THou blinde foole loue, what dooſt thou to mine eyes,
That they behold and ſee not what they ſee:
They know what beautie is, ſee where it lyes,
Yet what the beſt is, take the worſt to be.
If eyes corrupt by ouer-partiall lookes,
Be anchord in the baye where all men ride,
Why of eyes falſehood haſt thou forged hookes,
Whereto the iudgement of my heart is tide?
Why should my heart thinke that a ſeuerall plot,
Which my heart knowes the wide worlds common place?
Or mine eyes ſeeing this, ſay this is not
To put faire truth vpon ſo foule a face,
In things right true my heart and eyes haue erred,
And to this falſe plague are they now tranſferred.
The trope of love as blind is of classical origin, being found in Ovid as “Amor caecus” and extensively in Lucretius’ discourse on love in De Rerum Natura:
Evils are found in love that is right and true. But in thwarted and lesser love (“in amore inopi”) one beholds untold evils as if through eyes that are blind (“prendere . . oculorum lumine operto”). It is better . . to take care not to be led into vice, because it is easier not to fall into the snares of love (“plagas in amoris”) than it is to escape from those nets (“retibus ipsis”). 1
The figure of Cupid, with or without a blindfold, became a staple Renaissance icon: Alciato’s Emblem 114, “In statuam Amoris,” asks ironically of Love, ‘If he is blind and wears a blindfold, what use is a blindfold to someone blind? He can’t see less because of it.’ 2 Shakespeare usually alludes to “blind Cupid” as a figure of illicit love: Benedick exclaims, “hang me vp at the doore of a brothel-house for the signe of blinde Cupid” (Ado 1.1.219), and a discourse, in which Love converts worse things into better, occurs in A Midsummer Night’s Dream:
Things base and vilde, holding no quantity,
Loue can transpose to forme and dignity,
Loue lookes not with the eyes, but with the minde,
And therefore is wing’d Cupid painted blinde. (1.1.235-9)
Shakespeare in Sonnet 137 treats the conceit in an original way. Love is pictured by sonneteers as a fool or a foolish boy who launches his attacks through the mistress’ eyes. 3 What has love done to his eyes, the poet asks, such that “they behold and see not what they see,” an echo of Ps. 135.16, “they haue eyes but they see not” (BB), used of those who worship idols. Love’s blindness is contagious, because the poet’s eyes can discern what is true beauty (“what beautie is”) and where it is found (“see where it lyes”), yet distort or convert what is “best” into the “worst.”
The phrase, ‘to corrupt the eyes,’ or to mar them, was a Latinism (see Plautus, Mercator 3.1.1, “oculos corrumpis tales”). Looks that are “ouer-partiall” cannot read truly according to the aphorism, ‘No partial-eye makes bad things good.’ 4 ‘Partial-eyed’ was attached to Fortune, Justice, and love, always with the sense of being biased, and often with the sense of being blind, and was a popular epithet (see Richard Barnfield, Cynthia 98-99, “whose partial eies gan role, / And on our beuties look’t”). Here eyes are blinded by looks, which, since they are infatuated or too keen, dazzle and blind. Fixated on their object, they are “anchord in the baye where all men ride.” The metaphor was a familiar one (see Cym. 5.5.393, “See / Posthumus Anchors vpon Imogen; / And she . . throwes her eye / On him”), but is here turned to bawdy purposes with “baye” suggestive of the mistress’ private parts and “ride” the action of a male. If eyes be so transfixed, why should the mistress fashion or counterfeit (“forge”) from her oeillades (“eyes falsehood”) further “hookes,” that attach the judgement of the poet’s heart to falsehood? Again the image was a stock one (compare Cullman, “Men are taken with pleasure, as fishes [are taken] with a hook,” 5 or Marlowe, Hero and Leander 333-4, “Thus hauing swallow’d Cupids golden hooke, / The more she striv’d, the deeper was she strooke,” or Spenser, Amoretti 47.1-4:
Trust not the treason of those smyling lookes,
Vntill ye haue theyr guylefull traynes well tryde:
For they are lyke but vnto golden hookes,
That from the foolish fish theyr bayts doe hyde
Since an anchor has a fluke or hook, the metaphor is one of anchoring as well as fishing.
The piscatory topos is further developed in the contrast between “seuerall” and “common;” “seuerall” (from separare = to cut off) meant private and, in terms of land, enclosed private land; “common” was non-private land and available to all; ‘several fishing’ was a right to fish, because the land adjacent was privately owned. The poet asks, with the sexual to the fore, why should his heart think something a private possession like a plage (“seuerall plot”), when it knows the thing is possessed in common by all and sundry (“the wide worlds common place”). Or, he asks, why should his eyes, observing such a common place being so frequented, declare they are not glossing over things by imposing “faire truth” on “so foule a face.”
The couplet admits that both the poet’s eyes and heart have been at fault (“haue erred”), when it came to judging “things right true.” His self-deception has led him to transfer his attention to “this false plague.” This mistress is pictured as a ‘plage’ (or “plague”), either a ‘snare,’ (hence she is one who falsely entraps), or the ‘quarter’ or ‘direction’ towards which eyes are directed (hence she is a false sight). The customary reading of “plague” as disease, to which there is no earlier allusion in the sonnet, seems erroneous.
(The last line’s “false plague” points to the way Sonnet 137 generally plays with the Latin “plaga” and its Italian equivalent, ‘piaga’ or ‘piaggia.’ They could mean a ‘wound’ or ‘plague’ such as love inflicts [see Cooper, “Plaga, plagae . . A wounde;” Florio, “Piaga, a wound . . a plague”], or a snare by which love entraps [see Cooper, who cites Lucretius above, “Iaci in plagas amoris. Lucr. To be cast into snares of loue,” and Cicero, “Incidere in plagas, per translationem. Cic. To happen into the nets, to fal into a snare set of purpose to deceyue him”]. 6 In addition, according to Florio, a ‘plage’ or ‘piaggia’ was “a meadow, a plot of grounde,” and he also records, “Piaggiare, to reduce into meadowes” as common land might be separated and privatized. Finally a ‘plaga’ or ‘piaga’ or ‘plage’ was a strand or shallow bay [Cooper, “Plaga . . a coast;” Florio, “the stronde of the sea”]. “Bay,” “plot,” and “plague”/‘plage’ are all features of the sonnet.)
137.1. Ovid, Fasti 2.762; Lucretius, De Rerum Natura 4.912-19:
Atque in amore mala haec proprio summeque secundo
inveniuntur; in adverso vero atque inopi sunt,
prendere quae possis oculorum lumine operto.
innumerabilia; ut melius . .
. . cavereque, ne inliciaris.
nam vitare, plagas in amoris ne iaciamur,
non ita difficile est quam captum retibus ipsis
137.2. Alciato 114, 21-22:
Si caecus, vittamque gerit, quid taenia caeco
Utilis est? Ideo num minus ille videt?
137.3. Compare Griffin, Fidessa 43.13, Fletcher, Licia 2.7, even Shakespeare, Sonnet 57.3, “so true a foole is loue,” and Spenser, Amoretti 17.9, “The sweet eye-glaunces, that like arrowes glide.”
137.4. Compare Robert Pricket, Honors Fame in Triumph Riding. Or, the Life and Death of the Late Honorable Earle of Essex (London: R[alph] Blower, 1604) C4r, “No partialleye made bad things good.”
137.5. Culmann, Sententiae (1612) 35; Sententiae (1639) 30, “Voluptate capiuntur homines, ut homo pisces.”
137.6. Cooper, Thesaurus plaga.