William Shakespeare – Sonnet 137
Thou blind fool, Love, what dost thou to mine eyes,
That they behold, and see not what they see?
They know what beauty is, see where it lies,
Yet what the best is take the worst to be.
If eyes, corrupt by over-partial looks,
Be anchored in the bay where all men ride,
Why of eyes’ falsehood hast thou forged hooks,
Whereto the judgment of my heart is tied?
Why should my heart think that a several plot,
Which my heart knows the wide world’s common place?
Or mine eyes, seeing this, say this is not,
To put fair truth upon so foul a face?
In things right true my heart and eyes have erred,
And to this false plague are they now transferred.
The poet reflects on his infatuation with the woman and is perplexed by what he finds. He is uncertain whether to blame his eyes or his heart, or both of them jointly. They both seem to be in error in supposing that so foul a person is in fact fair and worthy of love. The previous sonnets were far from flattering to the woman, having suggested that her sexual appetites were almost unlimited. This one is no better, and implies that she is like a common prostitute, being ‘the bay where all men ride’ and ‘the common’ where all men have free access.
Sonnets 46 & 47 describe a conflict between heart and eyes which is resolved by an alliance between the two. In this sonnet both heart and eyes are portrayed as being at fault in perverting what they perceive. But pride of place is given to the eyes, in that they are shown to lead the way and, being corrupt, they drag the heart along behind them. Of course the distinction is only poetic and has no psychological basis, nor did it have in Shakespeare’s day. He is merely elaborating a conceit which serves the purpose of illuminating the contradictions in his heart over his blind infatuation for the dark lady. The function of eyes in setting a soul on the pathway to love had been well established by Petrarch, ever since that fatal Good Friday on 6 April 1327 when he first set eyes on Laura in the Church at Avignon. (The date in fact is fictional, but readers presumably did not know that in the 15th and 16th centuries). Shakespeare is merely following this convention by attributing to the eyes the power to lead the way in love, and to subvert the personality. It is also entirely consistent with the blindness of Cupid, which does not however prevent Cupid from seeing with a sixth sense. As Virgil said Quis fallere possit amantem? ‘Who can deceive a lover?’
The sonnet continues in the less than flattering tone of flattery which the previous three sonnets have used. His mistress is a piece of common land to which all men have access, a harbour in which all ships ride, she has a foul face which is painted to look fair, and finally she is a false plague, which has the power to infect all at random. This is far from the tradition of the Petrarchan praise of Laura which had set the precedent for all sonneteers thereafter, so that mistresses were nearly always praised as lofty, beautiful, chaste and inaccessible goddesses. It is true that a contrary tradition had been established which rebelled against this slavery and fantastic idealisation of women, an idealisation which had little basis in reality. Sir Thomas Wyatt, whose poems Shakespeare would have known, had already introduced a more down to earth approach to loving and courtship. (See the example below left). And sonnet sequences had already been published which consisted of a main section devoted to adoration, followed by a concluding section which repudiated love, the cold beloved, and the slavery which held the lover in chains.
These poems to the dark lady are however rather different because of their psychological complexity and because the element of Petrarchan praise is replaced by straight speaking which is little short of insulting. The lady cannot have regarded it as flattery to be spoken of as a common prostitute, however much she might have enjoyed her power over men. Nor can it have been pleasing to be told that her face was foul, or that she was a ‘false plague’, or ‘as black as hell, as dark as night’ (147). Nothing in the sonnet literature of the time prepares us for such an onslaught on a loved one, and we have to conclude that, despite the occasional tender words to his mistress, the poet did not find the experience uplifting, certainly not spiritual, and that it was in many ways a source of revulsion and self-disgust which he found it impossible to flee from or expiate from his soul.
Sir Thomas Wyatt
THE LADY TO ANSWER DIRECTLY WITH YEA OR NAY. (c. 1528 – 36)
MADAM, withouten many words,
Once I am sure you will, or no :
And if you will, then leave your bourds,
And use your wit, and shew it so,
And, with a beck you shall me call ;
And if of one, that burneth alway,
Ye have any pity at all,
Answer him fair, with yea or nay.
If it be yea, I shall be fain ;
If it be nay—friends, as before ;
You shall another man obtain,
And I mine own, and yours no more.
bourds = tricks; mockery.
I shall be fain = I shall be eager.
The 1609 Quarto Version
THou blinde foole loue,what dooſt thou to mine eyes,
That they behold and ſee not what they ſee :
They know what beautie is,ſee where it lyes,
Yet what the beſt is ,take the worſt to be.
If eyes corrupt by ouer-partiall lookes,
Be anchord in the baye where all men ride,
Why of eyes falſehood haſt thou forged hookes,
Whereto the iudgement of my heart is tide ?
Why should my heart thinke that a ſeuerall plot,
Which my heart knowes the wide worlds common place?
Or mine eyes ſeeing this,ſay this is not
To put faire truth vpon ſo foule a face,
In things right true my heart and eyes haue erred,
And to this falſe plague are they now tranſferred.
1. Thou blind fool, Love, what dost thou to mine eyes,blind fool, Love – Cupid was traditionally portrayed as blind. The description of him as a fool was less common, but lovers were often thought of as being temporarily seized by insanity and guilty of many acts of folly. The clown Touchstone in As You Like it remembers what it was like to be in love:
I remember, when I was in love I broke my sword upon a stone and bid him take that for coming a-night to Jane Smile; and I remember the kissing of her batlet and the cow’s dugs that her pretty chopt hands had milked; AYL.II.4.44-8.
batlet = washing paddle. dugs = teats.2. That they behold, and see not what they see?That they behold = that (as a result of your influence) they observe the world.
and see not what they see = pretend not to see the unpleasant facts which they do see; seem to see things, but apparently do not register them.3. They know what beauty is, see where it lies,see where it lies = see where it is situated. Possibly also ‘see how it can falsely mislead’.4. Yet what the best is take the worst to be.I.e. they take the worst things, both morally and physically, to be the best. The word order is inverted – ‘take the worst to be the best’.5. If eyes, corrupt by over-partial looks,corrupt by over-partial looks = bribed and won over by flirtatious and seductive glances from you. However looks probably refers to the glances from his own eyes which are already unable to make valid judgements of what they see (hence they are over-partial, biased, prejudiced in her favour).6. Be anchored in the bay where all men ride,The imagery is of ships anchored in a sheltering bay or harbour, and puns on the meanings of ‘to ride at anchor’, as a ship does, and ‘to ride’, meaning to be astride a horse, or mounted on a woman and having sex with her. Essentially a sexual metaphor intended to convey the poet’s infatuation with his mistress’ body and his brooding desires which visualise her nakedness. His eyes and the eyes of his mind are fixed upon her body.7. Why of eyes’ falsehood hast thou forged hooks,of eyes’ falsehood – the main culpability is attributed to the eyes, which see first of all, before the heart can apprehend anything.
thou = Cupid, love. Not only has love corrupted the eyes, but out of this corruption he has made (forged) hooks which hold the heart firmly locked in its infatuate loving. forged is a term from the blacksmith’s art of hammering iron in the forge. There is also a suggestion of making false coin, (forgery), implying that the rewards promised are not what they pretend to be.8. Whereto the judgment of my heart is tied?Whereto = to which. ‘Why does the judgement of my heart (mind) follow the lead given by the eyes?’9. Why should my heart think that a several plot,a several plot = a private piece of land, a separated enclosure.
9 – 10. ‘Why should I think that you are my exclusive property, and that you love only me, when it is quite plain, (and in my heart of hearts I know it), that you offer your body to all comers?’10. Which my heart knows the wide world’s common place?my heart knows – the contradiction is that he both knows and does not know (probably does not want to know) that she is false.
the wide world’s = all and sundry’s; Tom, Dick or Harry’s; anyone’s. common place = piece of common land, land that is open to the use of all members of a community. In Elizabethan days much land was still grazed as ‘common’, being publicly owned by the village community. Members of the community not only had grazing rights and rights of wood gathering etc., but the publicly owned land was also divided into plots which were farmed by individuals on a yearly basis. Enclosure was however already going ahead in some areas, with land being claimed by the richer members of society and then being taken from the community and fenced in.11. Or mine eyes, seeing this, say this is not,seeing this, say this is not = seeing the fact that you are promiscuous, nevertheless deny it.12. To put fair truth upon so foul a face?‘In order to make appear as truth and beauty that which is foul’. There is a suggestion also of the distortion caused by cosmetics, which make a foul face seem fair. Also a reference to ‘putting a good face on things’, i.e., making the best of a bad situation.13. In things right true my heart and eyes have erred,In things right true = With regard to all things that are upright, true, honest, chaste, unsullied. The reference could be to former loves, even to the youth, whom he has deserted in favour of the dark lady. Or it could be to the dark lady herself, whom he has incorrectly judged to be fair and true. things, here as elsewhere, has a slang sexual meaning. JK gives “His heart and eyes have made mistakes in judging things right true (‘chaste cunts’ and ‘honest women’ as well as ‘true acts and statements’), and love has enforced a deranged fixation on the dark lady as a punishment…” JK.p.369.n.12.14. And to this false plague are they now transferred.this false plague = this deceitful woman; this plague, sickness, misery of making false judgements; this infatuation.
are they now transferred = they (my heart and eyes) have now had their rights, duties and obligations handed over to (the rule of another, the practice of self-deception). transferred is a word used in legal parlance, meaning to convey or make over the title to a piece of land, or a right, or possession. (OED.2.) Commentators suspect that the reference to ‘plague’, which was prevalent at the time, may have been hinting at infection with venereal disease.