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

Updated on April 1, 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 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.

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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