‘Sonnet 153‘ is one of William Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets. It is one of several poems in the ‘Dark Lady’ sequence of sonnets. ‘Sonnet 153’ starts with an unusual story about cupid and then transition back into the speaker’s traditional reverence for and obsession with the Dark Lady. It is the second to last sonnet in Shakespeare’s series.
Explore Sonnet 153
’Sonnet 153’ by William Shakespeare is an interesting sonnet. It’s concerned with the speaker’s inability to cure his lovesickness.
In the first lines of ‘Sonnet 153,’ the speaker begins by telling a story about Cupid and one of Diana’s maids. The latter tries to extinguish Cupid’s love-bringing fire in a pool. The speaker, metaphorically, enters the pool in an attempt to cure his own lovesickness. But it doesn’t work. The only thing that makes him feel better is looking into his lover’s eyes.
Structure and Form
‘Sonnet 153’ 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 twelfth line is a particularly good example. The poem can also be divided into three sets of four lines and a final two-line couplet.
‘Sonnet 153’ is concerned with several themes. These include love and illness. These are familiar themes to those who have spent any time reading Shakespeare’s Dark Lady sonnets. The speaker is obsessed with his mistress, so much so that he compares his love for her to an illness. It’s consumed him in an unhealthy way. He’s driven his friends away and dedicated his every action and emotion to her.
Shakespeare makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Sonnet 153’. 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 lines six, seven, and eight.
- Alliteration: the repetition of words with the same consonant sound. For example, “strange” and “sovereign” in line eight and “trials” and “touch” in line ten.
- Caesura: occurs when the poet inserts a pause in the middle of a line. For example, line fourteen reads: “Where Cupid got new fire; my mistress’ eyes.”
Cupid laid by his brand and fell asleep:
A maid of Dian’s this advantage found,
And his love-kindling fire did quickly steep
In a cold valley-fountain of that ground;
In the first lines of ‘Sonnet 153,’ the second to last of Shakespeare’s sonnets, the speaker begins by referring to Cupid, the Roman god of love. He describes Cupid laying down his torch and falling asleep. While sleeping, a maid of Diana took advantage of his weakness and stole his “love-kindling fire.” She took it to a “cold valley-fountain” and extinguished it.
Readers who are familiar with the previous sonnet story concerning the Dark Lady, and even the previous story concerning the Fair Youth, may find themselves confused about what’s occurring in these final two sonnets. They are often read by scholars as appendices to the previous sonnets. They don’t touch on the major themes of obsession, youth, beauty, and morality that the previous sonnets do.
Which borrowed from this holy fire of Love,
A dateless lively heat, still to endure,
And grew a seething bath, which yet men prove
Against strange maladies a sovereign cure.
In the second quatrain, the speaker describes how the spring into which Diana’s maid put cupid’s fire turned into a “seething bath.” There, one can find a universal cure for illness. Any “strange maladies” are remedied by a “sovereign cure.” This strange digression from the story of the speaker’s Dark Lady/mistress is an interesting one. But, it becomes clear why the speaker created it in the following quatrain.
But at my mistress’ eye Love’s brand new-fired,
The boy for trial needs would touch my breast;
I, sick withal, the help of bath desired,
And thither hied, a sad distempered guest,
But found no cure, the bath for my help lies
Where Cupid got new fire; my mistress’ eyes.
He refers to his mistress’s “eye” in the next line. This is a familiar image from the previous sonnets. The speaker is dramatizing his own emotions, specifically his passion for the Dark Lady. When he sees his mistress, or even just her eye, he becomes aroused once more. The speaker plays this out through a metaphor concerned with Cupid’s torch and how it flares up with one look from her.
The speaker is lovesick, as the previous sonnets have made more than clear. So, he determines that he needs a bath in the malady curing water. But, unfortunately, it didn’t do the job he wanted. He was a “sad distempered guest” at those waters but found “no cure.”
The only thing that makes the speaker feel better, and his love sickness ease, is a look from his mistress’ eye.
The tone is informative and passionate. The speaker is clearly laying out his situation and expresses his passion for the Dark Lady in the final lines. His life is filled with nothing other than his continual desire to be with her.
The meaning is that despite one’s best efforts, it may be impossible to rid oneself of love sickness. The speaker, for example, attempts to do so but is foiled. The only way he feels better is to look in his mistress’ eyes.
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.
The volta occurs between lines twelve and thirteen. Here, the speaker gives up all pretense of trying to cure himself. He realizes it’s impossible and that the only time he ever feels better is when he’s with his mistress.
The mood is curious and appreciative in this sonnet. The reader may find themselves interested in the speaker’s predicament and the story he’s telling. But, at the same time, they may be concerned about his obsessive state of mind.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Sonnet 153’ should also consider reading other William Shakespeare poems. For example:
- ‘Sonnet 14’ – is addressed to the Fair Youth and encourages the young man to have children.
- ‘Sonnet 70’ – is an interesting poem that discusses the ways that slanderous people treat the Fair Youth’s beauty.
- ‘Sonnet 147’ – compares the speaker’s love for the Dark Lady to an illness he can’t and won’t get rid of.