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Shakespeare Sonnet 154

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

The real "Shakespeare"

The real "Shakespeare"

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.

The De Vere Society

The De Vere Society

Questions & Answers

Question: Why does Shakespeare's sonnet, "The Little Love-God Lying Once Asleep" talk about Cupid and the torch?

Answer: The speaker employs Cupid, who symbolically represents love, but the speaker, more importantly, focuses on the "torch" instrument instead of the more common "bow and arrows," associated with the "god of love." The choice of torch becomes obvious because the speaker has often, in euphemistic terms, degraded to his aroused copulatory organ at the sight of the dark lady. The speaker then exaggerates his lust by dramatically assigning it the delicious ability to heat water, while at the same time that water cannot cool his outrageous lust.

Question: What does "bring down the curtain" mean in Shakespeare's sonnet, "The Little Love-God Lying Once Asleep"?

Answer: "Bring down the curtain" is a theatric idiomatic expression meaning to end. It originates from the literal dropping of the "curtain," separating the audience from the actors at the close of a play performance.

Question: Can you briefly discuss the features of the Shakespearean mitotic sonnet?

Answer: The Shakespearean "mitotic" sonnet divides itself into little sonnets through the process of sonnets division. The verbalization of each sonnet nucleus transforms into threads that shrink into sonnetized particles which then contain within them the sonnets material of the original sonnet.

© 2018 Linda Sue Grimes