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Shakespeare Sonnet 114

Updated on August 4, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Eward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

Source

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 114

Sonnet 114 continues its thought from sonnet 113. Addressing his muse, the speaker asks two questions in the first and second quatrains.

The speaker is once again weighing options to determine the better path. He is engaged in a struggle to determine the genuine from the fake. He knows that the mind is easily trick by the eye and the ear, of which is also easily tricked. This conundrum appears to be only a beginning of much larger inquiry into truth.

Or whether doth my mind, being crown’d with you

Or whether doth my mind, being crown’d with you
Drink up the monarch’s plague, this flattery?
Or whether shall I say, mine eye saith true,
And that your love taught it this alchymy,
To make of monsters and things indigest
Such cherubins as your sweet self resemble,
Creating every bad a perfect best,
As fast as objects to his beams assemble?
O! ’tis the first, ’tis flattery in my seeing,
And my great mind most kingly drinks it up:
Mine eye well knows what with his gust is ’greeing,
And to his palate doth prepare the cup:
If it be poison’d, ’tis the lesser sin
That mine eye loves it and doth first begin.

Reading of Sonnet 114

Commentary

Continuing his thought from sonnet 113, the speaker in sonnet 114 again is dramatizing an aspect of the struggle between the mind and the senses to determine the genuine.

First Quatrain: Susceptible to Flattery

Or whether doth my mind, being crown’d with you
Drink up the monarch’s plague, this flattery?
Or whether shall I say, mine eye saith true,
And that your love taught it this alchymy,

The speaker’s first question poses the possibility that because he is blessed with an able muse, he might be susceptible to flattery, which he calls "the monarch’s plague." A king, and thus any person holding a lofty societal position, always has people looking for favors, and those seekers are prone to say kind things about the king simply to win those favors.

The artist who gains some critical attention during his/her own lifetime has to guard against useless criticism. While some critics will be unfairly harsh, others who aspire to their own notoriety may offer false compliments to the artist. The artist must be aware of both useless poseurs as he practices his art for genuine purposes.

The speaker begins his second question, which is completed in the second quatrain.

Second Quatrain: What to Believe

To make of monsters and things indigest
Such cherubins as your sweet self resemble,
Creating every bad a perfect best,
As fast as objects to his beams assemble?

The speaker’s second question asks whether he should believe whatever he sees and hears. The muse has taught his mind "this alchymy" that turns "monsters" into angels, and the muse, of course, resembles the angels. He wonders if, because his own talent is able to turn all bad into "a perfect best," that makes it so.

The speaker has been calculating these thoughts, weighing the possibilities, and by verbalizing them and dramatizing them in his sonnets, he thinks he may be able to make decisions.

Third Quatrain: The Struggle Between Mind and Eye

O! ’tis the first, ’tis flattery in my seeing,
And my great mind most kingly drinks it up:
Mine eye well knows what with his gust is ’greeing,
And to his palate doth prepare the cup:

The speaker then decides that the answer to his question lies in the first possibility: "’tis flattery in my seeing." That he may want to choose to believe nice things said about him even when he knows they are not true simply demonstrates his proclivity to succumbing to sheer flattery.

That struggle between the mind and eye is a continuing one: his mind has to discern what to believe. When the eye (or ear) wants to accept something as true, the mind must determine the value of what the eye sees and ear hears. The speaker realizes how tricky the eye/ear can be and how willing the mind often is to allow itself to be fooled.

The Couplet: Contending with Feeling

If it be poison’d, ’tis the lesser sin
That mine eye loves it and doth first begin.

If the eye/ear at first accepts something that may "be poison’d," that is "the lesser sin" from what the mind will do when it accepts the poison as potion. Information first comes to the mind through the senses; thus, the pleasantry striking the senses initiates the thought and feeling with which the mind must contend.

A Brief Overview of the 154-Sonnet Sequence

Scholars and critics of Elizabethan literature have determined that the sequence of 154 Shakespeare sonnets may be classified into three thematic categories: (1) Marriage Sonnets 1-17; (2) Muse Sonnets 18-126, traditionally identified as the "Fair Youth"; and (3) Dark Lady Sonnets 127-154.

Marriage Sonnets 1-17

The speaker in the Shakespeare “Marriage Sonnets” pursues a single goal: to persuade a young man to marry and produce beautiful offspring. It is likely that the young man is Henry Wriothesley, the third earl of Southampton, who is being urged to marry Elizabeth de Vere, the oldest daughter of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.

Many scholars and critics now argue persuasively that Edward de Vere is the writer of the works attributed to the nom de plume, "William Shakespeare." For example, Walt Whitman, one of America's greatest poets has opined:

Conceiv'd out of the fullest heat and pulse of European feudalism — personifying in unparalleled ways the medieval aristocracy, its towering spirit of ruthless and gigantic caste, with its own peculiar air and arrogance (no mere imitation) — only one of the "wolfish earls" so plenteous in the plays themselves, or some born descendant and knower, might seem to be the true author of those amazing works — works in some respects greater than anything else in recorded literature.

For more information regarding Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, as the real writer of the Shakespearean canon, please visit The De Vere Society, an organization that is "dedicated to the proposition that the works of Shakespeare were written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford."

Muse Sonnets 18-126 (Traditionally classified as "Fair Youth")

The speaker in this section of sonnets is exploring his talent, his dedication to his art, and his own soul power. In some sonnets, the speaker addresses his muse, in others he addresses himself, and in others he even addresses the poem itself.

Even though many scholars and critics have traditionally categorized this group of sonnets as the "Fair Youth Sonnets," there is no "fair youth," that is "young man," in these sonnets. There is no person at all in this sequence, with exception of the two problematic sonnets, 108 and 126.

Dark Lady Sonnets 127-154

The final sequence targets an adulterous romance with a woman of questionable character; the term “dark” likely modifies the woman’s character flaws, not her skin tone.

Three Problematic Sonnets: 108, 126, 99

Sonnet 108 and 126 present a problem in categorization. While most of the sonnets in the "Muse Sonnets" do focus on the poet's musings about his writing talent and do not focus on a human being, sonnets 108 and 126 are speaking to a young man, respectively calling him "sweet boy" and "lovely boy." Sonnet 126 presents an additional problem: it is not technically a "sonnet," because it features six couplets, instead of the traditional three quatrains and a couplet.

The themes of sonnets 108 and 126 would better categorize with the "Marriage Sonnets" because they do address a "young man." It is likely that sonnets 108 and 126 are at least partially responsible for the erroneous labeling of the "Muse Sonnets" as the "Fair Youth Sonnets" along with the claim that those sonnets address a young man.

While most scholars and critics tend to categorize the sonnets into the three-themed schema, others combine the "Marriage Sonnets" and the "Fair Youth Sonnets" into one group of "Young Man Sonnets." This categorization strategy would be accurate if the "Muse Sonnets" actually addressed a young man, as only the "Marriage Sonnets" do.

Sonnet 99 might be considered somewhat problematic: it features 15 lines instead of the traditional 14 sonnet lines. It accomplishes this task by converting the opening quatrain into a cinquain, with an altered rime scheme from ABAB to ABABA. The rest of the sonnet follows the regular rime, rhythm, and function of the traditional sonnet.

The Two Final Sonnets

Sonnets 153 and 154 are also somewhat problematic. They are classified with the Dark Lady Sonnets, but they function quite differently from the bulk of those poems.

Sonnet 154 is a paraphrase of Sonnet 153; thus, they carry the same message. The two final sonnets dramatize the same theme, a complaint of unrequited love, while outfitting the complaint with the dress of mythological allusion. The speaker employs the services of the Roman god Cupid and the goddess Diana. The speaker thus achieves a distance from his feelings, which he, no doubt, hopes will finally liberate him from the clutches of his lust/love and bring him equanimity of mind and heart.

In the bulk of the "dark lady" sonnets, the speaker has a been addressing the woman directly, or making it clear that what he is saying is intended for her ears. In the final two sonnets, the speaker is not directly addressing the mistress. He does mention her, but he is speaking now about her instead of directly to her. He is now making it quite clear that he is withdrawing from the drama with her.

Readers may sense that he has grown battle-weary from his struggle for the woman’s respect and affection, and now he has finally decided to make a philosophical drama that heralds the end of that disastrous relationship, announcing essentially, "I’m through."

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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