Sonnet 153

Shakespeare Sonnet 153

CVpid laid by his brand and fell a ſleepe,
A maide of Dyans this aduantage found,
And his loue-kindling fire did quickly ſteepe
In a could vallie-fountaine of that ground:
Which borrowd from this holie fire of loue,
A dateleſſe liuely heat ſtill to indure,
And grew a ſeething bath which yet men proue,
Againſt ſtrang malladies a ſoueraigne cure:
But at my miſtres eie loues brand new fired,
The boy for triall needes would touch my breſt,
I ſick withall the helpe of bath deſired,
And thether hied a ſad diſtemperd gueſt.
But found no cure, the bath for my helpe lies,
Where Cupid got new fire; my miſtres eye.                          eyes

By including two sonnets of an anacreontic nature at the end of the sequence Shakespeare has followed a precedent set by Spenser’s Amoretti and Epithalamion, where the sequence of 89 sonnets is separated from the long epithalamium by fescennine verses imitating Anacreon. Shakespeare’s sonnet sequence is separated from the long poem, A Louers complaint, by similar fescennine verses. In Spenser’s case there was reason for incorporating the verses where he has. Because Epithalamion celebrated his own wedding, he was forced to annul the customary epithalamial distinction between its poet/presenter and its bridegroom. As bridegroom his voice must remain considerate and proper, since the bawdy asides and versified ribaldry of the presenter were not allowed him. So he removed the traditional fescennine elements from the epithalamium and placed them as irreverent verses separate from Epithalamion and dividing it from Amoretti. His decision was further justified, because all extant manuscript copies of the model for his epithalamium, Claudian’s Epithalamium De Nuptiis Honorii Augusti, are preceded by Fescinnina, an order that subsequently all renaissance editions of Claudian adopted. 1

A like explanation is not valid for Shakespeare’s volume, even though its structure follows Spenser’s precedent of placing verses of anacreontic nature between sonnet sequence and lengthier poem. (The authorship of such verses in both their cases was challenged by earlier commentators because of their questionable nature and apparently caused Sidney on his deathbed to disown his Anacreontics.) 2 James Hutton, after much scholarly enquiry, concluded that Spenser’s Anacreontic verses, like many neo-Latin, French and Italian versions, are a syncretic compilation of various sources and manifest features whose proximate origins are finally indeterminable, while in the case of Shakespeare he finds that “Shakespeare’s immediate source still eludes us.” 3

Both Sonnet 153 and 154 treat of a well in which a brand could be quenched and which could rekindle an extinguished brand. Its locus classicus was “Jupiter’s Well,” found at his shrine at Dordona in Epirus. It is recorded in Pliny (‘in Dordona [is found] Jupiter’s Well: when it is cold, it extinguishes brands immersed in it; if quenched brands are put to it, it ignites them’), is acknowledged by Petrarch (‘There is another well at Epirus, of which it is written that, being cold, it ignites every extinguished small brand, and puts out those found alight’) and frequently by his successors. 4 It is found among Shakespeare’s contemporaries: Lyly, for example, characterizes “the passions of loue” as, “Not vnlike vnto Iupiters wel, which extinguisheth a fire brand, and kindleth a wet sticke.” 5 The Anacreontea would have been available to Shakespeare, as they were to Sidney and Spenser, in Henri Estienne’s 1554 Greek edition with Latin verse translations. 6 The theme was popular in the late 16th century and can be found among others in Lynche, Diella 18.

Sonnet 153 opens with Cupid either laying himself down beside his “brand” or laying it aside; his “brand” is the ‘torch,’ with which he is associated and which he used to inflame passion in the heart; both anacreontically and elsewhere it carried phallic suggestions, as in Martial’s Epigram, which, speaking of marriage taeds, dismissively concludes “intrare in istum sola fax potest cunnum” (‘only a brand can enter that cunny’). 7 Cupid then falls asleep, while a “maide of Dyans,” one of Diana’s chaste nymphs or virgins, took advantage of his being asleep (“aduantage found”) and immediately (“quickly” but hinting at “liuely”) soaked or doused (“did . . steepe”) his “loue-kindling fire,” either a fire which sets aflame with love or which generates love (“his,” meaning ‘its,’ refers back to “brand”). The “vallie-fountaine,” in which the “brand” is extinguished, anacreontically suggested the female genitalia. The fountain in turn took (“borrowd”) from the brand, which is now “this holie fire of loue” (“holie,” because it belonged to the god, Cupid) a life-generating heat (“liuely heat”) to endure for evermore (“datelesse”). The fountain grew into a “seething bath,” a boiling, bubbling spring impregnated with minerals and used for curing. Men still (“yet”) come to test or experience (“proue”) it as a potent (“soueraigne”) cure against the disease of love (compare Spenser, Anacreontics 68, “salue of soueraigne might”). The “strang” of “strang malladies” is a variant of ‘strange’ rather than an errant ‘strong’ and suggests, as Booth points out, both the idea of the exotic as well as the biblical expression, a ‘strange woman’ or harlot (it also contains the standard visual play on evil women, “mal + ladies”).

The “brand” of love, having newly taken fire from the “eie” of the mistress (the construction is a Latin ablative absolute), Cupid, the “boy,” desired to use it to “touch” the poet’s breast, either to set it alight or to “touch” it as with a touchstone to ‘test’ or ‘try’ it (“for triall”). The poet now completely sickened by love (“I sick withall”) sought the cure of the “spring” and hastened (“hied”) there, a “sad distempered guest;” “distempered” means ‘with the humours out of order,’ hence ‘fevered’ or ‘diseased,’ but “distempered” meaning ‘steeped’ recalls the earlier “did . . steepe” (compare Ven. 653, “Distempring gentle loue”). But the poet finds no remedy (“no cure”) there: the only fountain (“bath”), in which he finds relief (“help”), is that from which Cupid took the rekindled fire: the “eye[s]” of the mistress.


153.1. See Kenneth J. Larsen, Edmund Spenser’s Amoretti and Epithalamion. An Annotated Edition (Tempe, Arizona: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1997) 225.

153.2. Katherine Duncan-Jones, “Sidney’s Anacreontics,” RES 36 (1985): 226.

153.3. James Hutton, “Cupid and the Bee,” in Essays on Renaissance Poetry, ed. Rita Guerlac (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1980) 106-3; and, “Analogues of Shakespeare’s Sonnets 153-54. Contributions to the History of a Theme,” MP 38.4 (1941): 385-403.

153.4. Pliny, Hist. 2.228, “in Dodone Iovis fons, cum sit gelidus et inmersas faces extinguat, si extinctae admoveantur, accendit.” Petrarch 135.61-5: “Un’altra fonte à Epiro, / di cui si scrive ch’essendo fredda ella, / ogni spenta facella accende, / et spegne qual trovasse accesa.”

153.5. John Lyly, Euphues and his England. Containing His Voiage and Adventures, Mixed with sundrie prettie discourses of honest Loue (London: Gabriel Cawood, 1592) R1v; he also instructs, “Eschew idlenesse . . so shalt thou . . quench the brandes of Cupide” (Euphues. The Anatomy of Wit (London: Gabriel Cawood, 1581) 43r).

153.6. Anacreon, ΑΝΑΚΡΕΟΝΤΟΣ Τηιου ωδη.  Anacreontis Teij odae. Ab Henrico Stephano luce & Latinitate nunc primum donatae (Lutetiae [Paris]: Henricus Stephanus, 1554).

153.7. Martial, Epigrammaton 3.93.27.