Shakespeare's Sonnets by William Shakespeare

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How might one interpret Shakespeare's "Sonnet 154" ("The llittle Love-god lying once asleep")?

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D. Reynolds eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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In this whimsical sonnet, the speaker first imagines Cupid ("the little Love-god") falling asleep. Instead of his usual arrow, used to pierce hearts so that they fall in love, this Cupid has a brand beside him, used to make hearts aflame with love.

The most beautiful of the chaste nymphs nearby picks up the brand. By doing this, the virginal nymph disarms Cupid while he sleeps. She takes the hot brand and sticks it in a cool well nearby to "quench" love's fire. It heats up the cool well so that it is warm, like a bath.

The chaste, virginal nymph imagines the warm bath as an antidote ("healthful remedy") to men diseased by love. However, the speaker testifies that although he came and bathed in this pool to be cured of love, it did not work, concluding that while "love's fire heats water, water cools not love."

Being in love or love-sick, the speaker is saying, is not an easy problem to solve.

The sonnet can be taken at face value as about the spiritual dimension of love, but many have also interpreted this as a poem about syphilis. Hot baths were a common "cure" for syphilis in the Renaissance, and the speaker may well be saying that the hot water did not cure the physical sickness of a sexually transmitted disease. It would make sense in this case that Cupid would not be using an arrow. His arrow would cause a person to fall in love, while his brand would give a person syphilis.

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It was quite common to take vignettes from Greek mythology and write them into poems; authors were doing that long before Shakespeare's time.  In fact, this and Sonnet 153 are actually attributed to Marcianus Scholasticus, who wrote versions of them in Latin in the 5th century.

The first line references Cupid, who sleeps next to his torch of love, or what we would consider his bow and arrow. The nymphs referenced were attendants of the goddess Diana, all of whom had taken a vow of chastity to serve her. One of the nymphs takes up Cupid's torch of love, and douses it in the nearby well, which heats the water to a bath. This bath, heated by the power of love, becomes curative, like a spa.  It's implied the author bathes in this bath to cure himself of his love sickness for his mistress, but there is no cure for that  -- the last line conveys that the "water cools not love," and his passion for his beloved remains unabated.

See a line-by-line analysis at the link:

 

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