Today’s installment in the Dark Lady sequence of sonnets is rather an ugly one, and I mean that in more ways than one.
Thou blind fool, Love, what dost thou to mine eyes,
That they behold, and see not what they see?
They know what beauty is, see where it lies,
Yet what the best is take the worst to be.
If eyes corrupt by over-partial looks
Be anchor’d in the bay where all men ride,
Why of eyes’ falsehood hast thou forged hooks,
Whereto the judgment of my heart is tied?
Why should my heart think that a several plot
Which my heart knows the wide world’s common place?
Or mine eyes seeing this, say this is not,
To put fair truth upon so foul a face?
In things right true my heart and eyes have erred,
And to this false plague are they now transferr’d.
As Shakespeare did with so many of his sonnets–both to the Young Man and the Dark Lady–he turns the Petrarchan Ideal of Romantic Love on its head: he doesn’t flatter his love, rather he tells her (or him in the case of the Young Man), and the entire world, the truth.
The truth in Sonnet 137 is that the Poet regards the Dark Lady as an unfaithful tramp; yet still he loves her. Unfortunately, this misogynistic meme had continued to this very day, over four centuries later, in so much of our Blues and Rock ‘n’ Roll. I can forgive Shakespeare for this, since he a) was largely a product of his time and b) he was the first writer in Western Literature to create thoroughly realistic and empathic female characters–especially in his later plays. And so he grew into a kind of gender enlightenment.
But back to Sonnet 137. The Poet uses some entertaining imagery to describe how Love has blinded him to his lady’s faults:
- ‘Be anchored in the bay were all men ride’: a scathing condemnation of the Dark Lady’s promiscuity.
- ‘Which my heart knows the wide world’s common place’: that which my heart loves is available to the whole world for the taking.
- The vicious couplet: ‘In things true my heart and eyes have erred, / And to this false plague are they now transferred’: My eyes and heart have been fooled; for they love a lying and diseased woman.
So the next time your lover betrays you (be they male, female, the same gender as you or different), instead of sending them a Sam Smith song, send them this sonnet.
The image is reputed to be of Shakespeare’s wife, Anne Hathaway (though we can never really know), whom Shakespeare probably betrayed often. But back in those days, outside the realm of Petrarchan poetry, marriages were more of a practical contract than any kind of romantic or sexual hook-up.