Shakespeare Sonnet 147: "My love is as a fever, longing still"

Updated on March 23, 2018
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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

Source

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 147

Sonnet 147 at first appears to be merely the speaker’s musing about his uncontrolled desires for the affection of the mistress, but it turns out that he is actually addressing her as he examines his situation.

Sonnet 147

My love is as a fever, longing still
For that which longer nurseth the disease;
Feeding on that which doth preserve the ill,
The uncertain sickly appetite to please.
My reason, the physician to my love,
Angry that his prescriptions are not kept,
Hath left me, and I desperate now approve
Desire is death, which physic did except.
Past cure I am, now Reason is past care,
And frantic-mad with evermore unrest;
My thoughts and my discourse as madmen’s are,
At random from the truth vainly express’d;
For I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright,
Who art as black as hell, as dark as night.

Reading of Sonnet 147

Commentary

The speaker examines and condemns his unhealthy attachment to the dark lady, bemoaning his loss of reason, the result of allowing his lower nature to rule his conscience.

First Quatrain: Still in the Throes

My love is as a fever, longing still
For that which longer nurseth the disease;
Feeding on that which doth preserve the ill,
The uncertain sickly appetite to please.

In the first quatrain, the speaker admits that he is still in the throes of sexual longing for the woman. He knows that such longing is unhealthy and calls it a "sickly appetite." He asserts that not only is his unhealthy longing a disease, but it also feeds upon itself, perpetuating and nursing itself and thus the horrific situation "doth preserve the ill."

Reckoning that his emotions elicit and perpetuate a degraded state, he chooses to reveal his hunger in medical terms, employing such words as "fever," "nurseth," "disease," and "ill." All these images result in leaving the patient with the "sickly appetite" which he feels he must somehow learn "to please."

Second Quatrain: Reason Has Retreated

My reason, the physician to my love,
Angry that his prescriptions are not kept,
Hath left me, and I desperate now approve
Desire is death, which physic did except.

The speaker then asserts that his "reason" or "physician," metaphorically his capability of thinking clearly, has abandoned him. He can no long think rationally, because of his irrational craving for an unhealthy relationship with the slattern, to whom he has allowed himself the misfortune of becoming attached.

The speaker states that because of his lost ability to reason he now continues to confuse desire and death. He remains aware that his reasonable physician, if he were still in touch with that entity, would continue to keep him cognizant of the desire to keep body and soul together.

Third Quatrain: Irrationality Has Stolen over Him

Past cure I am, now Reason is past care,
And frantic-mad with evermore unrest;
My thoughts and my discourse as madmen’s are,
At random from the truth vainly express’d;

The speaker then complains that he is "past cure," and he also lost his ability to even be concerned about his irrational state. He considers himself, "frantic-mad with evermore unrest." The individual who allows sexual urgings to dominate his thoughts finds it virtually impossible to put that genie back in the bottle. The strong nature of such longings overcomes reason, and the aroused passion savagely seeks satisfaction.

The speaker understands that he has allowed himself to become driven by these perverse desires which cause "[his] thoughts" and his speech to become as frenzied as "madmen’s are." He finds himself wavering in his ability to seek truth, which has always, heretofore, been his prerogative and preference.

The Couplet: A Monstrous Prevaricator

For I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright,
Who art as black as hell, as dark as night.

Only in the couplet does it become clear that the speaker has all along been addressing his ravings to his mistress. The couplet not only hurls an accusation at the filthy woman, "Who [is] as black as hell," and "as dark as night," but it also reveals the exact spot on which the speaker’s mental health is shining its light: he made the mistake of believing that the woman was a loving as well as lovely creature, but her true personality and behavior have revealed to him a monstrous prevaricator, who is incapable of truth and fidelity.

A Brief Overview of the 154-Sonnet Sequence

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 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 (Erroneously "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.

Two Problematic Sonnets: 108 and 126

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.

Questions & Answers

© 2018 Linda Sue Grimes

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