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Analysis of the Poem "Sonnet 154" 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.

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare and a Summary of Sonnet 154

Sonnet 154 is the last of Shakespeare's famous love sonnets in the sequence first published as a whole in 1609, in what has become known as the Quarto volume, or simply, Q.

This sonnet is often paired with Sonnet 153 because the two explore the same theme in a similar manner, and both involve the mythological Roman god Cupid (Love-god) asleep, maidens (nymphs) involved in taking up his fire, a brand (a burning torch), a curing bath and so on.

So closely allied are these two sonnets that some commentators puzzle over their inclusion in the sequence. Take Joseph Pequigney in his book Such Is My Love, from 1985. He thought that to have both sonnets published was:

'puzzling and pointless.... One version would do, and one would do much better than the other.'

Scholarly arguments have continued over the years as to which is the more accomplished sonnet and which was written first. Pequigney thought Sonnet 154 the earliest and of less appeal. Some agree, saying 154 has more music than thought. Others argue to the contrary.

All are in agreement, however, as to the source of the classical scene Sonnet 154 portrays. Shakespeare must have read or got to know of a short Greek poem written much earlier by Marianus Scholasticus (5th-6th century Byzantium) and included in what is known as the Greek or Palatine Anthology, compiled in the 10th century, later translated into Latin.

The original version, an epigram, translated by James Hutton (Analogues of Shakespeare's Sonnets 153–154: Contributions to the History of a Theme (Modern Philology, XXXVIII [May 1941], 385–403), reads:

Beneath these plane trees, detained by gentle slumber, Love slept, having put his torch in the care of the Nymphs; but the Nymphs said one to another: 'Why wait? Would that together with this we could quench the fire in the hearts of men.' But the torch set fire even to the water, and with hot water thenceforth the Love-Nymphs fill the bath.

Shakespeare altered the storyline somewhat, adding what are believed to be personal elements to the sonnet, or at least lines relating to the mysterious mistress, the Dark Lady so-called of the later sonnets (127–154), and the healing baths, which some believed cured men of venereal disease.

  • So sonnet 154 is essentially an erotic poem with darker undertones, wrapped up in myth. Love may involve passion and lustful desire but the consequences of such can result in a life-threatening sickness, sexually transmitted bodily infection.
  • Some critics interpret the sonnet symbolically: the torch or brand is phallic, the cool well is yonic. And the tension between the sexual drive (Eros, Cupid, the Love-god) and sexual abstention (the nymphs that vowed chaste life to keep) eventually is played out - there is no cure for love, passion rules, despite the dangers.

Here we have a sonnet that stretches out the original epigram to twelve lines before the first person speaker appears as a slave to his mistress (my mistress' thrall), seeking a cure in the heated bathwater, only to be thwarted.

Analysis of Sonnet 154: Meanings of Words Line by Line

Line 1

This opening line brings an immediate image for the reader. Cupid (Eros) is sleeping, which is a traditional pastime for this particular classical god.

  • little Love-God: Cupid, Roman god (Greek equivalent is Eros) often portrayed as a boy or babe-boy, with bow and arrow ready.

Line 2

At his side is a torch (brand), a special torch that can set aflame a human heart, producing passion and desire for love.

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  • laid: having laid
  • heart-inflaming brand: torch which lights up hearts with passion (also a phallic symbol)

Line 3

Nymphs appear, presumably followers of Diana, the goddess of chastity.

  • nymphs: female spirits often associated with the elements and woodlands and nature in general. In this sonnet, they accompany Diana, the huntress, a complex goddess of chastity and fertility.
  • chaste: pure; to remain a virgin and honour chastity.

Line 4

Here they come, keeping quiet so as not to wake the sleeping Cupid.

  • tripping by: to walk lightly. Shakespeare used this word several times in his plays.

Line 5

One of the nymphs takes a hold of the torch, which could be risky.

  • votary: a maiden who lived a life of purity, dedicated to religion or a god.
  • took up: picked up
  • that fire: the Love-god's torch

Line 6

The fire is well experienced in matters of the heart or has influenced many many lovers over time.

  • many legions: multitudes. Often used in association with angels, demons and the Roman army.

Lines 7 and 8

Therefore the leader of passion, the director of love, has been disarmed—his torch has been taken from under his nose, and he hasn't a clue this has happened.

  • General: a military officer top-ranking, supreme leader.
  • hot desire: erotic passion, lustful energy.

The torch is plunged into a nearby well, so the flame dies. Some see this as the sexual act mythologised.

  • a virgin hand: votary's hand.

Line 9

  • brand: firebrand, old name for a torch (also a phallic symbol)
  • quenched: to plunge into water, extinguish a flame. (also to satisfy, as in quenching a thirst)
  • by: nearby

Line 10

There's a long-lasting effect, passion without end, an eternal flame.

  • Love's fire: Cupid's passion

Line 11

Baths were supposed to help cure a man of STD through sweating and heat.

  • growing a bath: becoming a bath. A bath was a very important item of luxury in Shakespeare's time (and much earlier). More to the point, Elizabethans were advised to take hot baths as a cure against venereal disease.

Line 12

The speaker admits to being a slave of his mistress (the word appearing in other sonnets too, 151 for example) and seeks a cure.

  • For men diseased: hot baths were believed to help cure the dreaded pox (syphllis) in Shakespeare's time.
  • my mistress' thrall: my mistress' slave. The speaker is declaring that he's her slave.

Line 13

He reaches a conclusion through the curing process, proving to himself a truth.

  • there: to the bath
  • this by that I prove: the speaker's experience of the bath is evidence

Line 14

A near repeat of a previous line 10—water is heated up by love's fire…that is, the passionate male but cannot repress sexual drive.

  • Love's fire heats water: Cupid's torch, love passion (phallus) heats up the water (female sex)
Shakespeare's Sonnet 154

Shakespeare's Sonnet 154

What Are The Literary and Poetic Devices in Sonnet 154?

Alliteration: When two or more words are close together in a line and start with the same consonant, producing a pronounced phonetic:

little Love-God lying...his side his heart...her maiden hand...hearts Mistress'...Came there for cure...this by that.

Assonance: When two or more close words in a line have similar sounding vowels:

his side his heart inflaming...quenched in a cool Well...

Caesura: A break caused by a comma or other punctuation, in a line, causing a pause. For example:

Came tripping by, but in her maiden hand,

What Is The Metre (Meter in American English) of Sonnet 154

Sonnet 154 does have the typical iambic pentameter base but only in nine of the fourteen lines: 1–4, 6, 8, 12–14.

Let's take a closer look at those 5 lines that break away from the steady, familiar beat of the iambic to produce nuanced sounds and altered rhythms for the reader.

Line 5

The fair / est vo / tary / took up / that fire

The word votary because of its three syllables falls away to a pyrrhic foot (non stressed) midway.

Line 7

And so / the Gen / eral / of hot / desire

Again, a repeat of line 5, the word General midway causes the voice to drop away.

Line 9

This brand / she quenched / in a cool / Well by

The only line with nine syllables, missing the tenth. Note the anapaest foot (two non-stressed followed by a stressed syllable) which brings a rising rhythm. The spondee at the end gives extra force to the last two syllables.

Line 10

Which from / love's fire / took heat / perpe / tual

A pyrrhic ends this line, softening it so the four syllable perpetual fades away.

Line 11

Growing / a bath / and health / ful rem / edy

The trochee at the start (stressed syllable followed by unstressed) contrasts strongly with the quiet end of the previous line. But the repeated pyrrhic resonates with the previous line.

Full metrical scan of sonnet 154, stressed syllables in bold type:

The lit / tle Love- / god ly / ing once / asleep,
Laid by / his side / his heart- / inflam / ing brand,
Whilst man / y nymphs / that vowed / chaste life / to keep
Came trip / ping by; / but in / her maid / en hand
The fair / est vot / ary / took up / that fire
Which man / y leg / ions of / true hearts / had warmed;
And so / the Gen / eral / of hot / desire
Was sleep / ing by / a vir / gin hand / disarmed.
This brand / she quenched / in a cool / well by,
Which from / Love's fire / took heat / perpet / ual,
Growing / a bath / and health / ful rem / edy,
For men / diseased; / but I, / my mist / ress' thrall,
Came there / for cure / and this / by that / I prove,
Love's fire / heats wat / er, wat / er cools / not love.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 Andrew Spacey


Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on February 12, 2020:

Well explained and well illustrated.

Andrew Spacey (author) from Sheffield, UK on October 02, 2019:

Grateful for the visit and comment. Sonnet 154 continues to puzzle, please and humble... how one mind could produce such a body of work that still has effect on our modern souls.

Marie Flint from Jacksonville, FL USA on September 18, 2019:

A very erudite, complete analysis of a lesser familiar Shakespearean sonnet. Thank you for including the Old English version that shows esses as effs and vees as uus. The changes make one wonder what the English alphabet, if there still is one, will look like at the end of the millennium.

Since I don't study poetry as intensely as you, I appreciated the definitions of the various technical terms.

Good job!

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