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Analysis of Poem Sonnet 141 by William Shakespeare

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

'Sonnet 141' analysis

'Sonnet 141' analysis

William Shakespeare and a Summary of 'Sonnet 141'

'Sonnet 141' is addressed to the so-called Dark Lady, the mistress, the subject of Shakespeare's final 28 sonnets of the complete 154 sonnet sequence. The form of this English or Shakespearean sonnet is typical: three quatrains plus an end couplet making fourteen lines in total.

It focuses on the struggle the speaker has between his senses and his heart, between his conscious mind and his feelings.

He knows his lover is not the most beautiful to look at; she hasn't the voice or smell or touch but nonetheless, he's her tormented slave. He dotes on her because he is religiously devoted, a nothing of a man without her. She is the cause of the pain, yet she makes it worthwhile.

'Sonnet 141' is one of several sonnets that explore the theme of 'eye against heart', the rational mind against the emotional core. Earlier sonnets, numbers 26, 46 and 57,130, 137 and 148 deal with the idea of love being blind, slavery and control within a relationship.

The opening lines of sonnet 46 for example:

Mine eye and heart are at a mortal war,

How to divide the conquest of thy sight;

Mine eye my heart thy picture's sight would bar,

My heart mine eye the freedom of that right.

This sonnet is addressed to the 'beauteous and lovely youth' of the first 126 sonnets but the argument is the same - eye and heart are in conflict - the resultant agony is both deeply painful and powerfully compelling.

  • 'Sonnet 141' is the open confession of a lover who is put off by his mistress's looks, not convinced by her voice, smell or touch but admits fully to being her slave, her fool who lacks a sense of self, who cannot help himself.

Although no-one knows exactly when the sonnets were written it is thought the years 1592-94, when the plague closed down London's theatres, would have allowed Shakespeare time and space for composing them.

The first publication of Shakespeare's collected sonnets appeared in the quarto volume of 1609, seven years before his death in 1616.

Shakespeare's 'Sonnet 141'

Shakespeare's 'Sonnet 141'

Line By Line Analysis

Lines 1 - 4

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;

This is a frank opening, the first line being a riposte to the end line of sonnet 140 and basically means: In all honesty, my love isn't based on what I see.

The speaker is openly confessing. When he looks at his mistress he sees many faults, that is, she isn't in his opinion very pretty. She has flaws. But this doesn't matter because in the third line he opens up and admits it's what he feels inside that counts.

In the fourth line, he's happy to ignore the faults (pleas'd to dote) to be near his love.

So the truth is out. He doesn't love what he sees but he loves because of what he feels in his heart. Visually she puts him off, she has so many flaws; emotionally she attracts him.

  • The importance of the eyes, mentioned in 34 sonnets throughout the whole sonnet sequence by Shakespeare, is notable. In sonnet 137 it appears no less than five times, in connection with love and the heart. The opening two lines:

Thou blind fool, Love, what dost thou to mine eyes,

That they behold, and see not what they see?

This emphasis on the connection between eyesight and love was a common belief in Elizabethan times. Some thought that rays of love emanated from the female, entered the male's eyes and went straight to his heart.

Lines 5 - 8

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.

The speaker goes on to describe the other 'faults' of his mistress. In line 5, which has an extra syllable, often called a feminine ending because it has no stress, he admits that her voice doesn't please him.

You can imagine the poor mistress by now beginning to frown and get a bit fed up as the speaker goes on and on with his list of flaws.

Take lines 6 and 7 which focus on touch, taste and smell - base touches are those that lack finesse or quality - so the speaker is suggesting that he's not thrilled by these imperfections.

And finally, in line 8 he sums it all up - he wouldn't want to spend time with her one-to-one sensually, which seems a bit odd since they are supposed to be lovers.

Lines 9 - 12

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 heart's slave and vassal wretch to be.

The five wits in line 9 are common sense, imagination, fantasy, instinct and memory which together with the senses cannot stop him from loving her. Any rational or logical or sensible construct just doesn't work; he's a fool for her love.

So the speaker in lines 11 and 12 is now no longer a real man, he is a facsimile because his foolish heart has taken over, turning him into a slave, under her control (vassal) as a wretch (a miserable or unfortunate person).

Lines 13 and 14

The end couplet concludes with the speaker admitting that the disease (his addiction to her love, my plague) is the only positive thing in their relationship.

And she is the cause of the sin committed by the speaker. It's interesting that he views his love for her as sinful, which relates to Christianity and the idea of penance - punishment for being in love, meted out by the mistress.

All this underlines the idea that this sonnet is a confession, the mistress being the priest, controller of forgiveness and dispenser of pain. There may well be a sexual and lustful element included in the idea of love as sin, traced back to sonnet 129.

What Is The Metre?

'Sonnet 141' has an iambic pentameter beat at its heart, but there are lines that break the steady plod of the iambic to produce different rhythms which add variety for the reader.

A sonnet that was pure iambic pentameter for the whole 14 lines would be a bit monotonous so the poet varied the metrical feet of certain lines. This helps focus on words and phrases, shifts perspective and creates a more challenging syntax.

Let's take a close look:

In faith, / I do / not love / thee with / mine eyes,
For they / in thee / a thous / and err / ors 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 ten / der feel / ing, to / base touch / es prone,
Nor taste, / nor smell, / desire / to be / invited
To an / y sens / ual feast / with thee / alone:
But my / five wits / nor my / five sens / es can
Dissuade / one fool / ish heart / from serv / ing thee,
Who leaves / unsway'd / the like / ness of / a man,
Thy proud / heart's slave / and vass / al wretch / to be:
Only / my plague / thus far / I count / my gain,
That she / that makes / me sin / awards / me pain.

Just over half the lines here are pure iambic pentameter, with five daDUM beats, first syllable unstressed, second stressed: lines 1 - 4, 8 - 11 and line 14.

  • Line 5 - an unusual line, a mix of different feet which breaks the iambic rhythm...note the spondees of mine ears and thy tongue's tune reinforcing the contrast. And eleven syllables means there is an extra beat, so the last foot is technically an amphibrach (daDUMda) with the middle syllable stressed.
  • Line 6 - can be scanned as iambic but because of the caesura midway caused by the comma, the stress moves onto base touches.
  • Line 7 - has eleven syllables like line 5 but is mostly iambic until that last foot and the three syllables of invited.
  • Lines 8 - 11 are all iambic pentameter but note that the word sensual in line 8 has to be treated as a two syllable word to fit into the metrical pattern.
  • Line 12 - scanned as a spondee with heart's slave.
  • Line 13 - a trochee starts, with stress on the first syllable of Only, the remainder are iambic.


© 2019 Andrew Spacey