The English Sonnet in the Shakespearean period typically takes love as its topic. Wyatt’s renditions of the famous Petrarchan modes are of love at a distance, where the mistress is heavily idealised in an almost spiritual longing. So how far do these sonnets of Shakespeare conform to this style? Sonnet 129 does not mention the word ‘love’ once: it uses ‘lust’ instead, twice in a short space. Though it echoes some of the hunting imagery of Wyatt’s famous Petrarchan translation / adaptation ‘Whoso List to Hunt’, Shakespeare’s frustration is clearly sexual. On a slightly more romantic note, Sonnet 147 does use the word ‘love’. But it compares it to disease - ‘fever’ - suggesting venereal disease. This is hardly the romantic view we yearn for(!) These sonnets share a dark view of desire, as addictive, dangerous with a terrible power to corrupt. Petrarchan sonnets do often include the idea that love causes suffering, but in these poems, Shakespeare undermines the pure, almost chivalric ideal of love as worship from afar by focussing on physical love: lust.
In style of address, Sonnet 147 feels more specific as it’s second person, using the intimate form, ‘thee’, and has some of the private quality of a love letter. As Shakespeare did not publish any of his sonnets, we could argue this is a very private, specific communication between two people, unlike the public posturings of writers like Wyatt and Howard. Yet Sonnet 129, also unpublished by Shakespeare, appeals to ‘the world’, giving it more of the gnomic quality of wisdom-poetry - as in Sonnet 116, where he says ‘Love is/Love is not’. It’s unclear whether these were literally addressed to the world at large. Or was it more a case of Shakespeare appealing to the authority of the world in the heat of argument. In other words: ‘everyone knows what I’m saying is right (except for you)’.
Both poems follow the sonnet structure, initially outlining a problem which develops and is resolved in the volta, or rhyming couplet at the end which can be seen as the conclusion. Despite using the same poetic form, they do feel quite different. Sonnet 129 has a great deal more enjambment. Its idea spools out breathlessly, uninterrupted by any punctuation. The overwhelming effect is increased as Shakespeare lists the darkest elements of ‘lust’: nine ideas in two lines, echoing the idea that the experience of lust is of uncontrolled excess. It is ‘savage’, ‘cruel’ ‘extreme’, ‘rude’ - antisocial, almost psycopathic. It is dangerous to social cohesion - as shown in the use of the word ‘perjured’ (a crime against the legal system), as well as ‘murderous’ and ‘bloody’. It brings fatal violence against God and nature as well as the abstract idea of order. The violent plosives in ‘bloody’, ‘blame’ and ‘perjured’ add to the rapid fire effect. In contrast, Sonnet 147 feels far more controlled, with a full stop and semi-colon at the end of many lines. The extended metaphor of disease and doctors is smoothly developed, which contrasts shockingly with his out of control description of himself as ‘frantic mad’.
A typical Shakespearean tactic used in both these sonnets is balanced lines or parallel constructions using antithesis. In Sonnet 129 in particular, this communicates the sense of being mixed up, torn in two different directions, in a vicious cycle of in love (or lust). In these parallel constructions, each line has two parts which are sometimes further emphasised by alliteration or repetition. In Sonnet 147 he says love has made him ‘past cure’ and ‘past care’, where the two phrases almost rhyme. Shakespeare seems to feel that love pushes you beyond or ‘past’ yourself. This is echoed in 129 but at the start of two lines, when he repeates ‘past reason’. He uses alliteration to link ‘expense of spirit’ and ‘waste of shame’ where the ideas are set up as opposites: spirit is pure and holy, but shame is public, worldly disgrace. These opposites of good and bad are also found where he balances ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’, which also uses alliteration, to show that his lust is seems good and bad at the same time, emphasising the conflicted feel.
The rhythm seems quite urgent in both sonnets, but especially in 129 due to the enjambment. Here the same idea/word is repeated with subtle variation: ‘possession’, then polyptoton in ‘had’, ‘having’ and ‘have’ then ‘proof’ and ‘prove’ coming up very fast one after the other, which creates a frantic effect. He says love (lust) makes one ‘extreme’ in every verb tense: looking forward to it, in the act, and in retrospect - three complex ideas - including the idea of transformation from one to another, contained within one line. In any state, it’s the same: devastating. The strong rhyme scheme continues to build a sense that lust is perverse. Uncomfortable opposites rhyme beautifully: ‘disease’ and ‘please’, ‘bright’ and ‘night’ in 147 and ‘well’ and ‘hell’ in 129, creating a strongly disturbing effect. It’s child-like, neat, but the ideas are darkly disturbing.
Shakespeare also uses similes to explain how his love makes him feel: ‘as a swallowed bait’ in Sonnet 129, so he compares himself to a fish on a hook. He is out of control, a victim of a greater force that will end him, and consume him. This links to the image ‘past reason hunted’, another hunt/chase image, as if he is helpless and driven, which echoes Wyatt’s famous sonnet ‘Whoso List to Hunt’ where he describes himself as the hunter. Here, Shakespeare reverses the traditional Petrarchan ideal. He is both hunter and hunted by his lust. The contradictions express the complex nature of lust. He flips the image where he then becomes the hunter when he says he is ‘mad in pursuit’. But even when he is the hunter, he is not in control: he is ‘mad’ chasing his obsession. When he gets what he is chasing, it is both ‘bliss’ and a ‘woe’. The last word abounds in Petrarch, as does the antithetical style - as in Wyatt’s translation ‘Warfare I cannot wage, yet know not peace; // I fear, I hope, I burn, I freeze again’. However, here, Shakespeare focusses not on unconsummated, unrequited love, but the paradoxical nature of lust: fed, it can never be satisfied - and then there is the self-disgust at giving into it - and the desire for more.
Compared to this, the imagery in Sonnet 147 is an extended metaphor, where he says his love is a ‘fever’ which he suffers from and then develops this image with ‘phsician’ and ‘cure’. Love is linked to illness of the body and also of the mind when Shakespeare says he is ‘frantic mad’ and that his thoughts and speech are ‘as a madman’s are’. He compares love to a sickness and a ‘disease’ that makes you want something worse. He uses images of feeding and ‘appetites’, juxtaposing something healthy (eating) with something unhealthy. He says his ‘reason’ is his doctor (‘physician’), trying to cure him, but he doesn’t do what he’s told, so he keeps getting sicker. This suggests love is beyond reason or common sense. It is not sensible. The last image in both poems is of ‘hell’. This suggests a very dark ending to love indeed.
The poet expresses his attitude through emotive language in the poem. In sonnet 129, Shakespeare uses extreme language such as ‘savage’, ‘extreme’, ‘murderous’ and ‘perjured’. This gives a feeling of anger and also being out of control in the romance. In contrast, the tone in 147, seems calmer. Even though Shakespeare does use negative language, where he compares love to a ‘fever’, the pace and language is softer: ‘nurseth’, ‘uncertain sickly’ suggest a slow, lingering illness. However, the pace of 147 does becomes more violent as the poem builds: ‘past care’, ‘frantic mad’, though the illness is only in his head, it is mental (‘my thoughts and my discourse’) in whereas in 129 the words suggest extreme, physical violence: ‘murderous’ and ‘bloody’. Some language in 147 is extreme: ‘desire is death’. The short, simple sentences add to the impact, especially emphasised by the alliteration and because Shakespeare says ‘it is’, which makes it like a fact - as in the style of gnomic wisdom poetry. This elaborates the Christian understanding that ‘desire’ or ‘lust’ (as in 129) is wrong and leads to hell – spiritual death.
In conclusion, in 129, where Shakespeare says lust is a ‘heaven’ that ‘leads men to this hell’ he expresses the contradictions in physical love. This is in the final rhyming couplet, the moral, and again adds to the ‘wisdom’ feel to the poem. Shakespeare plays with ideas of mental obsession that is as bad as physical torment, spiritual death through physical satisfaction and is bold enough to say: it is not love – it is lust. Where 129 talks about lust in the abstract, to a general audience, 147 – written specifically to the woman ‘thou art black as hell’ feels too insulting to be a love letter; but reminds us that in love (or lust), can be tormented too. In the end of 129 you get the feeling that Shakespeare still finds ‘heaven’ in lust; but by 147, the tone is much, much darker: ‘black as hell, dark as night’. It is almost the last of the sonnets, so some of Shakespeare’s final words on love are not words on love at all, but ‘lust’ and they are very dark indeed.
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