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Shakespeare Sonnet 144: "Two loves I have of comfort and despair"

The Shakespeare sonnets play an essential rôle in my poetry world. Those 154 classic sonnets masterfully dramatize truth, beauty, and love.

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 144: "Two loves I have of comfort and despair"

The speaker in sonnet 144 from the classic Shakespeare 154-sonnet sequence has become disheartened by his having made many bad choices that leave him in "despair" rather than in "comfort." He analyzes the two natures that seem to be battling within him, a battle of good and evil, of good angels vs bad angels.

While the speaker seems to be leaning toward believing that his better nature is losing that battle, he does leave open the possibility of the opposite occurrence. Although "doubt" is a painful human condition, at least it is not a positive or declarative state. Doubt may lean toward the negative, but with further evidence, doubt can be changed to understanding and faith.

Sonnet 144: "Two loves I have of comfort and despair"

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, yet 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.

Reading of Sonnet 144

Commentary

As the speaker examines the ambiguity of his nature, he asserts that he prefers to be guided by his "better angel" who is "right fair," but he is tempted too often by a "worser spirit." This common human problem finds a colorful treatment by this clever, muse-inspired poet.

First Quatrain: Dual Nature

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.

In the first quatrain of sonnet 144, the speaker reports that there are "two loves" residing in his consciousness. The famous German poet/playwright, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, created a similar situation for his Faust, who uttered the words, "Zwei Seelen, ach!, wohnen in meinem Brust," (Two spirits, alas, reside in my heart.)

This ambiguity continually presents a universal conundrum for the human condition. One wants to follow the path of goodness and morality, yet lustful urges tempt one to commit sins against the soul.

The great spiritual guru, Paramahansa Yogananda, has clearly explained that the strong delusional forces of maya befuddle and misdirect through confusion the human mind. Those forces motivate human beings to think that evil will bring happiness, and that self-discipline will bring misery and unhappiness, and by the time we poor indulgent fools learn the truth, we are usually neck-deep in the sorrow that our ignorance has brought.

Thus, the speaker realizes that his better nature, which would bring him "comfort," is often outflanked by the "worser spirit." He is then thrust into a situation that evokes in him "despair." The "better nature" is masculine and the "worser" is feminine. These distinctions do not correspond to human sex or gender; instead, they refer to the principles that correspond to the pairs of opposites, which function as the modus operandi of maya or delusion.

Both women and men become plagued with the same problems, and both must solve the problem by the same method that transcends the physical and mental to thus attain the spiritual; therefore, the better nature is "right fair," while the worse is "colour’d ill."

Second Quatrain: The Battle of the Angels

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.

The "female evil," if he continues to follow it, will lead him to hell because it causes him to ignore, and therefore, weaken his "better angel." Instead of becoming a saint, he will "be a devil." The "foul pride" will overtake "his purity," if he allows it to happen.

This perceptive speaker understands the nature of duality, and he also understands the strength that that duality exerts over the human mind and heart. His lament is directed to his own nature. He knows he must discipline himself in order to straighten his ability to continue his journey down his path. He is, therefore, using his knowledge to explain and also persuade his better nature to exert itself against his evil side. By elucidating the nature of good and evil, he hopes to influence his better nature to make better choices in the future.

Third Quatrain: Uncertainty

And whether that my angel be turn’d fiend
Suspect I may, yet not directly tell;
But being both from me, both to each friend,
I guess one angel in another’s hell:

Because both urges live in the same speaker, he cannot be sure how he will keep the evil urge from overtaking the good one. Perhaps his "angel" will "be turn’d fiend," but since they both live in him, he can only "guess one angel (lives) in another’s hell." The two collide, and the one causes the other to live in hell within him.

Although he possesses a certain level of understanding, the speaker remains aware that the evil may still overtake the good. He seems to cede power to the evil side, even against his will. But if he had perfect power along with the fail-proof protection against the evil, he would not have an argument or even the motivation to begin the argument.

The Couplet: A Hopeful Doubt

Yet this shall I ne’er know, but live in doubt,
Till my bad angel fire my good one out.

The speaker seems to end on a sad note. Because the speaker suspects he will never be able to mollify the two parts of his psyche, he will "live in doubt." Thus, the "worser spirit" just might win the battle for his soul. On the other hand, because at this point he knows he will continue to "live in doubt," the possibility is left open that the "good one" will be able ultimately to overcome and extinguish the "bad angel."

At his point in the creation of this thematic sonnet group, the speaker can allow himself the possibility of failure. If he fails, he will still have material for creating his little dramas, and if he succeeds in conquering his licentiousness, he will also remain in possession of a treasure trove of materials that will result in even more colorful and spiritually useful little dramatic sonnets.

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.

© 2018 Linda Sue Grimes

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