Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Saturday, April 1, 2017

The Play of Convention in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 153

Sonnet 153 (1609 Quarto version)

CVpid laid by his brand and fell a ſleepe,
A maide of Dyans this aduantage found,
And his loue-kindling fire did quickly ſteepe
In a could vallie-fountaine of that ground:
Which borrowd from this holie fire of loue,
A dateleſſe liuely heat ſtill to indure,
And grew a ſeething bath which yet men proue,
Againſt ſtrang malladies a ſoueraigne cure:
But at my miſtres eie loues brand new fired ,
The boy for triall needes would touch my breſt,
I ſick withal the helpe of bath deſired,
And thether hied a ſad diſtemperd gueſt.
But found no cure,the bath for my helpe lies,
Where Cupid got new fire; my miſtres eye.

For the last two hundred years the reading of poetry has been progressively impoverished by the Romantic denigration of convention. Today poetry tends to be prosaic and colloquial and few readers apart from academics have the competence to appreciate the intertextuality of earlier works. The fact is that convention, far from stultifying and reducing expression, allows more semiotic density. Far from simply reproducing models, the skilled writer, while sometimes using convention as shorthand for content previously expressed, more frequently reverses expectations, twists them, enlarges or constructs them, alters their tone, or, in a myriad other ways, builds upon what had been already written to construct something entirely new. The use of convention enables the author to reach higher levels of subtlety in thematics and, at the same time, to increase the formal pleasures of structural variation. Such structural play can only be called academic only if the same is said of The Well-Tempered Clavier.

The Cupid sonnets that conclude Shakespeare’s collection are a case in point. Often written off as conventional, routine, perhaps not even from the master’s hand, “outliers” at any rate, they betray upon close examination an almost musical play of ideas and contraries superimposed over the melody of the words.

One may take as a starting point the Greek Anthology lyric (IX, 627) attributed to Marianus Scholasticus. [1] This is the text of Paton’s accurate if uninspired translation.

Here under the plane trees tired Love lay softly sleeping, having entrusted his torch to the Nymphs. Said the Nymphs among themselves, “Why not do it at once? Would that together with this we could put out the fire in men’s hearts.” But it was the torch that set fire to the water, and henceforth the Love-Nymphs pour forth here hot water for men to bathe in.

Surely this piece itself is a spun sugar confection for those who thought they had heard all possible changes rung on similar elements. Ignoring the considerable prior history of its meter, words, and figures, what does the poem suggest? Surely the first implication is the persistence of desire; Eros’ torch cannot be doused. Secondarily, the aetiological implication of the origin of warm bathing associates love with an ameliorating factor, something that makes life more civilized, more livable. And why were the nymphs hostile to love prior to their becoming “love-Nymphs” (“nymphs of Eros”)? What is expressed in mythological terms as their association with Artemis appears as well in philological data in the word nymph’s links with words indicating “veiled,” and thus (in contradistinction to Muslim practice) young and marriageable. In psychological terms one might associate this resistance to love with the woman’s selectivity and cautious reserve, as opposed to the men’s fire in the heart. [2] Similar notions conceived by men include the troubadour’s lady’s “daunger” or the animals of Thurber’s “Courtship Through the Ages.”

These far from original principles provide the conventional thematics for these final two sonnets which have struck many readers as superfluous or intrusive. The fact is, though, that they could plead sufficient formal precedent as well: the pattern of concluding a sonnet sequence with irregularities, often a few Anacreontic or fescinnine pieces and then a longer poem was set in Spenser’s Amoretti and Epithalamion, Samuel Daniel’s Delia, Lodge’s Sonnets to Phillis, and other collections.

Yet each of the poem’s terms Shakespeare has adapted either from the Anthology or from a later use of the story is markedly altered in Sonnet 153. Rather than repeating clichés, the poet is enriching, enlarging, criticizing, or overturning them in a captivating rapid-fire lyric that plays with reader expectations until the concluding couplet when, as at the end of the tragedies, all returns to normal once again.

While in the epigram Eros intentionally hands off his torch to a nymph for safe-keeping, the sonnet has her taking it without his knowledge. This departure is reinforced later when the sonnet describes what can only be the origin of his love in the circumstance of the nymph first relighting the torch, then, as a test, touching his breast, rendering him instantly but arbitrarily love-sick. [3] Having fallen victim to Eros through chance, he can gain no respite in an ordinary bath but only with the favorable looks of his beloved. Though helplessness before love’s onslaught is an ancient topos, it is here more evident in the more modern poem.

More significant is the sonnet’s drift to double entendre. Though the associations are only latent in the Greek poem, [4] the reader who has noted considerable risqué play in the earlier sonnets will not overlook the correspondence of torch and “vallie-fountaine” with genitals. Indeed, attempting to douse the hot phallus in the moisture not only fails to put out the fire, it heats the water into a “seething bath” due to the “holie fire of love.” [4] The brand is relighted at the eye of the beloved though it had never seemed to be put out, and the lover’s heart is set aflame anew, paradoxically to seek solace or cure only in that same mistress’ eye. “Eye” itself was used to suggest the female sex as in Benedick’s lines from Much Ado About Nothing: “I will live in thy heart, die in thy lap, and be/ buried in thy eyes.” [5]. Whereas the Greek epigram had perhaps slightly ruefully described the ineradicable power of desire, the English sonnet introduces the whole complex of self-consciousness about sexuality with its euphemistic concealment causing sniggering foregrounding.

Shakespeare has, in fact, deployed not only the terms of inherited Classical myth, but has added parallel but quite different obscene and courtly love conventions, thus thickening the plot considerably. By doing so he has not vitiated but has enriched his meaning; he has not lost but rather has gained precision and individuality. The fact that at least three basic sets of language, metaphor, affect are inextricably interlaced in Sonnet 153, while formally a tour de force, a dazzling finale for the volume, results not in confusion or interference. Instead the reader infers a love experience in which each set of expectations bears partial truth. At a given moment one or another may be dominant, while at other times all three may weave routes about each other in a precise and beautiful dance of words.

Used adeptly, convention serves as a means of increasing the semiotic density of a passage. Shakespeare chose to use one of the most convention-bound forms, the sequence of love sonnets, to express the complexities of his persona’s experience of love, and, at the culmination of his magnificent and subtle sequence, he simultaneously evokes a variety of erotic paradigms through allusions to a host of earlier poems. It is through such devices as rhetorical figures such as allusion that literature is uniquely capable of expressing such tensions, contradictions, and out-and-out paradoxes.

1. The Anthology is, of course, a very late collection, and Marianus one of the latest of its authors. His poem was based on a lengthy previous tradition we cannot here engage. The role of convention in the Anthology itself is suggested by the fact that this poem appears in a series of lyrics using the image of bathing. For other prior uses of the theme see James Hutton’s "Analogues of Shakespeare's Sonnets 153-154: Contributions to the History of a Theme" (Modern Philology, XXXVIII [May 1941], 385-403).

2. The fire of love is a universal trope of great antiquity. Among its forms are the medieval mystical Incendia Amoris and Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.”

3. Compare the love potion in Tristan and Iseult.

4. These associations do have Classical antecedents. See, for instance Martial, Epigrammaton 3.93.27, in which a torch represents a penis and the female genitals are explicitly named.

5. Compare A Midsummer Night’s Dream “But I might see Cupid’s fiery shaft/ Quenched in the chaste beams of the watery moon.” (II, i) To some readers the bath refers to treatments for syphilis, implying recognition of darker aspects of love-making.

6. V, ii.

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