One would expect the master of the tragic romance, unlike Sonnet 141, to have written the loveliest letters to his beloved; however, the truth is far from the case. William Shakespeare, in his sonnets to his lovers, has a tendency to err on the side of caustic commentary rather than the beauty of verse (this is not true of all sonnets, of course; some, which have been addressed to the fair youth, are quite romantic in nature), and thus wrote phrases such as ‘My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun’. Despite this, Shakespeare’s idea was that the notion of romantic love had to be stronger, and far more solid, than contemporary poets made it out to be. He saw the lofty ideals that women were elevated to as a sign of juvenilia – something that older men have bred out of them.
Thus, Shakespeare’s words were far more cutting than one would expect.
Explore Sonnet 141
Sonnet 141 is the 141st sonnet out of a total of 154. It is part of the sequence of the Dark Lady sonnets, which are far darker and more sexual than those addressed to the Fair Youth; scholars have attempted to use this sonnet to downplay Shakespeare’s more romantic Fair Youth sonnets, and thus to downplay the homoerotic overtones of the Fair Youth sequence.
In Sonnet 141, Shakespeare addresses the Dark Lady, the object of his affections, discussing the fact that, although his senses rebel at the sound and sight and existence of the Lady, he loves her nevertheless. His senses cannot love her, but he himself does, greatly and grandly and deeply.
Analysis of Sonnet 141: In faith, I do not love thee with mine eyes
In faith I do not love thee with mine eyes,
For they in thee a thousand errors note;
But ’tis my heart that loves what they despise,
Who, in despite of view, is pleased to dote.
Nor are mine ears with thy tongue’s tune delighted;
Nor tender feeling, to base touches prone,
Nor taste, nor smell, desire to be invited
To any sensual feast with thee alone:
But my five wits nor my five senses can
Dissuade one foolish heart from serving thee,
Who leaves unswayed the likeness of a man,
Thy proud heart’s slave and vassal wretch to be:
Only my plague thus far I count my gain,
That she that makes me sin awards me pain.
Much has been made of Shakespeare’s relationship with the Dark Lady. She is also the subject of his far more infamous ode, 130, otherwise known as ‘My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the son’, where again, Shakespeare speaks about the apparent flaws of the Dark Lady, and his own powerlessness to refute them and to refute his feelings for her. Sonnet 141 is written in the same vein: the idea behind it is to show the reader the tyranny of love over the senses, and how one’s love could, even though not quite fitting their ideals, become ideal to the viewer through other means.
It is written in iambic pentameter, otherwise known as a Shakespearean sonnet, with an ABABCDCDEFEFGG rhyme scheme. Iambic pentameter is the practice of having five poetic feet per line, with the poetic foot as an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one. It is also made up of three quatrains, and a rhyming couplet at the end.
Shakespeare opens the poem with the declaration ‘in faith, I do not love thee with mine eyes / for they in thee a thousand errors note’. It is worth noting the irony of using a traditionally romantic form of poetry – or rather, taking the conventional form of the sonnet, which was mostly used for romantic poetry, to write something that starts out with the description of a beloved’s flaws. Shakespeare’s mastery of the English language and the English sonnet form is unmatched, and his use of the English sonnet form in this poem, despite the words, still do make it a romantic poem at its heart. Furthermore, the subject matter itself is still romance. Though Shakespeare opens the poem with a declaration of the woman’s perceived flaws, he continues with, ‘but ‘tis my heart that loves what they despise, / who, in despite of view, is pleased to dote’. Thus the idea is that though he finds her personally ugly, his heart trills at the sight of her – he loves her not because she is beautiful, but because his heart loves her deeply and grandly.
He goes on to state that he doesn’t like her voice, either (‘nor are mine ears with thy tongue’s tune delighted’), and that he is not pleased with ‘base touches prone’, thus alluding to the promiscuity of the Dark Lady, and to displeasing sexual encounters. He finds her smell and taste personally repulsive, and would not enjoy ‘any sensual feast with tee alone’. Thus, the poor Dark Lady has nothing whatsoever to attract her to the poet – however, despite all of this, he loves her.
After reiterating all the lady’s flaws and her appearance, all the things that Shakespeare neither enjoys nor likes about the Dark Lady, he gently turns the poem around, and states that, ‘but my five wits nor my five senses can / dissuade one foolish heart from serving thee’. Although, therefore, she is not physically appealing, although it goes against his better judgement, the poet loves the Dark Lady for reasons other than physical appearance. He loves her for her. He loves her because she is his.
Sonnet 141 has also been taken to stand in for the complete erasure of identity through love. From line 10 onwards, the heart follows the Dark Lady, who leaves behind ‘unswayed the likeness of a man’. Thus the poet ceases to exist outside of his love for the Lady: he is a man without a heart should he choose not to follow her, and thus a man without an identity. In the final rhyming couplet, this idea is further emphasized: the heart is imprisoned in a purgatory of the senses, the man in love is in stasis due to the lady’s proud nature. It is not, ultimately, a happy love, but a needed love, like air and water.
This was published for the first time in the 1609 Quarto ‘SHAKE-SPEARES SONNETS’, though it is probably written much earlier. Scholars attempting to date it use the Fair Youth sequence as a point – however, the Fair Youth poems are still a vague reference point, as no-one has any idea who the Fair Youth is. The poems can therefore date anywhere between 1591-1601.
The identity of the Dark Lady remains unknown to this day. Candidates have included Lucy Negro, Maria Fitton, Emilia Lanier, Elizabeth Wriothesley, and others, with no allusions one way or the other to whom the Dark Lady could be.
Read more poetry from William Shakespeare.