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Sonnet 151 by William Shakespeare

‘Sonnet 151,’ also known as ‘Love is too young to know what conscience is,’ is a lustful poem. It explores the speaker’s uncontrollable longing for the Dark Lady. 

Sonnet 151 by William Shakespeare Visual Representation

Sonnet 151 is one of William Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets. It is one of several poems in the ‘Dark Lady’ sequence of sonnets which range from Sonnet 127to ‘Sonnet 154.’ ‘Sonnet 151’ is an example of a more lustful poem that Shakespeare penned about the Dark Lady. Rather than focusing on his love for her, he turns to talk about how much his speaker wants to sleep with her. Readers who have experienced other sonnets in this series may remember other variations of the speaker’s affections. He spent other sonnets talking about his love for her, her cruelty, and her control. One related sonnet, Sonnet 146,’ even included the speaker’s plea that his soul takes back control from his more lustful thoughts.

Love is too young to know what conscience is,
Yet who knows not conscience is born of love?
Then, gentle cheater, urge not my amiss,
Lest guilty of my faults thy sweet self prove:
For, thou betraying me, I do betray
My nobler part to my gross body’s treason;
My soul doth tell my body that he may
Triumph in love; flesh stays no farther reason,
But rising at thy name doth point out thee,
As his triumphant prize. Proud of this pride,
He is contented thy poor drudge to be,
To stand in thy affairs, fall by thy side.
   No want of conscience hold it that I call
   Her love, for whose dear love I rise and fall.

Sonnet 151 by William Shakespeare

Sonnet 151 by William Shakespeare


Summary

’Sonnet 151’ by William Shakespeare explores the speaker’s sexual desire for the Dark Lady.

In the first lines of ‘Sonnet 151,’ the speaker begins by telling the Dark Lady that he has a weakness inside him, one that is incited through her infidelity. The more unfaithful she is to him, the more aroused he becomes. He can’t control his lust. The speaker says that his body is prepared to service the Dark Lady, like a drudge, whenever she wants him to.

Structure and Form

‘Sonnet 151’ 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 is stressed. It sounds something like da-DUM, da-DUM. The third line is a particularly good example. The poem can also be divided into three sets of four lines and a final two-line couplet.

Literary Devices

Shakespeare makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Sonnet 151’. 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 five and six as well as lines seven and eight.
  • Alliteration: the repetition of words with the same consonant sound. For example, “sweet self” in line four and “flesh” and “farther” in line eight.
  • Caesura: occurs when the poet inserts a pause in the middle of a line. For example, line ten reads: “As his triumphant prize. Proud of this pride.”


Detailed Analysis

Lines 1-4

Love is too young to know what conscience is,

Yet who knows not conscience is born of love?

Then, gentle cheater, urge not my amiss,

Lest guilty of my faults thy sweet self prove:

In the first lines of ‘Sonnet 151,’ the speaker suggests that “Love” is too young or innocent to know what “conscience is.” His lust for the Dark Lady, which he’s describing as love in these lines (as he has done in previous sonnets), is built on something sinful, his desire to have sex with her. He tells her to “urge not my amiss,” or she’s going to be guilty of the same thing he is. This line ends with a colon, requiring the reader to move down to the fifth line to find out what exactly the Dark Lady would be guilty of.

Lines 5-8

For, thou betraying me, I do betray

My nobler part to my gross body’s treason;

My soul doth tell my body that he may

Triumph in love; flesh stays no farther reason,

The speaker describes that her infidelity makes him do something else unfaithful, betray his better nature by becoming aroused at the thought of her. He once wished, back in Sonnet 146,’ that his soul would take control from his body, and he’d stop focusing so wholeheartedly on sex and external desires. Here, it becomes clear that his lust has won out over his spiritual health.

He refers to his soul in the next lines as well as to his genitalia. His flesh, or penis, doesn’t wait for any reason. Here, once more, the reader needs to move down to the next line to find out what happens next.

Lines 9-14

But rising at thy name doth point out thee,

As his triumphant prize. Proud of this pride,

He is contented thy poor drudge to be,

To stand in thy affairs, fall by thy side.

No want of conscience hold it that I call

Her love, for whose dear love I rise and fall.

While still speaking about his body, the speaker says that his penis grows erect, “rising at thy name” and pointing to “thee” as the “triumphant prize.” This euphemism continues into the next lines, showing how desperate “in lust” the speaker truly is. The speaker is happy to be at the Dark Lady’s service, to work as a “drudge.” His body will “stand in thy affairs” and do whatever the Dark Lady needs so that he might satisfy himself.

He concludes the poem by saying that he doesn’t feel guilty about calling his emotions “love” or for calling the Dark Lady “love” when he’s so willing to “rise and fall” for her. By this point, it appears that the speaker doesn’t care one way or the other whether he actually loves her or just wants to sleep with her and control her body.

FAQs

Who is the speaker in ‘Sonnet 151’ by William Shakespeare?

Some believe that the speaker in all 154 sonnets is William Shakespeare himself, although there is no definitive proof that this is the case. His focus on writing and composing the early Fair Youth sonnets makes it feel likely, though.

What is the tone in ‘Sonnet 151’?

The tone is accepting and lustful. The speaker admits that he truly wants nothing more than to sleep with the Dark Lady. His soul never had a chance to regain control over his body. Sex is what’s on his mind all the time, and he’s willing to do anything to achieve it.

What is the meaning of ‘Sonnet 151’?

The meaning is that lust is sometimes stronger than love, even when one knows that it’s controlling them negatively. The speaker seems to have given himself over to that lust and is willing to do whatever it takes to satisfy himself.

Where is the volta in ‘Sonnet 151’?

The volta, or turn, appears between the twelfth and thirteenth lines. Or between the final quatrain and the couplet. This is traditionally where Shakespeare changed ideas, speakers, etc., in his poetry.

When was ‘Sonnet 151’ written? 

Sonnet 151’ was written in the late 1500s like most of Shakespeare’s sonnets and published in Shakespeare’s Sonnets in 1609. It is one in a longer series of poems about the Dark Lady.

 

Similar Poetry

Readers who enjoyed ‘Sonnet 151’ should also consider reading some other William Shakespeare poems. For example:

  • Sonnet 56’ – addresses a period of separation and a possible decline in affection between the speaker and the Fair Youth.
  • Sonnet 43’ – speaks about sleeping, darkness, light, and the Fair Youth’s power to brighten the speaker’s dreams.
  • 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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Sonnet 151 by William Shakespeare Visual Representation
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 analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
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