Sonnet 114

Shakespeare Sonnet 114

OR whether doth my minde being crown’d with you
Drinke vp the monarks plague this flattery?
Or whether ſhall I ſay mine eie ſaith true,
And that your loue taught it this Alcumie?
To make of monſters, and things indigeſt,
Such cherubines as your ſweet ſelf reſemble,
Creating euery bad a perfect beſt
As faſt as obiects to his beames aſſemble:
Oh tis the firſt, tis flatry in my ſeeing,
And my great minde moſt kingly drinkes it vp,
Mine eie well knowes what with his guſt is greeing,
And to his pallat doth prepare the cup.
If it be poiſon’d, tis the leſſer ſinne,
That mine eye loues it and doth firſt beginne.

In Sonnet 114, as in Sonnet 113, the mind’s eye continues to take precedence over the  physical eye. Its first eight lines comprise a long, torturous question in which two alternatives are proposed. Does the mind’s eye of the poet, perfectly figured by the friend (“crowned by you”), receive a distorted representation just as the mind of a monarch might be distorted by flattery, which is the scourge of monarchs (“Drinke vp the monarks plague this flattery”)? The action of drinking up or swallowing largely such “flattery” is associated with Sonnet 112’s use of Ps. 58.4 with its headnote’s allusion to “flatterers” and its verse, “They haue poyson [within them].” The allusions add a further reading, ‘Is the mind’s eye of the poet poisoned by the friend’s crowning in the same way that flattery, the scourge of monarchs, poisons their minds?’ (Poison becomes explicit later in the sonnet.) Alternatively, ought the poet state that his eye expresses what is true (“mine eie saith true”) and that the friend’s love “taught it this Alcumie.” The alchemical is a favourite of Shakespeare and is the sonnet’s secondary conceit, developed at length in Sonnet 119. 1 Alchemy sought to transmute base metals into gold (compare Sonnet 33.4, “Guilding pale streames with heauenly alcumy”) and the sonnet works the conceit of refining “monsters” into pure spirits (“cherubines”) by means of the alembic. The eye as an alchemical alembic was frequent among sonneteers (compare Lodge, Phillis 37.11, “The Limbique is mine eye that doth distill the same”). The poet asks whether his eye functions as a distillatory, “To make of monsters, and things indigest, / Such cherubines as your sweet selfe resemble?” “monsters” are shapeless beings without form; “things indigest” recalls Sonnet 89’s use of Ovid’s definition of chaos, “Quem dixere chaos, rudis indigestaque moles,” which Shakespeare used in King John (“To set a forme on that indigest / Which he hath left so shapeless and so rude”), and which Sandys later rendered as “They Chaos nam’d: / An vndigested lump.” 2 Here “indigest” is conflated with the biblical account of creation from chaos where “In the beginning . . the earth was without forme,” which the Geneva Version glosses as, “As a rude lumpe and without any creature” (compare Sonnet 113.9, “rud’st . . sight”) and later as a “confused heape.”

The poet, playing with the etymology of ‘digest’ (di + gerere, to separate out), asks if his eye has been “taught” by the friend to distil angelic shapes from “things indigest” or things not yet distilled. Digestion was the technical process of applying heat in an alembic to refine through distillation as in Sonnet 119.1, “What potions . . Distil’d from Lymbecks.” (The alembic technically was the head or ‘crown’ of the apparatus – compare “crown’d” above.) George Baker explains that through distillation “is a substance drawne forth, rather better digested, and purer.” 3 “Such Cheribines as your sweet selfe resemble” expands Sonnet 113’s use of the Benedicite of a God that “sittest vpon the Cherubins,” while “sweet selfe” parallels its “sweet-fauor.” Does the eye through the alchemy of love, by making all things resemble the youth’s angelic form, create out of “euery bad” a “perfect best” as “fast as obiects to his beames assemble” or amass?

The sestet decides for the “minde:” “Oh tis the first.” It is the mind’s eye, distorted by the eye (“flatry in my seeing”) which is a “greate minde,” one that is “repleat” with the friend – as a woman is great with child – although the sense of “greate” meaning ‘raw’ or ‘undigested’ is also present. Like a king, whose potion would have been pre-tasted, the mind quaffs down the flattery (“most kingly drinkes it vp”). The “eye” now becomes the courtly Taster who has proved the draught, for the eye knows what the mind’s taste (“gust”) finds agreeable (“greeing” is an aphetized “agreeing”) and so prepares the cup to suit the mind’s palate (“pallat”). Whether the draught is poisoned or not remains open: “If it be poison’d” draws together earlier strands: the “strong infection” or poison of Sonnet 111.10, the “flatterer” as poison in Ps. 58 and Sonnet 112.12, and the contemporary connection between infection, poison and cup in Elizabethan dictionaries, most of which cite Vergil, “Inficere pocula veneno. Vir. To poyson cuppes.” 4 If the cup be poisoned, the eye’s sin is of less severity (“’tis the lesser sinne”), because the eye loves the potion and either tests it first (“first beginne”) or uses it as a toast the friend; ‘to begin’ meant ‘to propose a toast’ or ‘raise one’s glass’ as a Taster might on taking a first sip (Huloets Dictionarie translates the Latin “Propino” (‘to toast someone’s health’) as “Bring good lucke in drinking, to beginne to one”). 5 Because the eye configures the world as the friend prior to the mind’s receiving it from the eye, it becomes a toast or pledge to love itself (“mine eye loues it”).

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114.1. See JC 1.3.158-60, “that which would appeare Offence in vs, / His Countenance, like richest Alchymie, / Will change to Vertue.”

114.2. Ovid, Met. 1.7; KJ 5.7.26; George Sandys, Ovid’s Metamorphoses Englished by G.S. (London: William Stansby, 1626) 1.7.

114.3. Konrad Gesner, The newe Iewell of Health, wherein is contayned the most excellent Secretes of Phisicke and Philosophie . . Faithfully corrected and published in Englishe, by George Baker (London: Henry Denham, 1576) B2r

114.4. Cooper, Thesaurus inficio.

114.5. See Richard Huloet, Huloets Dictionarie, newelye corrected, amended, Set in Order and Enlarged (London: Thomas Marsh, 1572) bring.

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