Shakespeare Sonnet 154: "The little Love-god lying once asleep"

Updated on April 20, 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

The real "Shakespeare"
The real "Shakespeare" | Source

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 154

Because Sonnet 154 is essentially a paraphrase of Sonnet 153, it, therefore, bears the same message. The two final sonnets keep the same theme, a complaint of unrequited, scorned love, while dressing the complaint with the gaudy clothing of mythological allusion. Employing the Roman god, Cupid, and the goddess Diana, the speaker achieves a distance from his feelings—a distance that he, no doubt, hopes will finally bring him some comfort.

In most of the "dark lady" sonnets, the speaker addresses the mistress directly or makes it clear that what he is saying is intended specifically for her ears. In the last two sonnets, the speaker does not address the mistress; he does mention her, but he is speaking now about her instead of directly to her. He is now withdrawing from the drama; the reader senses that he has grown weary from his battle for the lady’s love, and now he just decides to make a philosophical drama that heralds the ending, saying essentially, "I’m through."

Sonnet 154

The little Love-god lying once asleep
Laid by his side his heart-inflaming brand,
Whilst many nymphs that vow’d chaste life to keep
Came tripping by; but in her maiden hand
The fairest votary took up that fire
Which many legions of true hearts had warm’d;
And so the general of hot desire
Was, sleeping, by a virgin hand disarm’d.
This brand she quenched in a cool well by,
Which from Love’s fire took heat perpetual,
Growing a bath and healthful remedy
For men diseas’d; but I, my mistress’ thrall,
Came there for cure, and this by that I prove,
Love’s fire heats water, water cools not love.

Reading of Sonnet 154

Commentary

Paraphrasing sonnet 153, sonnet 154 pairs up with its predecessor to bring down the curtain on this drama of unfulfilled love ("lust") between speaker and mistress.

First Quatrain: Grabbing the Torch

The little Love-god lying once asleep
Laid by his side his heart-inflaming brand,
Whilst many nymphs that vow’d chaste life to keep
Came tripping by; but in her maiden hand

In the first quatrain, the speaker alludes to the Roman mythological god Cupid, saying that the god is sleeping, and his "heart-inflaming brand" or torch is lying by his side. Along come "many nymphs" or handmaidens of the goddess of the hunt Diana; one of the maidens grabs the torch.

Second Quatrain: A Thieving Virgin

The fairest votary took up that fire
Which many legions of true hearts had warm’d;
And so the general of hot desire
Was, sleeping, by a virgin hand disarm’d.

The speaker claims that the maiden who steals Cupid’s torch is the "fairest votary." He reports that the fire from this torch had caused many men to fall in love, and he emphasizes that now the torch is stolen by "a virgin" while the little love god lies fast asleep.

Third Quatrain: Cool the Flame, or Heat the Water

This brand she quenched in a cool well by,
Which from Love’s fire took heat perpetual,
Growing a bath and healthful remedy
For men diseas’d; but I, my mistress’ thrall,

The maiden carries the torch to a "cool well" and tries to put out the flame, but instead she succeeds in heating the water. The hot water becomes widely thought to possess health-giving powers "for men diseas’d." The speaker then asserts that such is not so for him in his "mistress’s thrall."

The Couplet: "Came there for cure, and this by that I prove"

Came there for cure, and this by that I prove,
Love’s fire heats water, water cools not love.

When the speaker goes to the bath famed for "healthful remedy," he finds that there is no cure for him. Love can heat water, but water cannot cool love.

Cupid's Torch

The speaker’s choice of Cupid is obvious for the god’s representation of love, but the speaker also focuses on the "torch" instrument instead of the more common "bow and arrows." The choice of torch is obvious as well, as the speaker has often euphemistically referred to his aroused copulatory organ at the sight of the dark lady. The speaker exaggerates his lust by dramatizing its ability to heat water, while water lacks the ability to cool his lust.

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 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.

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.

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."

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Linda Sue Grimes

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