‘Sonnet 114′ is one of William Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets. The poem is directed towards a young man known as the “Fair Youth” and picks up where the previous sonnet, ‘Sonnet 113,’ left off. This person has never been identified in real life, nor has the true nature of the poet’s relationship with him been uncovered. This has led many readers and scholars to speculate about Shakespeare’s sexuality or if the poet is meant to be the speaker in these lines at all.
Explore Sonnet 114
The speaker spends the lines of ‘Sonnet 114’ debating whether his eye or mind has misled him. He considers the images he sees everywhere of the youth and goes back and forth, considering how his mind is flattered like a king, and his eye is struck immediately with beautiful images. This mind/eye relationship is a repeated theme in Shakespeare’s poems. It can be found in several others, including ‘Sonnet 113.’ In the end, the speaker decides that the mind’s flattery is mostly responsible for what he sees. What’s unsure is whether or not there is anything wrong with how he’s experiencing the world.
In ‘Sonnet 114,’ William Shakespeare engages with themes of love/devotion as well as experience. He considers the world through his speaker’s eyes, seeing everything, from landscapes to animals, through a filter that focuses on the Fair Youth. There is nothing more beautiful than this young man, and each experience the speaker has, no matter if they’re together or apart, is fueled by his love for this person. The speaker briefly touches on the possibility that these images are false, poisoned somehow, or that his mind/eye is guilty of something. This raises the question of whether or not this love he’s engaged in is a healthy one.
Structure and Form
‘Sonnet 114’ by William Shakespeare is a fourteen-line sonnet that follows a consistent rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. It is written in iambic pentameter, the most common of all English meters. In iambic pentameter, each line contains five sets of two beats, known as metrical feet. The first is unstressed, and the second is stressed. It sounds something like da-DUM, da-DUM. The fourth line of the poem is a great example of iambic pentameter at its best/most accurate.
The poem can also be divided into three sets of four lines and a final two-line couplet. The last couplet usually comes after the turn or volta. This is the pattern that most Shakespearean sonnets follow, although there are always a few instances in which the meter or rhyme is broken.
Shakespeare makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Sonnet 114’. These include but are not limited to examples:
- Caesura: occurs when the poet inserts a pause into the middle of a line of verse, for example, “Or whether doth my mind, being crowned with you” and “If it be poisoned, ’tis the lesser sin.”
- Alliteration: the repetition of words with the same consonant sound. For example, “sweet self” in line six and “first” and “flattery” in line nine.
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point—for example, the transition between lines five and six as well as thirteen and fourteen.
Or whether doth my mind, being crowned with you,
Drink up the monarch’s plague, this flattery?
Or whether shall I say, mine eye saith true,
And that your love taught it this alchemy,
In the first lines of ‘Sonnet 114,’ the speaker begins by picking up on the same ideas he’d concluded within the previous sonnet. He was previously speaking about the fact that his eyes and mind are working together to transform all images into resemblances of the Youth. This young man is all he can see no matter where he looks.
In these lines, he suggests that either the mind controls what the speaker sees and is susceptible to “flattery” or that the eye is the master of what he’s seeing. Meaning that it has learned to translate everything he’s seeing into images of the speaker’s love. There is only an artificial distinction between the two. He refers to flattery as a disease that infects kings and queens, keeping them from being able to see the truth of a situation.
To make of monsters and things indigest
Such cherubins as your sweet self resemble,
Creating every bad a perfect best,
As fast as objects to his beams assemble?
The next four lines describe how the eye is making objects into visions of the Fair Youth. This is some kind of alchemy, the speaker previously suggested. It changes monsters into “Such cherubins as your sweet self resemble.” It makes every bad thing into “perfect” and “best.” This happens quickly, as soon as objects come into the eye’s sight.
O! ’tis the first, ’tis flattery in my seeing,
And my great mind most kingly drinks it up:
Mine eye well knows what with his gust is ‘greeing,
And to his palate doth prepare the cup:
If it be poisoned, ’tis the lesser sin
That mine eye loves it and doth first begin.
The speaker decides that of the two options, the “flattery” option is the most likely. It’s responsible for his behavior. He believes that the mind has been flattered by the eye due to the endless array of images it’s interpreted of the Youth. His mind, like a monarch or king, has been drinking that flattery up. It has no control. The eye knows well what it’s tasting. He goes on to say. It knows that what it’s showing the mind is going to make it happy.
The speaker concludes the poem by suggesting that it’s possible that the cup of flattery, these images of the youth, have poison in them, and he is misled. It’s unclear whether the mind or eye is guilty of creating or enjoying false images at the end of the poem. The only thing that is sure is that the speaker has a great deal of love for the Fair Youth.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Sonnet 114’ should also consider reading some of the other William Shakespeare poems. For example:
- ‘Sonnet 101’ – directed at the speaker’s muse who is failing to provide him with needed inspiration.
- ‘Sonnet 18’ – one of Shakespeare’s best-known sonnets which also goes by the title ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’
- ‘Sonnet 116’ – also known as ‘Let me not to the marriage of true minds,’ depicts the speaker’s opinion on what true love is.