet 154, which I’ll save for another day).

A ho-hum love sonnet with fairly tepid classical references? Or a whole lot more? We’re talking about Shakespeare here! If this sonnet is multilayered, the irony becoming inescapable.   At first blush Sonnet 153 poses as a traditional paean to love, with its references to classical Greek mythology. But Shakespeare, in so many of his great works, was rarely only traditional; his calling card was to take the a traditional source, then meld it, mold it, twist it, to his own purposes. I believe this sonnet bemoans the contraction of an STD, with its unpleasant cure, all of which is not quite enough to prevent the Poet to keep yearning for a return to the delicious but diseased arms of his lover:  

But found no cure: the bath for my help lies
Where Cupid got new fire–my mistress’ eyes.

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