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Shakespeare Sonnet 151

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 151

The speaker offers a clear comparison between the dictates of the flesh and the dictates of the soul. He reveals his awareness that certain bodily functions are capable of waylaying the moral judgment.

Sonnet 151

Love is too young to know what conscience is;
Yet who knows not conscience is born of love?
Then, gentle cheater, urge not my amiss,
Lest guilty of my faults thy sweet self prove:
For, thou betraying me, I do betray
My nobler part to my gross body’s treason;
My soul doth tell my body that he may
Triumph in love; flesh stays no further reason,
But rising at thy name doth point out thee
As his triumphant prize. Proud of this pride,
He is contented thy poor drudge to be,
To stand in thy affairs, fall by thy side.
No want of conscience hold it that I call
Her ‘love’ for whose dear love I rise and fall.

Commentary

When the speaker fails to follow his intuition of truth, he falls victim to lecherous urges that blemish his soul.

First Quatrain: The Euphemistic Love

Love is too young to know what conscience is;
Yet who knows not conscience is born of love?
Then, gentle cheater, urge not my amiss,
Lest guilty of my faults thy sweet self prove:

The speaker asserts in the first quatrain of sonnet 151, "Love is too young to know what conscience is," again using "love" as a euphemistic metaphor for "lust." In the second line, he avers that "love" now employed literally and "conscience" are virtually identical, as "conscience" and soul are identical. The speaker stated as a rhetorical question, "Yet who knows not conscience is born of love?," in order to emphasize the claim: everyone knows that "conscience" is activated by love. But he knows that the "gentle cheater" does not know this. This physically beautiful woman does not possess a beautiful mind.

Thus, he suggests to her that she not try to prove his flaws, for she might find that she is guilty of the same faults that he is. Of course, he does not believe this. He is winding down his relationship with her because he knows it has no future.

Second Quatrain: Relationship Between Body and Soul

For, thou betraying me, I do betray
My nobler part to my gross body’s treason;
My soul doth tell my body that he may
Triumph in love; flesh stays no further reason,

The speaker then accurately describes the relationship between body and soul as well as between himself and the dark lady. When she betrays him, he follows and betrays his "nobler part" which is his soul. His "gross body" or physical body commits treason again his soul, every time he allows himself to be seduced by this woman.

The speaker reports that his soul tries to guide him to the right thing that he should do; his soul directs his body to act in ways that "he may / Triumph in love." But "flesh stays no further reason." The flesh is weak and succumbs even when the mind is strong.

Third Quatrain: Stick of Flesh

But rising at thy name doth point out thee
As his triumphant prize. Proud of this pride,
He is contented thy poor drudge to be,
To stand in thy affairs, fall by thy side.

The speaker completes the clause from the preceding quatrain, "flesh stays no further reason, / / But rising at thy name doth point out thee / As his triumphant prize." Referring to his penile erection that occurs "at [her] name," he makes a joke as the woman’s expense: she is a "triumphant prize" for this stick of flesh that is pointing at her. An uglier and more repulsive image is yet to be found in English literature.

Continuing his penile reference, the speaker abandons himself to a full characterization of his male member, stating that the organ takes pride in its function and that "He" feels pleased just to be the woman’s "poor drudge." "He" is happy to erect himself for her sake and remain limp beside her at other times.

The Couplet: Whole Self vs Stick of Self

No want of conscience hold it that I call
Her ‘love’ for whose dear love I rise and fall.

The speaker then declares that his male member has no conscience, and while his mind and consciousness are in the grip of lecherous strain, he mistakenly calls the lust he feels for her "love," which he places in single scare quotes: ‘love’.

For her "dear love," the speaker claims he "rise[s] and fall[s]," cleverly suggesting a parallel between his whole self and his other little flesh stick of self that also rises and falls at her behest.

The De Vere Society

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."

The Secret Evidence of Who Wrote the Shakespeare Canon

Questions & Answers

Question: Can you please explain the Shakespeare Sonnet 151 in simpler words?

Answer: The speaker offers a clear comparison between the demands/appetites of the physical body and those of the spiritual body/soul. He reveals that he understands that certain bodily functions, such as the sex urge, are capable of destroying moral judgment.

Question: What is special about Shakespeare's Sonnet 151?

Answer: Sonnet 151 remains special for its dramatic elucidation of the commandment, offered in Exodus 20:14 King James Version (KJV): "Thou shalt not commit adultery."

© 2018 Linda Sue Grimes