Sunday Sonnet – 06 March 2016

sonnet 151

A case can be made that Queen Elizabeth I ushered England into the Renaissance. That said, despite the Elizabethan explosion of Art, Science and Thought, it was an incredibly repressive society. And it was sexually repressive–to the point where it was dangerous to be too risqué. Shakespeare, though, knew just how far he could push it.


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 father 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.

This verse is all about how the Poet’s spiritual inclinations succumb to his bodily lust for the Dark Lady. Where it gets risqué–especially for Elizabethan society–is in its second half, where the Poet is reduced to nothing but a phallus, rising and lowering to the Dark Lady’s bidding. You see, it wasn’t permissible in the Elizabethan world of poetry to express sexual desire. But here Shakespeare takes it on. Re-read the start of the second half, it’s really quite explicit:

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…

With Sonnet 151, is Shakespeare perhaps also addressing the conventions of the day? In the opening lines Shakespeare seems to be referring to Cupid, who’s too naïve to really understand the way of the world. I think this Sonnet might be taking aim at the Petrarchan ideal of Romantic Love as idolized in most love poetry of the day: grow up, kids, the way of the world is a lot different than what you’re writing about. This is what it’s like: Soul and lust and pleasure and guilt, all mixed up together.

Shakespeare’s plays were full of lovers, usually unhappy and always complicated. Today’s images is of the great Allan Rickman and Helen Mirren as Antony and Cleopatra from a live performance: certainly sexual, most definitely troubled.


Sunday Sonnet – 28 February 2016

Sonnet 146

If ever there were a Shakespearean sonnet appropriate for a Sunday, it’s probably this one.


Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth,
[…] 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 shalt thou feed on Death, that feeds on men,
And Death once dead, there’s no more dying then.

Shakespeare to a large degree avoided Christian references in his plays and poetry, which was probably wise in Elizabethan England: The war between the Protestant and Catholic faiths had seesawed back and for since Henry VIII, and plenty of people had ended up dead, usually in very unpleasant ways. And so this Dark Lady Sonnet (there’s no explicit mention of her here, but the sins here are carnal ones) is a bit unusual in that the Poet is starting to worry about the eternal disposition of his soul.

This argument between one’s eternal soul and the aging of the temporal body, in this poem imaged as a fading mansion, concludes that it’s time to stop trying to prop up that failing body:

Painting thy outward walls so costly gay?
Why so large cost, having so short a lease,
Dost thou upon thy fading mansion spend?

The whole thrust of this poem is pretty straightforward: Neglect your worldly body so that you might enrich your soul. Which leads you to one of Shakespeare’s most lovely couplets:

So shalt thou feed on Death, that feeds on men,
And Death once dead, there’s no more dying then.

But what makes this sonnet famous (at least in literary circles) isn’t Shakespeare’s rare dalliance into matters piously religious, but those missing words in the second line: In the original Folio, that blank space is filled with ‘My sinful earth.’ Yes–that’s right, the phrase ‘My sinful earth’ is repeated, at the end of line 1 and at the start of line 2.

This is, if you know anything about meter and about Shakespeare’s unerring genius for economy and beauty of language, IS IMPOSSIBLE. The Bard wouldn’t have a) messed up his meter in line 2 with those three words and b) wouldn’t have repeated himself so stupidly. The pervading argument goes that some idiot printer made an error.

So what are those lost words? That’s where all the fun begins. Critics, scholars, poets and gadflies have been arguing for centuries what the Bard must’ve intended. Short of a séance or traveling back in time, we’ll never know. But here are some suggestions, none of which really work beautifully if you take into account meter, cadence, imagery and theme:

Trapp’d these rebel powers that thee array;








Which do you like? All this sound and fury, caused by an idiot, which in the end probably signifies nothing.

The image of an old woodcut is of an Elizabethan era printing press. They had movable type, but it was still laborious and prone to error.

Sunday Sonnet – 21 February 2016

Sonnet 140

Sometimes it’s delicious to watch a love affair blow apart with jealously, infidelity and threats, especially if you’re not one of the lovers.   I give you Shakespeare’s Dark Lady Sonnet Number 140:


Be wise as thou art cruel; do not press
My tongue-tied patience with too much disdain;
Lest sorrow lend me words and words express
The manner of my pity-wanting pain.
If I might teach thee wit, better it were,
Though not to love, yet, love, to tell me so;
As testy sick men, when their deaths be near,
No news but health from their physicians know;
For if I should despair, I should grow mad,
And in my madness might speak ill of thee:
Now this ill-wresting world is grown so bad,
Mad slanderers by mad ears believed be,
That I may not be so, nor thou belied,
Bear thine eyes straight, though thy proud heart go wide.

So what’s going on here? The Poet accuses the Dark Lady of cruelty, but warns hers that she’d better wise up and at least pretend to love him, or he’s going to tell everyone what a philanderer she is.

I’ll speak ill of you: ‘Lest sorrow lend me words and words express’ and ‘And in my madness might speak ill of thee’

Dote on me, even though I know you’re cheating with others : ‘Bear thine eyes straight, though thy proud heart go wide’

And what would a Shakespeare sonnet be without a metaphor? Here the Poet talks about how a dying man begs his doctor to lie to him about how bad it is:  

‘As testy sick men, when their deaths be near,
No news but health from their physicians know;’

Yes, this relationship is in deplorable shape. Despite that–despite the fact that the Dark Lady really doesn’t love him, and is cheating on him–the Poet threatens to spread the truth around if she doesn’t at least pretend.  

Don’t miss some of the beautiful language: ‘My tongue-tied patience with too much disdain;’ or ‘The manner of my pity-wanting pain’. Then there’s the little pun on ‘testy sick men’, hinting at the real reason why the Poet is so desperate to stay with his Dark Lady: lust. Though this sonnet–like so many of Shakespeare’s–throws the idea of Romantic Love on its head, it does embody one facet of that idea: that being in the throes of love is like a sickness. Here the sickness is nothing so lofty and unrequited love for a pristine and angelic mistress–it’s just lust, jealousy and payback.

The image is from a cover of an old Arden edition of Shakespeare’s sonnets, which I’ve always found ironic. We associate the gift of a red rose with traditional Romantic love. The sonnets, however–both the Young Man and the Dark Lady ones–turned that notion on its head. At least roses have thorns.


Sunday Sonnet – 31 January 2016


Early hints of the Dark Lady! This sonnet falls into the latter section of verses written to the Poet’s beloved Young Man. The poem’s full of chaos and a raft of competing images. But in the mix, if you look for it, you can find hints of a Dark Lady….


What potions have I drunk of Siren tears,
Distill’d from limbecks foul as hell within,
Applying fears to hopes and hopes to fears,
Still losing when I saw myself to win!
What wretched errors hath my heart committed,
Whilst it hath thought itself so blessed never!
How have mine eyes out of their spheres been fitted
In the distraction of this madding fever!
O benefit of ill! now I find true
That better is by evil still made better;
And ruin’d love, when it is built anew,
Grows fairer than at first, more strong, far greater.
So I return rebuked to my content
And gain by ill thrice more than I have spent.

This sonnet more or less continues an argument started in the previous sonnet: that is, the Poet has philandered with a woman, and now he’s sorry and begs forgiveness from the Young Man. With whom did he philander? There are hints it’s the Dark Lady:

‘Siren tears, distill’d from limbecks foul as hell within.’ Sirens are female (and this is rare instance in the Young Man sonnets where Shakespeare makes an explicit reference to gender) and a limbeck is a vessel used in distillation. An argument can be made that the Poet is likening the limbeck’s shape to the vessel of a vagina. Looking forward to the Dark Lady sonnets, there are references to her being as dark as hell as well as her foulness (from which the Poet eventually contracts venereal disease).

Specifically, Sonnet 144 of the Dark Lady poems brings together two lovers: an unnamed Angel and the Dark Lady (see bottom of this post). The images withing these two sonnets connect them, as well as the juxtaposition of ‘so blessed’ and ‘better angel’ against ‘siren tears…as foul as hell’ and ‘to hell my female evil.’

It’s misogynistic, ugly, yet compelling, confusing, exciting, provocative. I can forgive Shakespeare, he was Elizabethan, a product of his age. Yet, as an Elizabethan, he was quite daring for even writing these. There are very plausible reasons why Shakespeare never sought publication of these sonnets: their suggestive if not outrageous narratives of homoerotic and multiracial love affairs were so outside Elizabethan norms, it would’ve been risky for the financially successful Mister Shakespeare to publish them. (Instead, someone else stole them and published them. They were a hit.)  

Here’s Sonnet 144 from the Dark Lady sequence. Read them both, and see what you think.


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, but 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.

The image is of Isac Friedlander’s 1931 wood engraving entitled ‘Sonnet 144 Two Loves.’ Perhaps it can apply to both Sonnets 144 and 119.

Sunday Sonnet – 24 January 2016

kate fleetwood

Shakespeare wrote in an era where women were considered property. However, if one looks at the trajectory of his plays from his first in1589 to his later plays in the 1600’s, his female characters become more complex, more powerful and, indeed, more fully human. It’s in this deeply sexist society that Shakespeare began to break away from the Elizabethan norm. So too his Sonnets (published in 1603), specifically in the Poet’s love affair with the Dark Lady, where the Poet finds himself ensnared into a relationship with a woman who has become utterly and completely more powerful than him:


O, from what power hast thou this powerful might
With insufficiency my heart to sway?
To make me give the lie to my true sight,
And swear that brightness doth not grace the day?
Whence hast thou this becoming of things ill,
That in the very refuse of thy deeds
There is such strength and warrantize of skill
That, in my mind, thy worst all best exceeds?
Who taught thee how to make me love thee more
The more I hear and see just cause of hate?
O, though I love what others do abhor,
With others thou shouldst not abhor my state:
If thy unworthiness raised love in me,
More worthy I to be beloved of thee.

In this Sonnet, the Dark Lady excels in all things bad; her dominion over the Poet remains despite all her flaws. But he doesn’t hate her–he loves her! His sonnet argues that her unworthiness has made him love her, and because of that he’s the one who deserves her love in return. Her power over him is so strong, that he would even disbelieve it’s light during the day: ‘To make me give the lie to my true sight / And swear that brightness doth not grace the day?’ Moreover, she executes her evil actions so skillfully, he thinks them better than anyone else’s good acts:

That in the very refuse of thy deeds
There is such strength and warrantize of skill
That, in my mind, thy worst all best exceeds?

Personally, when I read this sonnet (and some of the other Dark Lady sonnets), I can’t help but think of Lady Macbeth (Macbeth, written in about 1606). One of Lady Macbeth’s most astonishing speeches is about a society where her femininity has no power. So she must calls upon the spirits to be to ‘unsex’ her:

Come, you spirits

That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,

And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full

Of direst cruelty. Make thick my blood.

Stop up the access and passage to remorse,

That no compunctious visitings of nature

Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between

The effect and it! Come to my woman’s breasts,

And take my milk for gall, you murd’ring ministers,

Wherever in your sightless substances

You wait on nature’s mischief. Come, thick night,

And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,

That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,

Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark

To cry “Hold, hold!”

Macbeth, Act I, Scene v

So magnificent, what an incredible speech.

And what an amazing writer. Shakespeare was somehow able to see beyond the patriarchal constrictions of the Elizabethan world, and dared to imagine what it must be like to be a woman; that is, powerless.

The image is of the amazing Kate Fleetwood as Lady Macbeth from the 2010 film.

Sunday Sonnet – 20 December 2015

Sonnet 149

One of the many amazing things about Shakespeare’s sequence of 154 sonnets is that taken together and in the order numbered (a numbering Shakespeare never publically contested after they were published without his permission) is the sense of narrative. These sonnets tell a tale. Near the end, things come to a head. In the 149th sonnet, the Poet complains with a kind of emotional madness against the Dark Lady:


Canst thou, O cruel! say I love thee not,
When I against myself with thee partake?
Do I not think on thee, when I forgot
Am of myself, all tyrant, for thy sake?
Who hateth thee that I do call my friend?
On whom frown’st thou that I do fawn upon?
Nay, if thou lour’st on me, do I not spend
Revenge upon myself with present moan?
What merit do I in myself respect,
That is so proud thy service to despise,
When all my best doth worship thy defect,
Commanded by the motion of thine eyes?
But, love, hate on, for now I know thy mind;
Those that can see thou lovest, and I am blind.

This sonnet is basically a take-down of everything that’s wrong with the Poet and Dark Lady’s relationship; it’s so dysfunctional it could be a popular movie today:

  • You are so cruel – ‘O cruel!’
  • You claim I don’t love you even though I take sides against myself – ‘When I against myself with thee partake?’
  • I think of you and never of myself – ‘Do I not think on thee, when I forgot / Am of myself’
  • Anyone who hates you is no friend of mine – ‘Who hateth thee that I do call my friend?’
  • If you scowl at me, I punish myself – ‘if thou lour’st on me, do I not spend / Revenge upon myself with present moan?’
  • The best in me worships the worst in you – ‘all my best doth worship thy defect’
  • Go ahead and keep hating me, because you love people who can see, and I’m blind:

But, love, hate on, for now I know thy mind;
Those that can see thou lovest, and I am blind.

There’s no grand metaphor here, and this is actually one of the more conventional sonnets of Shakespeare’s radical collection. What makes this one so different from the typical Petrarchan romantic sonnet is there’s no final ‘turn’ to reconciliation at the end, merely a confirmation of how ugly and deplorable this whole mess has become.  

The image is of Romeo and Juliet kissing is from the 1996 film. Romantic, right? Judging from Shakespeare’s Sonnets, including the one above, and what he did to the happies couples in (a clue: they were farcical, doomed or evil), Shakespeare doesn’t seem to much believe in the idea of Romantic love.

Sunday Sonnet – 22 November 2015


The events in our country today bring to mind for me one of Shakespeare’s sonnets, where the moral character of an individual has nothing to do with the color of his or her skin. The Elizabethans were unapologetic racists, and certainly Shakespeare was a product of his time. Yet somehow he saw past that enough to write ‘Othello’ and to address 28 of his sonnets to a lady of dark complexion, with whom the Poet is romantically and sexually entwined. As Sonnet 131 makes clear, the public perception is that she’s ugly because she isn’t white.   


Thou art as tyrannous, so as thou art,
As those whose beauties proudly make them cruel;
For well thou know’st to my dear doting heart
Thou art the fairest and most precious jewel.
Yet, in good faith, some say that thee behold
Thy face hath not the power to make love groan:
To say they err I dare not be so bold,
Although I swear it to myself alone.
And, to be sure that is not false I swear,
A thousand groans, but thinking on thy face,
One on another’s neck, do witness bear
Thy black is fairest in my judgment’s place.
In nothing art thou black save in thy deeds,
And thence this slander, as I think, proceeds.

The Poet disagrees. The Dark Lady not being white is not what makes her ‘dark.’ To the contrary, ‘to my dear doting heart / Thou art the fairest and most precious jewel.’ It’s only outsiders who dare to say that ‘thy face hath not the power to make love groan.’   (Making ‘love groan’ was the Elizabethan way of saying your feeling of romantic emotions were so great as to be painful.)

No, it’s not the Dark Lady’s appearance that makes her bad, its her deeds: ‘In nothing art thou black save in thy deeds.’

A Poet from a regressive, racist society four centuries ago was able to judge people by their deeds, not their appearances, something many of us in our so-called enlightened era are unable to do.

‘Blackamoor’ servants were not uncommon in Elizabeth’s police state of England–there were almost 400 of them by one estimate. In 1596 Elizabeth signed a proclamation expelling all “Negroes and blackamores” from England, but the proclamation had no teeth, as it did not apply to any blackamoors employed or enslaved. But what it does show is that the Elizabethans were indeed racist.

Thus it was crazy and a bit dangerous for Shakespeare to: 1) in 1594 to make one his highly intelligent and literate character Aaron from Titus Andronicus a Moor; 2) in 1604 to make the tragic protagonist of Othello a Moor–one of the greatest tragedies ever written in history, and 3) to pen 38 sonnets to the Dark Lady, which appeared in print in 1609. Several of the Dark Lady sonnets describe her complexion as dark.

However, this image of Mary Fitton has remained popular, one of Elizabeth I’s maids of honor. To this very day some insist she was Shakespeare’s Dark Lady. I wonder why she’s such a favorite?



Sunday Sonnet – 26 July 2015


Shakespeare ends the most magnificent collection of sonnets ever written in the English language with a warning about venereal disease. How romantic.


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 diseased; but I, my mistress’ thrall,
Came there for cure, and this by that I prove,
Love’s fire heats water, water cools not love.

Cupid’s love torch (phallic symbol) burns just a bit too hot. Diana’s nymphs (she was the virgin goddess of the hunt) try to cool its heat in a nearby spring (fertility symbol). It heats up the pool so much, that now those waters can cure diseased men! The is for men diseased with the maladies of love, namely syphilis. And so the Poet, having caught that venereal disease from his mistress, goes into the hot waters to be cured. What does the Poet learn? The cure hasn’t cured his ardor for the woman who put him there.

This closing sonnet is a companion piece to the previous sonnet, #153, which also talks about syphilis and the Elizabethan cure for the disease–a rather dangerous and painful process involving inhaling mercury vapors in searing baths.

There has been a lot of scholarly argument regarding these two Cupid/hot bath/VD sonnets, and their connections to the two previous narratives–the Young Man Sonnets, and the Dark Lady Sonnets. I think they’re connected to both, and serve as an ironical denouement to this love triangle. Pervious verses show that the Young Man and the Dark Lady do intersect, and they both betray the Poet. So how better to end this winding narrative–so elusive, so full of unanswered questions, so contrary to the accepted poetic notions of Romantic Love–than to have the Poet come down with VD?

Rumors abound in scholarly circles that Shakespeare himself might have had syphilis. It’s impossible to ever know. Regardless, he certainly knew of it.

The image is from an anonymous woodcut, circa 1500, of a physician treating syphilis.

Sunday Sonnet – 05 July 2015

Sonnet 144

Let’s have some fun today. Some four hundred years Shakespeare evidently did, composing this delicious sonnet about the betrayals of a bisexual love triangle. Here the Young Man of the earlier sonnets intersects with the Dark Lady of the later sonnets. The Poet fears that the Dark Lady might have seduced the Poet’s sweet young boy away from him:


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, but 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.

The Poet’s obviously furious that his better angel–the sweet Young Man–is in all likelihood inside (in a sexual way) the Poet’s other angel–the devilish Dark Lady: ‘I guess one angel in another’s hell:’.   But it almost feels that Shakespeare shows his hand a bit here, for despite the Poet’s pique, the nest of puns and turns in this poem are delightful.

Beyond the fun of it all, this sonnet sings on multiple levels: two angels, one of comfort, one of despair, signifying the common internal struggle all humans share.   The very Elizabethan notion that the two forces which influence us, angel and devil, are delineated by gender: men being good and fair, women being evil and dark:

The better angel is a man right fair, 
The worser spirit a woman colour’d ill. 

Yet, amazingly so for the times, the Poet in this sonnet all but admits to bisexuality.

And while all this is going on, the sonnet itself is a superb example of the Elizabethan sonnet form, that in itself an achievement.   All of this makes Sonnet144 an enduring masterpiece: poetic, provocative, delicious, beautiful, insightful.  

The gorgeous image comes from a wood engraving by Isac Friedlander, circa 1931, created specifically for Sonnet 144.

Sunday Sonnet – 17 May 2015


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.