‘Sonnet 144′ is one of William Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets. It is part of the Dark Lady sequence of sonnets. They deal with the speaker and his relationship with his mistress, the Dark Lady. In ‘Sonnet 144,’ the poet discusses the Dark Lady and the Fair Youth, as he did in ‘Sonnet 143.’ But, this time, he makes the discussion far more obvious. He compares the two outright.
Sonnet 144 William ShakespeareTwo loves I have of comfort and despair,Which like two spirits do suggest me still:The better angel is a man right fair,The worser spirit a woman coloured ill.To win me soon to hell, my female evil,Tempteth my better angel from my side,And would corrupt my saint to be a devil,Wooing his purity with her foul pride.And whether that my angel be turned fiend,Suspect I may, yet not directly tell;But being both from me, both to each friend,I guess one angel in another's hell: Yet this shall I ne'er know, but live in doubt, Till my bad angel fire my good one out.
Explore Sonnet 144
’Sonnet 144’ by William Shakespeare suggests that the Dark Lady is having a negative influence on the Fair Youth.
Throughout this poem, the speaker worries over what’s happening to the Fair Youth now that he and the Dark Lady are spending time together. He thinks that she’s probably corrupting him just as she corrupted the speaker. His own purity is at risk when she’s around, so he has to assume that the Fair Youth is at risk as well.
Throughout this poem, the poet engages with themes of love and corruption. The speaker loves the Fair Youth and feels some kind of affection or at least lust for the Dark Lady, but things are falling apart. She’s destroyed his life and now may or may not be taking the Fair Youth into her corrupt circle. He doesn’t want this “good spirit” or “angel” to fall into hell, but there’s nothing he can do about it.
Readers might also consider the misogynistic undertones this piece presents. The speaker places the blame on the Dark Lady for corrupting him and others. But, as the other sonnets reveal, he was desperate to have sex with her. Her presence corrupts despite the fact that he’s just as guilty of lust as she is.
Structure and Form
‘Sonnet 144’ is a traditional Shakespearean sonnet that follows a rhyme scheme of ABABCDCDEFEFGG. Shakespeare also uses iambic pentameter in this piece. This means that the lines conform to a metrical pattern in which they vary between unstressed and stressed beats. There are five pairs per line. The fourth line is a particularly good example in ‘Sonnet 144.’ In the eighth line, readers can see an example of where the pattern changes. It ends with two stressed syllables.
Readers should also note the “turn” between lines twelve and thirteen. The final rhyming couplet stands out from the rest of the lines and offers the reader a conclusion to the poem. In this case, the conclusion is lacking. The speaker doesn’t know what’s going to happen to the Fair Youth.
Shakespeare makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Sonnet 144’. These include but are not limited to examples of:
- Alliteration: the repetition of words with the same consonant sound. For example, “spirits” and “suggest” as well as “purity” and “pride.”
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines two and three.
- Simile: a comparison between two things using “like” or “as.” In this case, the poet says that the two loves he’s contending with are “like two spirits.”
Two loves I have of comfort and despair,
Which like two spirits do suggest me still
The better angel is a man right fair,
The worser spirit a woman coloured ill.
In the first lines of ‘Sonnet 144,’ the speaker says that there are two loves in his life. From previous sonnets, it’s clear that he’s speaking about the Dark Lady who has been recently tormenting him and the Fair Youth. The latter is a young man (who historians have never identified) with whom the speaker had some kind of romantic relationship. They are like “two spirits” he adds, one of whom is an angel and the other is a “worser spirit a woman coloured ill.” The latter is a reference to the Dark Lady’s skin color. She has a dark complexion and she brings darkness into his life. The angelic side belongs to the Fair Youth who made the speaker far happier.
To win me soon to hell, my female evil
Tempteth my better angel from my side,
And would corrupt my saint to be a devil,
Wooing his purity with her foul pride.
The speaker goes on to say that the darker side of the two spirits tries to tempt him into sin. She is a “female evil” who wants to “corrupt my giant to be a devil.” He realizes that she’s bad for him but as the previous sonnets suggest, he can’t stop himself from lusting after her. His purity as a good Christian and human being is at risk when she’s around. Her “pride” is an issue.
And, whether that my angel be turn’d fiend,
Suspect I may, yet not directly tell,
But being both from me both to each friend,
I guess one angel in another’s hell.
Yet this shall I ne’er know, but live in doubt,
Till my bad angel fire my good one out.
In the third and final quatrain, the speaker wonders whether or not his “angel” or the Fair Youth has been corrupted by the Dark Lady. She wants to corrupt him, she knows that, but he doesn’t know whether or not it happened. Neither of the two is spending time with the speaker at this point. Instead, they are “being both from [him] both to each friend.” He has to assume that the Fair Youth has been ruined by the Dark Lady. She clearly has a power over men that no one is really capable of resisting. He uses the image of the Fair Youth being dragged down to hell at the end of the quatrain.
In the concluding couplet, the speaker completes the volta, saying that his speculation is leading to nothing. He is never going to know for sure until the Fair Youth is gone for good. It appears that as the sonnets go on, the Dark Lady is controlling more and more of the speaker’s life. She isn’t content with controlling him, she has to take the people he loves as well.
In this sonnet, Shakespeare engages primarily with the theme of corruption.
Like most of Shakespeare’s sonnets, it was written around 1599 and was published in the Passionate Pilgrim.
A sonnet is a fourteen-line poem. It can use different rhyme schemes and metrical patterns. Usually, there are ten syllables per line.
The volta occurs between the twelfth and thirteenth lines of the poem as it does in most Shakespearean sonnets.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Sonnet 144’ should also consider reading other William Shakespeare poems. For example:
- ‘Sonnet 92’ – discusses the fact that the speaker is going to live and die happily because of his relationship with the Fair Youth.
- ‘Sonnet 7’ – addresses the necessity of having children in order to preserve one’s beauty.
- ‘Sonnet 9’ – speaks on the Fair Youth’s lack of commitment and selfish hoarding of his beauty.