Shakespeare Sonnets 153: “Cupid laid by his brand and fell asleep”

Updated on May 8, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

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 153

The two final sonnets 153 and 154 are nearly identical; 154 is essentially a paraphrase of 153. They differ from the other "dark lady" poems in two main ways: they do not address the lady directly as most of the others do, and they employ use of Roman mythology for purposes of analogy.

Sonnet 153

Cupid laid by his brand and fell asleep
A maid of Dian’s this advantage found,
And his love-kindling fire did quickly steep
In a cold valley-fountain of that ground;
Which borrow’d from this holy fire of Love
A dateless lively heat, still to endure,
And grew a seething bath, which yet men prove
Against strange maladies a sovereign cure.
But at my mistress’ eye Love’s brand new-fired,
The boy for trial needs would touch my breast;
I, sick withal, the help of bath desired,
And thither hied, a sad distemper’d guest,
But found no cure: the bath for my help lies
Where Cupid got new fire, my mistress’ eyes.

Reading of Sonnet 153

Commentary

Sonnet 153 alludes to Roman mythology through the characters of Cupid, god of love, and Diana, goddess of the hunt.

First Quatrain: Carrying a Torch

Cupid laid by his brand and fell asleep
A maid of Dian’s this advantage found,
And his love-kindling fire did quickly steep
In a cold valley-fountain of that ground;

In the first quatrain of Sonnet 153, the speaker, who is still the same speaker smarting from his unsatisfactory love affair with the dark mistress, dramatically alludes to the Roman god of love, Cupid. In this little drama, Cupid falls asleep leaving his torch unattended. One of Diana’s handmaidens sees Cupid asleep and steals off with his torch, which she tries to extinguish by dipping in a cold-spring pool of water.

The speaker, in addition to exposing yet again his suffering at the hands of his dark mistress, dramatizes a myth wherein medicinal hot springs is created. His clever portrayal also employs an analogy between the Cupid torch and his own physical and mental torch of love. The expression "to carry a torch" for someone after the breakup of a romance comes from the mythological Cupid with his torch.

Second Quatrain: From Cold to Hot Springs

Which borrow’d from this holy fire of Love
A dateless lively heat, still to endure,
And grew a seething bath, which yet men prove
Against strange maladies a sovereign cure.

The Dianian nymph, however, was unsuccessful in extinguishing the torch’s flame, but the spring takes on the heat, transforming its cold waters into a hot-springs bath that people henceforth would use for curing physical ailments. The waters are heated by the powerful "holy fire of Love," and a "seething bath" continued in perpetuity, "which yet men prove / Against" all manner of physical illness; they come to the baths to seek "sovereign cure."

Third Quatrain: Allusion to Explicate Delusion

But at my mistress’ eye Love’s brand new-fired,
The boy for trial needs would touch my breast;
I, sick withal, the help of bath desired,
And thither hied, a sad distemper’d guest,

In the third quatrain, the purpose of the little Cupid-Diana drama becomes apparent. The speaker is dramatizing his own "holy fire of Love," that is, his passion for his mistress. When he sees his mistress, or even just "[his] mistress’ eyes," his own "Love brand," that is, male member becomes "new-fired" or aroused to sensual desire.

If the little god of love were to touch the speaker’s breast with his torch, the speaker would again become love sick, as he always does, and he would hurry to the hot springs that Cupid’s torched had created to try to be cured of his love-sickness. However, the speaker asserts that he would be "a sad distemper’d guest" at the baths resort because he is always in a melancholy funk through the ill-treatment he suffers at the hands of the dark lady.

The Couplet: No Help

But found no cure: the bath for my help lies
Where Cupid got new fire, my mistress’ eyes.

Unlike others who might have experienced a cure at the medicinal hot springs, this speaker, unfortunately, "found no cure." Referring to his male appendage as "Cupid" now, he claims that he could get help only from his "mistress’ eyes," those same pools that always stimulate him to the passion of coital arousal.

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."

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Linda Sue Grimes

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