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Shakespeare Sonnet 151: "Love is too young to know what conscience is"

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 151: "Love is too young to know what conscience is"

In sonnet 151 from the classic Shakespeare 154-sonnet sequence, the speaker is offering 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"

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.

Reading of Sonnet 151

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.

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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.

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.

Questions & Answers

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."

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.

© 2018 Linda Sue Grimes

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