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Shakespeare Sonnet 144

The Shakespeare 154-sonnet sequence remains essential in my poetry tool kit. Masterfully crafted, they dramatize love, beauty, and truth.

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 144

The speaker 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 his better nature 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
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 his ambiguous 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."

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, explains that the mayic forces of duality confuse and delude human beings; it makes them think that evil will bring happiness, and that self-discipline will bring unhappiness, and by the time the poor indulgent fool learns the truth, s/he is usually deep in the sorrow that ignorance brings.

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

Both women and men come plagued with the same problem, and both must solve the problem by the same method that transcends the physical and mental to thus attain the spiritual. Thus 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.

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.

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."

The real "Shakespeare"

A Brief Overview of 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."

Roger Stritmatter – He Who Takes the Pain to Pen the Book: The Poetry of the 17th Earl of Oxford

© 2018 Linda Sue Grimes