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Sonnet 149 by William Shakespeare

‘Sonnet 149,’ also known as ‘Canst thou, O cruel! say I love thee not,’ is about the speaker’s love and lust for the Dark Lady. His interest in her has evolved into an obsession that controls his life.

This poem is one of William Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets. It is one of several poems in the ‘Dark Lady’ sequence of sonnets. ‘Sonnet 149’ reveals the extent of the speaker’s obsession with the Dark Lady. He clearly defines everything that he’s changed about himself and all that he’s willing to do to make her happy. It’s clear he’s entirely trapped in this one-sided relationship and that there is no easy way out.

Sonnet 149 by William Shakespeare


Summary

’Sonnet 149’ by William Shakespeare focuses on the speaker’s obsessive state of mind in regard to the Dark Lady.

He’s alienated his friends, lost his independence, and has become completely consumed by the Dark Lady’s will. He’s speaking directly to her, reminding her that there’s nothing he wouldn’t do for her. In fact, he’s already alienated all of his friends and changed his opinions to match with her own. He loves her so much that he even worships her defects.

Structure and Form

‘Sonnet 149’ by William Shakespeare is a Shakespearean sonnet. This means that it contains fourteen lines. These are divided into two quatrains, or sets of four lines, and one sestet, or set of six lines. They rhyme ABABCDCDEFEFGG. Shakespeare popularized this pattern, and it’s common to see later sonnets following the same rhyme scheme. The poem is also written in iambic pentameter.

In iambic pentameter, each line contains five sets of two beats, known as metrical feet. The first is unstressed and the second stressed. It sounds something like da-DUM, da-DUM. The eighth line is a particularly good example. The poem can also be divided into three sets of four lines and a final two-line couplet.

Themes

Throughout ‘Sonnet 149,’ the poet engages with themes of obsession and transformation. The speaker’s obsession with the Dark Lady has turned him into someone new. He’s changed his opinions, dropped all the friends he used to have, and ensured that there’s nothing he likes that the Dark Lady doesn’t. These are only a few of the things he’s done that he hoped would convince her to love him as he loves her. Unfortunately, his obsession has done nothing but transform him into someone she could never love. The end of the poem makes this clear as the speaker defines himself as blind. The Dark Lady, he says, could only love someone who can see.

Literary Devices

Shakespeare makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Sonnet 149’. These include but are not limited to examples of:

  • Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines three and four as well as seven and eight.
  • Alliteration: the repetition of words with the same consonant sound. For example, “Canst” and “cruel” in line one and “frown’st” and “fawn” in line six.
  • Caesura: occurs when the poet inserts a pause in the middle of a line. For example, line one reads: “Canst thou, O cruel! say I love thee not” and line thirteen reads: “But, love, hate on, for now I know thy mind.”


Detailed Analysis

Lines 1-4

Canst thou, O cruel! say I love thee not,

When I against myself with thee partake?

Do I not think on thee, when I forgot

Am of myself, all tyrant, for thy sake?

In the first lines of ‘Sonnet 149,’ the speaker begins by addressing the Dark Lady. He refers to her as “cruel.” This is not an unfamiliar sentiment. Since almost the first of the Dark Lady sonnets, the speaker has been aware that his object of affection is unkind. He asks her how it’s possible for him not to be on her side when he’s continually siding against himself. This is a complex way of reminding the reader of all the times he’s sacrificed his well-being in order to stay close to her. He’s lost much of his independence and confidence to her.

He asks another question, intent on forcing her to pay attention to all the things he’s done for her. He calls her a tyrant, but continues to remind her of the times he’s forgotten himself and spent his energy on her.

Lines 5-8

Who hateth thee that I do call my friend?

On whom frown’st thou that I do fawn upon?

Nay, if thou lour’st on me, do I not spend

Revenge upon myself with present moan?

Three more questions follow in the second quatrain. Here, he suggests that he’s lost all of his friends due to his infatuation with the Dark Lady. There’s no one, he says, who she dislikes and that he likes. This is his way of saying that he’s changed his opinions on everyone and everything to align with her own. He’s alienated himself from everyone he used to care about in order to care entirely for his love. The quatrain ends with the speaker saying that he berates himself when she looks at him with anger in her eyes.

Lines 9-14

What merit do I in myself respect,

That is so proud thy service to despise,

When all my best doth worship thy defect,

Commanded by the motion of thine eyes?

    But, love, hate on, for now I know thy mind;

    Those that can see thou lovest, and I am blind.

In the third and final quatrain, the speaker makes it clear that he has no self-esteem left. He’s under her sway entirely. He’s commanded by the “motion of thine eyes” and willing to do whatever he can to make her happy. It is, unfortunately, for these reasons that the Dark Lady doesn’t care much for him. He’s “blind,” and losing his mind to his obsession, and she only loves those who can see. The speaker is aware that he’s obsessed himself into a corner. His immense love/lust for her is working against him.

FAQs

Who is the speaker in ‘Sonnet 149’ by William Shakespeare?

William Shakespeare is generally considered to be the speaker in all 154 of his sonnets. This is due to the fact that he’s often writing from the perspective of a writer. He also alludes to things that some scholars have connected to his personal life and career.

What is the tone in ‘Sonnet 149’?

The tone is desperate. The speaker is desperate to make the Dark Lady love him. He’s done everything and anything he could think of but none of it is working. He’s gotten to the point where he’s willing to berate himself when she looks at him cruelly.

What is the meaning of ‘Sonnet 149’ ?

The meaning is that despite one’s best efforts and willingness to change, it doesn’t mean that they’re going to gain another’s love. No matter what the speaker does, he still can’t get the Dark Lady to love him as he loves her.

What does the volta in ‘Sonnet 149’ mean?

The volta occurs between lines twelve and thirteen. Here, the speaker transitions from asking questions to conclude that he’s “blind” and the Dark Lady would never love someone like him. He’s well aware that nothing he’s doing is working.

What is the mood of ‘Sonnet 149’ by William Shakespeare?

Readers would feel sorrow for the speaker, perhaps in addition to pity for how much he’s done to try to get the Dark Lady to love him. His obsession has far exceeded the point of a healthy attachment. He’s stuck in this one-sided relationship he isn’t easily going to escape from.


Similar Poetry

Readers who enjoyed ‘Sonnet 149’ should also consider reading other William Shakespeare poems. For example:

  • Sonnet 135’ – is an unusual sonnet within Shakespeare’s oeuvre. It expresses the speaker’s desire to sleep with the Dark Lady and counted among her many lovers.
  • Sonnet 76’ – is an upbeat and clever sonnet that discusses the speaker’s love for the youth and his own writing.
  • Sonnet 145’ – details a woman’s changing regard for the speaker. It’s a simple poem with good examples of figurative language.

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About
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analysing poetry on Poem Analysis.
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