Shakespeare Sonnet 137

Updated on October 16, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

The real "Shakespeare"
The real "Shakespeare" | Source

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 137

In sonnet 137, the speaker muses and bemoans the contradictory falsehood that lust engenders between his eyes and his heart. The speaker sees yet he sees not. And through his distorted vision, his heart becomes corrupted.

Sonnet 137

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 err’d,
And to this false plague are they now transferr’d.

Reading of Sonnet 137

Commentary

In Sonnet 137, the speaker is musing, basically through questions, on the evil consequences from acting upon what the eye sees instead of what the heart believes.

First Quatrain: Love and Lust

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.

Instead of speaking to his lady-love directly as he usually does in the "dark lady" sonnets, the speaker is revealing the falseness and foulness of her character, as he speaks directly to "Love." He is employing the term, "Love," euphemistically; his drama depicting the relationship between his heart and his eyes demonstrates that he is in reality addressing "lust."

The speaker appends his first question, as he often does in this kind of musing. He wishes to know what "Love" does to him to make his eyes not see appropriately. He labels "Love" the "blind fool," as he makes it clear that he is, indeed, the "blind fool." He cannot comprehend that his eyes would betray him; he feels that he is aware of what beauty is, yet when he chances to meet this particular woman, he always manages to become bumfuzzled by her physical beauty.

Second Quatrain: Evil vs Good

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?

The speaker then begs the logic of "eyes" being placed "in the bay where all men ride," or, he wants to know why should physical appearance to which he has become so favorably drawn render his genitals to flutter in an agitated state. Even more so, he wishes to know why the lie told by his lying eyes is permitted to crook the "judgment of [his] heart."

The speaker is examining the old riddle of the human tendency to want the exact thing that is not beneficial, the very things, which after promising much pleasure and joy, will do the human mind, heart, and soul the most damage.

Third Quatrain: Swayed by Outward Beauty

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?

The speaker continues to muse on these questions: he desires to know why his heart can be moved by a woman who behaves as a contemptible harlot. He wonders why he permits an alluring face that he knows is "foul" to tempt him as if it were a representation of "fair truth."

The speaker is, of course, again supplying answers to his own rhetorical questions, even as he poses them. The conundrum of human behavior always reveals that that behavior swings like a pendulum between evil and good. His eyes see only the outward beauty, while his mind knows otherwise. But his heart has been swayed by the outward beauty even as it senses that such beauty is only skin deep, and the inner person of this wretched woman is full of deceit.

The Couplet: Bamboozled Error

In things right true my heart and eyes have err’d,
And to this false plague are they now transferr’d.

The speaker concludes that his eyes and thus his heart have been bamboozled; therefore, they "have err’d." He leaves the sonnet still distressed in his sickening situation, asserting that his eyes and heart, and therefore his mind, have been afflicted by "this false plague."

A Brief Overview of the 154-Sonnet Sequence

A Brief Overview: The 154-Sonnet Sequence

Scholars and critics of Elizabethan literature have determined that the sequence of 154 Shakespeare sonnets may be classified into three thematic categories: (1) Marriage Sonnets 1-17; (2) Muse Sonnets 18-126, traditionally identified as the "Fair Youth"; and (3) Dark Lady Sonnets 127-154.

Marriage Sonnets 1-17

The speaker in the Shakespeare “Marriage Sonnets” pursues a single goal: to persuade a young man to marry and produce beautiful offspring. It is likely that the young man is Henry Wriothesley, the third earl of Southampton, who is being urged to marry Elizabeth de Vere, the oldest daughter of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.

Many scholars and critics now argue persuasively that Edward de Vere is the writer of the works attributed to the nom de plume, "William Shakespeare." For example, Walt Whitman, one of America's greatest poets has opined:

Conceiv'd out of the fullest heat and pulse of European feudalism — personifying in unparalleled ways the medieval aristocracy, its towering spirit of ruthless and gigantic caste, with its own peculiar air and arrogance (no mere imitation) — only one of the "wolfish earls" so plenteous in the plays themselves, or some born descendant and knower, might seem to be the true author of those amazing works — works in some respects greater than anything else in recorded literature.

For more information regarding Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, as the real writer of the Shakespearean canon, please visit The De Vere Society, an organization that is "dedicated to the proposition that the works of Shakespeare were written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford."

Muse Sonnets 18-126 (Traditionally classified as "Fair Youth")

The speaker in this section of sonnets is exploring his talent, his dedication to his art, and his own soul power. In some sonnets, the speaker addresses his muse, in others he addresses himself, and in others he even addresses the poem itself.

Even though many scholars and critics have traditionally categorized this group of sonnets as the "Fair Youth Sonnets," there is no "fair youth," that is "young man," in these sonnets. There is no person at all in this sequence, with exception of the two problematic sonnets, 108 and 126.

Dark Lady Sonnets 127-154

The final sequence targets an adulterous romance with a woman of questionable character; the term “dark” likely modifies the woman’s character flaws, not her skin tone.

Three Problematic Sonnets: 108, 126, 99

Sonnet 108 and 126 present a problem in categorization. While most of the sonnets in the "Muse Sonnets" do focus on the poet's musings about his writing talent and do not focus on a human being, sonnets 108 and 126 are speaking to a young man, respectively calling him "sweet boy" and "lovely boy." Sonnet 126 presents an additional problem: it is not technically a "sonnet," because it features six couplets, instead of the traditional three quatrains and a couplet.

The themes of sonnets 108 and 126 would better categorize with the "Marriage Sonnets" because they do address a "young man." It is likely that sonnets 108 and 126 are at least partially responsible for the erroneous labeling of the "Muse Sonnets" as the "Fair Youth Sonnets" along with the claim that those sonnets address a young man.

While most scholars and critics tend to categorize the sonnets into the three-themed schema, others combine the "Marriage Sonnets" and the "Fair Youth Sonnets" into one group of "Young Man Sonnets." This categorization strategy would be accurate if the "Muse Sonnets" actually addressed a young man, as only the "Marriage Sonnets" do.

Sonnet 99 might be considered somewhat problematic: it features 15 lines instead of the traditional 14 sonnet lines. It accomplishes this task by converting the opening quatrain into a cinquain, with an altered rime scheme from ABAB to ABABA. The rest of the sonnet follows the regular rime, rhythm, and function of the traditional sonnet.

The Two Final Sonnets

Sonnets 153 and 154 are also somewhat problematic. They are classified with the Dark Lady Sonnets, but they function quite differently from the bulk of those poems.

Sonnet 154 is a paraphrase of Sonnet 153; thus, they carry the same message. The two final sonnets dramatize the same theme, a complaint of unrequited love, while outfitting the complaint with the dress of mythological allusion. The speaker employs the services of the Roman god Cupid and the goddess Diana. The speaker thus achieves a distance from his feelings, which he, no doubt, hopes will finally liberate him from the clutches of his lust/love and bring him equanimity of mind and heart.

In the bulk of the "dark lady" sonnets, the speaker has a been addressing the woman directly, or making it clear that what he is saying is intended for her ears. In the final two sonnets, the speaker is not directly addressing the mistress. He does mention her, but he is speaking now about her instead of directly to her. He is now making it quite clear that he is withdrawing from the drama with her.

Readers may sense that he has grown battle-weary from his struggle for the woman’s respect and affection, and now he has finally decided to make a philosophical drama that heralds the end of that disastrous relationship, announcing essentially, "I’m through."

Questions & Answers

  • Why is love called the "blind fool" in Shakespeare's sonnet 137?

    Instead of speaking to his mistress directly as he usually does in the "dark lady" sonnets, the speaker is revealing the falseness and foulness of her character, as he speaks directly to "Love." But he is employing the term, "Love," euphemistically; his drama depicting the relationship between his heart and his eyes demonstrates that he is, in reality, addressing "lust."

    The speaker appends his first question, as he often does in this kind of musing. He wishes to know what "Love" does to him to make his eyes not see appropriately. He labels "Love" the "blind fool," as he makes it clear that he is, indeed, the "blind fool" because of "lust." He cannot comprehend that his eyes would betray him; he feels that he is aware of what beauty is, yet when he chances to meet this particular woman, he always manages to become confused by her physical beauty.

© 2018 Linda Sue Grimes

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