This poem is one of William Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets. It is one of several poems in the ‘Dark Lady’ sequence of sonnets. ‘Sonnet 154’ is the last in this sequence and reiterates much of what was said in ‘Sonnet 153.’ It is often analyzed and read in tandem with this sonnet.
Explore Sonnet 154
In the first lines of ‘Sonnet 154,’ the speaker begins by describing one of Diana’s (goddess of Chastity) maids taking Cupid’s fire and extinguishing it in a pool of water. After having done so, the water took on healing properties. This meant that anyone who stepped into it was cured of their maladies, no matter how strange or powerful. When the speaker tried to take advantage of this pool to cure his lovesickness, it didn’t work. He learned that nothing could cool down the passion he feels.
Structure and Form
‘Sonnet 154’ 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.
Throughout this poem, the poet engages with themes of love and illness. The speaker sees himself as a sick man, someone who’s in need of help. Or, at least he does some of the time. He’s been suffering from an obsessive love, one that’s taken over his life. By describing himself as an incurably sick man, he’s informing the reader that he’s beyond help. There’s nothing anyone can do to get him out of the situation he’s in.
Shakespeare makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Sonnet 154’. 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 five and six. Lines seven and eight are another example.
- Alliteration: the repetition of words with the same consonant sound. For example, “Love” and “lying” in line one and “Came” and “cure” in line thirteen.
- Caesura: occurs when the poet inserts a pause in the middle of a line. For example, line twelve reads: “For men diseased; but I, my mistress’ thrall.”
The little Love-god lying once asleep,
Laid by his side his heart-inflaming brand,
Whilst many nymphs that vowed chaste life to keep
Came tripping by; but in her maiden hand
In the first lines of ‘Sonnet 154,’ the last of Shakespeare’s sonnets, the speaker begins by once more describing Cupid. This sonnet starts similarly to the previous. The speaker tells a story about Cupid and Diana’s maids. This time, while he’s sleeping, the maids go walking by. The speaker describes how they’ve all “vowed chaste life to keep,” or to live without having sex. There is a good example of enjambment between lines four and five. Readers have to go to the next quatrain to find out what the speaker is talking about.
The fairest votary took up that fire
Which many legions of true hearts had warmed;
And so the General of hot desire
Was, sleeping, by a virgin hand disarmed.
In the fifth line, the speaker describes how the most beautiful or “fairest” of the maids took up Cupid’s fire. The speaker describes it as the fire that had warmed so many true hearts, emphasizing its power and importance. She took it with her as the maid from the previous sonnet did.
This brand she quenched in a cool well by,
Which from Love’s fire took heat perpetual,
Growing a bath and healthful remedy,
For men diseased; but I, my mistress’ thrall,
Came there for cure and this by that I prove,
Love’s fire heats water, water cools not love.
The third and final quatrain describes how the maid took the fire and quenched it in a “cool well.” Just like in the previous sonnet, the water she dipped it into turned into a pool with healing qualities. Anyone who stepped into it was changed by its powers.
In the final lines, the speaker brings himself into the story. He tried, as he did before, to cure himself of his love for the Dark Lady by stepping into the water. But, as readers might expect, this didn’t work. When he stepped into the water, he learned that the fire of love could warm water up, but cool water can’t turn down love’s heat. This is a complex way of saying that despite its healing properties, the water couldn’t cure him of his lovesickness. He’s apparently doomed to love the Dark Lady forever.
Shakespeare wrote ‘Sonnet 154,’ which is also sometimes known as ‘The little Love-god lying once asleep,’ in the late 1500s. It is the last in this famous sequence of poems and was published along with the rest of the sonnets in 1609.
The meaning is that despite one’s best efforts, it may be impossible to rid oneself of lovesickness. The speaker, for example, attempts to do so but is foiled. There’s no way out for him. No matter how cruelly she treats him, he’s still going to stick by her.
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 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. He knows after stepping into the water that there’s nothing that can cure him of his passion.
The volta occurs between lines twelve and thirteen. Here, the speaker transitions into speaking about himself. He shares his experience stepping into the water and what it did and didn’t do for him.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Sonnet 154’ should also consider reading other William Shakespeare poems. For example:
- ‘Sonnet 132’ – is one of several sonnets addressed to the Dark Lady. It explores her pity and disdain for the speaker through images of her eyes.
- ‘Sonnet 14’ – is addressed to the Fair Youth and encourages the young man to have children.
- ‘Sonnet 147’ – compares the speaker’s love for the Dark Lady to an illness he can’t and won’t get rid of.