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 – 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 – 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 – 28 June 2015

Sonnet 129

Once again Shakespeare turns the Romantic ideal of a love sonnet on its head, bitterly attacking romantic love in Sonnet 129: a visceral attack against sensual love–an attack, really, against his sensual beloved, The Dark Lady.


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,
Enjoy’d no sooner but despised straight,
Past reason hunted, and no sooner had
Past reason hated, as a swallow’d 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.

No, the Dark Lady isn’t mentioned by name or gender in this verse. But 129’s placement in the Dark Lady sequence, between a lovely sonnet where the Poet watches her play on a virginal (#128) and the delightful parody homage to her physically repellent nature (#130), this verse leaves no doubt as to whom it’s about.  

Or, better put, it leaves no doubt as to what it’s about: the luxury of sinful lovemaking. How extreme and crazed human behavior is before sex; how uncontrolled, yet delightful, it is during sex; how regretful it is after.

And please, read this sonnet aloud: its use of repetition, its deliciously ferocious language, the way it skips back and forth in time, all evoke the uncontrolled actions of lovers in the act.   Yet, strangely so, the sonnet remains so impersonal. In the end, the Poet regards what he and she did as only that: an impersonal act.

The image is an anonymous woodcut of an Elizabethan couple getting it on in a very unapproved manner: purchased sex in a brothel.

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.

Sunday Sonnet – 03 May 2015

sonnet 142

Our Romantic ideal of what love might’ve been like in Elizabethan times is pretty much hogwash. Certainly the kind of romantic love displayed in the move Shakespeare in Love is complete fantasy. Love and sex back then was little different than it is nowadays: it covers the spectrum from chaste and sweet to tawdry and cheap. Shakespeare’s Dark Lady sonnets are remarkable for many reasons, but one of them is their unflinching honesty in portraying bad relationships. Case in point: 


Love is my sin, and thy dear virtue hate,
Hate of my sin, grounded on sinful loving:
O! but with mine compare thou thine own state,
And thou shalt find it merits not reproving;
Or, if it do, not from those lips of thine,
That have profaned their scarlet ornaments
And sealed false bonds of love as oft as mine,
Robbed others’ beds’ revenues of their rents.
Be it lawful I love thee, as thou lov’st those
Whom thine eyes woo as mine importune thee:
Root pity in thy heart, that, when it grows,
Thy pity may deserve to pitied be.
   If thou dost seek to have what thou dost hide,
   By self-example mayst thou be denied!

This is a tough sonnet to parse out, for its psychological arguments are varied, tangled and complex. Let’s see if I can summarize it:

The Poet’s love for such an awful woman is his sin, and the Dark Lady’s only virtue is condemning him for the sin of loving her. But it doesn’t stop there! For she really has no right to condemn him for his bad choice in lovers (namely, her), since her sins are worse than any of his. Furthermore, it’s galling that these condemnations come from lips so tainted, considering where her lips have been. More than that, not only has she kissed almost every man that’s come her way, she lies with those very same lips. So the Poet begs her to be allowed to love her anyhow (he’s pathetic), so that she’ll pity him. He then will pity her! For the deal is, if she refuses to pity the Poet, he just might refuse to sleep with her. As if. 

There’s an entire soap opera wrapped up in these fourteen lines. My favorite line is: ‘And robb’d others’ beds’ revenues of their rents.’ Delicious stuff. 

The image comes from Shakespeare In Love, showing one of its many ridiculous scenes of post-coital bliss. Ms. Paltrow’s character never existed, and even if she had, she was nothing like the powerful, angry, sensuous and vengeful Dark Lady described in Shakespeare’s Dark Lady Sonnets.

Sunday Sonnet – 29 March 2015


With freezing rain pelting the countryside, today seems a good time for masochistic verse. Shakespeare’s Dark Lady Sonnet 141 enumerates all the faults of his lady love–her looks, her personality and even his own sin of nonetheless loving her: 


In faith, I do not love thee with mine eyes,
For they in thee a thousand errors note;
But ’tis my heart that loves what they despise,
Who in despite of view is pleased to dote;
Nor are mine ears with thy tongue’s tune delighted,
Nor tender feeling, to base touches prone,
Nor taste, nor smell, desire to be invited
To any sensual feast with thee alone:
But my five wits nor my five senses can
Dissuade one foolish heart from serving thee,
Who leaves unsway’d the likeness of a man,
Thy proud hearts slave and vassal wretch to be:
Only my plague thus far I count my gain,
That she that makes me sin awards me pain. 

Sonnets of Shakespeare’s time where largely written following the ‘Petrarchan Ideal’ of love–that is, that the object of your lovely sonnet should be a be chaste, beautiful aristocratic woman whom the Poet can never hope to posses. Shakespeare says the hell with that. 

Quite the opposite, the Dark Lady is not pleasant in appearance–‘I do not love thee with mine eyes, For they in thee a thousand errors note’; her voice is hardly pleasing–‘Nor are mine ears with thy tongue’s tune delighted’; and physical contact, even sexual, is not hot–‘Nor tender feeling, to base touches prone.’ 

However, despite all this or even the Poet’s own good sense, The Dark Lady still owns the Poet’s heart: ‘But my five wits nor my five senses can Dissuade one foolish heart from serving thee.’

Don’t choose this poem to read at Nuptials or to give to your beloved. 

The image is of Aemilia Lanier, an Elizabethan poet who supposedly had an affair with William Shakespeare. Some people believe she might’ve been the Dark Lady of the Sonnets. There’s scant evidence of this, and there’s even doubt this painting is her. Lanier was a woman who dared to publish a book of verse in Shakespeare’s time, so there aren’t many records left. She was a woman, after all, and except for obsessive and progressive minds like Mr. Shakespeare, Elizabethans didn’t much trouble themselves writing about real women, unless they could fit them into something like the ridiculous notion of the Petrarchan Ideal. Or if she was Queen.

Sunday Sonnet – 01 February 2015

Mary Fitton

What makes the Elizabethan Sonnet form so great? Why do modern readers have to care, and why do modern students have to suffer through them? Well, simply put, as one of my friends quipped, ‘The sonnet is the cathedral of the written word.’ Just as cathedrals–in terms of architecture–are supreme examples of that art, so too sonnets. For example, let’s look at one of my favorites. I’ve inserted spaces between each ‘quatrain’ and the final ‘couplet’: 


When my love swears that she is made of truth
I do believe her, though I know she lies,
That she might think me some untutor’d youth,
Unlearned in the world’s false subtleties.
Thus vainly thinking that she thinks me young,
Although she knows my days are past the best,
Simply I credit her false speaking tongue:
On both sides thus is simple truth suppress’d.
But wherefore says she not she is unjust?
And wherefore say not I that I am old?
O, love’s best habit is in seeming trust,
And age in love loves not to have years told:
Therefore I lie with her and she with me,
And in our faults by lies we flatter’d be.

This is one of Will Shakespeare’s Dark Lady sonnets, and he uses this sonnet–and its intricate construction–to illustrate the complicated and paradoxical love/hate relationship he has with the Dark Lady. Let’s look at the quatrains–each section of four lines. I’m summarizing what each quatrain pretty much says, stripping out the lovely poetics (which, I know, is a crime):

First quatrain: When my mistress claims she’s truthful, I only pretend to believe her. 

Second quatrain: She pretends I’m a young man, but we both know I’m past my prime 

Third quatrain: So why doesn’t she say I’m old, and why don’t I say she’s a liar? Because it’s easiest to love someone who seems trustworthy. 

Final couplet: So we have sex with each other, and continue lying to each other. And these two points are tied together with a pun on the word ‘lying.’ 

So the basic structure of the Elizabethan sonnet is 14 lines, three quatrains and a couplet. The first two quatrains set out the argument. And then the third quatrain typically presents ‘a turn’ or flip in the argument. And then the couplet is either a resolution or conclusion–often couched in a really clever verbal construction (in this case, the pun on ‘lying’). 

This basic structure is married into rhymed and metered lines. Iambic pentameter: ten syllables with a syllabic rhythm. And the fourteen lines are rhymed like this:

















It’s hard as hell to write a sonnet that 1) follows these rules; 2) makes the rules work toward the final goal of the sonnet and 3) actually sounds and reads beautifully. Shakespeare did it 154 times.

And this sonnet? Don’t you recognize it? It’s what so many of us have experienced in our own lives, at one time or another, in a relationship we’d rather forget.   Most of Shakespeare’s sonnets–angry and happy alike–speak to things we still experience today, 400 years later. So, so many reasons to cherish these great poems. Not only for their incredible intricacy, but for their universal appeal–four centuries later.  

The image is a painting of Mary Fitton, one of several reputed candidates for Shakespeare’s never-identified Dark Lady. The evidence is scant at best, and we’ll never know.