Sonnet 154

Shakespeare Sonnet 154

THe little Loue-God lying once a ſleepe,
Laid by his ſide his heart inflaming brand,
Whilſt many Nymphes that vou’d chaſt life to keep,
Came tripping by, but in her maiden hand,
The fayreſt votary tooke vp that fire,
Which many Legions of true hearts had warm’d,
And ſo the Generall of hot deſire,
Was ſleeping by a Virgin hand diſarm’d.
This brand ſhe quenched in a coole Well by,
Which from loues fire tooke heat perpetuall,
Growing a bath and healthfull remedy,
For men diſeaſd, but I my Miſtriſſe thrall,
Came there for cure and this by that I proue,
Loues fire heates water, water cooles not loue.

Sonnet 154 is another working of the classical trope of a “Jupiter’s Well,” in which a lighted brand could be “quenched” and from which the extinguished brand could take flame again. The trope is also found in Sonnet 153; in both sonnets it is linked to the conceit of the remedium amoris. Sonnet 154 opens with the standard allusion to Cupid as the “little Loue-God,” who laid beside himself “his heart inflaming brand” and fell asleep (compare Sonnet 153.1, “laid by his brand and fell a sleepe”). 1 The “nymphes” or virgins who danced light-footedly by (“Came tripping”) are those attending Diana who have taken vows of chastity (“vou’d chast life to keep”). The “fayrest” of the votaries (a “votary” is one who like a Vestal virgin takes a votum or vow) took the brand that had warmed “Legions of true hearts.” 2 Thus Cupid, the “Generall of hot desire,” either the commander or the generator of passion (from genero = generate), is rendered defenceless (without his weapon) or harmless by a virgin (“by a Virgin hand disarm’d”). The votary “quenched” the brand in a nearby “coole Well” (see Sonnet 53 for Pliny’s “Iovis fons . . gelidus” [‘Jupiter’s cool well’]), 3 which in turn takes from it “heat perpetuall” (Sonnet 153.6’s “datelesse . . heat”), making it into a spring and “healthfull remedy” for men who are “diseasd,” either sick or not at ease (Sonnet 153.12’s “distemperd”). The poet, his mistress’ captive (“my Mistresse thrall”), approached the spring for a “cure,” only to find (“proue”) his attempt unsuccessful, because, while love might heat water, water cannot cure love. The sequence’s final paradoxical and chiastic line, “Loues fire heates water, water cooles not loue,” as Kerrigan points out, may echo the Song of Sol. 8.6-7, “Her [loues] coales are coales of fire, and a very vehement flambe: so that many waters are not able to quenche loue” (BB).

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154.1. Compare Spenser, Anacreontea 7-10, “As Diane hunted on a day, / She chaunst to come where Cupid lay, / his quiuer by his head: / One of his shafts she stole away.”

154.2. Holland talks of the “Vestall nunnes, or Votaries,” see Suetonius. The Historie of Tvvelve Cæsars Emperours of Rome: Written in Latine by C. Suetonius Tranquillus, and newly translated into English, by Philemon Holland (London: Humphrey Lownes and G. Snowdon, 1606), Annotations (on Octavius Caesar Augustus) 11. In Spenser’s Amoretti 16.6 Cupid is identified with the “legions of loues,” that dart from the mistress’ eyes.

154.3. Pliny, Hist. 2.228; compare Spenser, Anacreontea 69-70, where Cupid is “bath’d . . in a dainty well / the well of deare delight.”

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