Sonnet 139

Shakespeare Sonnet 139

O Call not me to iuſtifie the wrong,
That thy vnkindneſſe layes vpon my heart,
Wound me not with thine eye but with thy toung,
Vſe power with power, and ſlay me not by Art,
Tell me thou lou’ſt elſe-where; but in my ſight,
Deare heart forbeare to glance thine eye aſide,
What needſt thou wound with cunning when thy might
Is more then my ore-preſt defence can bide?
Let me excuſe thee, ah my loue well knowes,
Her prettie lookes haue beene mine enemies,
And therefore from my face ſhe turnes my foes,
That they elſe-where might dart their iniuries:
Yet do not ſo, but ſince I am neere ſlaine,
Kill me out-right with lookes, and rid my paine.

Sonnet 139 returns to a series of sonnets marked by standard Petrarchan conceits and vocabulary: the poet instructs the mistress not to require him to validate or excuse the wrong, with which her unkindness oppresses him (“layes vpon my heart”). The image of laying a heavy weight upon the heart is the iuridical one of ‘peine forte et dure,’ when increasing weights were applied to the chest until the person either pleaded or died, while ‘lay vpon,’ meaning ‘lay siege to,’ was a common Petrarchan motif, although here the direction is from mistress to poet. The sonnet now distinguishes between the hurt inflicted by the mistress’ eyes, which is forbidden, and the injury caused by her tongue, which she is allowed: she must use her tongue’s might mightily (“power with power”) and not kill (“slay”) him with the “Art” of her eyes. She may inform him with her tongue that her love lies elsewhere, but in his presence (“in my sight”) she (“deare heart”) must refrain from casting from the corner of her eyes oeillades upon others (“forbeare to glance thine eye aside”). Why, he asks, does she wound him with her eyes’ skill (“cunning”), when her verbal power (“might”) is more than his too much laid-upon (“ore-prest”) defence can bear.

The eyes of petrarchist mistresses, exercising “power” and “Art,” customarily “Wound” and “slay” poets: Spenser’s beloved in Amoretti 21.14 is expert in the “art of eyes,” while the eyes’ power to kill is everywhere, compare Amoretti 49.2, “your eyes haue powre to kill?” 1 Amoretti 57.8 has the mistress’ eyes “slaying” the poet with Petrarch’s “mille strali,” the “thousand arrowes which your eies haue shot.” In Amoretti 12.14 the poet lays a legal complaint “against your eies that iustice I may gaine.”

The sestet’s pronouns move from the second person (“thee”) to the third (“she” / “her”): “Let me excuse thee” is the poet’s instruction to himself, while the remainder of the quatrain is direct speech comprising his exculpation. She is well aware that her “prettie lookes,” her eye-glances rather than her beautiful appearance, have been the poet’s enemy. For his sake she turns her eyes (“foes”) from his face, so that they might direct their woundings elsewhere (“iniuries,” which retains its legal sense of an injured party, from in + jus = against the law). The couplet reverses direction again: since the poet is on the verge of death (“neere slaine”), the mistress must not look elsewhere, but must kill him with her eyes (“Kill me out-right with lookes”), because then his pain in death will no longer be felt; “out-right” means ‘with one action,’ but also keeps its original sense of ‘directly,’ or not “aside.” The poet thus obtains the sonneteers’ customary resignation, “who dying doe themselues of paine beguyle” (Spenser, Amoretti 47.12).


139.1. The power of the eyes to kill was often compared with the cockatrice’s power: compare Spenser, Amoretti 49.10, where the poet asks that, glancing at others, she might “kill with looks as Cockatrices doo.”