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How do these lines in Shakespeare's Sonnet 151 mean what they're supposed to? Here's the sonnet:

Love is too young to know what conscience is,
Yet who knows not conscience is born of love?
Then, gentle cheater, urge not my amiss,
Lest guilty of my faults thy sweet self prove:
For, thou betraying me, I do betray
My nobler part to my gross body's treason;
My soul doth tell my body that he may
Triumph in love; flesh stays no farther reason,
But rising at thy name doth point out thee,
As his triumphant prize. Proud of this pride,
He is contented thy poor drudge to be,
To stand in thy affairs, fall by thy side.
No want of conscience hold it that I call
Her love, for whose dear love I rise and fall.

According to the online analyses I have read so far, the last two lines mean that Shakespeare does not believe he should be accused of being without a conscience just because he "rises and falls" for the woman he calls "love". I do not understand how anyone arrived at this meaning. I also do not understand the syntax of these lines. Could someone please rephrase these lines in a way I can understand?

21

Just glossing the last two lines.

No want of conscience hold it that I call
Her love, for whose dear love I rise and fall.

The main difficulty is with “No want of conscience hold it”. This is an anastrophe—a figure of speech in which the normal word order of subject, verb, and object, is changed. Rearranged into the usual order, it becomes an instruction to the reader: “Do not hold it [to be] a want of conscience”. Here “hold” means “believe” and “want” means “lack”.

Next, “I call her love”. This could be understood as “I call her my love”—that is, the speaker offers her endearments—or as personification—that is, the speaker calls her the incarnation of Love (the abstract emotion, or the goddess of love). In the original 1609 edition there was a comma after “call”, but no-one has been able to make sense of this, so it’s always been considered to be the compositor’s mistake.

Finally, “for whose dear love I rise and fall”. The speaker says that his efforts, to rise in position and wealth, and fall if he fails, are only for the sake of winning her love. But there is a sexual double entendre here: it is also his “flesh” (that is, his penis) that rises and falls.

2
  • Yes, the word order was what was confusing me. I get it now. Thank you so much!
    – user392289
    Feb 5 at 10:07
  • 2
    Admirable. I envy your ability to have a laser-sharp focus on the actual question asked, and to provide a brief, well-researched, complete answer that is likely more helpful to the asker than my lemon-squeezing exegetics.
    – verbose
    Feb 5 at 10:12
11

Shakespeare's Sonnet 151 is one of his most difficult sonnets. The meaning and logic of the poem are unclear even to scholars. It is also one of the most bawdy poems, not just of the sequence, but in the entire corpus of canonical English literature. As a result, it is hard to explain without some frank terminology. Be warned: this answer has some NSFW content and swear words. If you are easily offended, please do not read beyond the horizontal rule.

The couplet can be paraphrased as follows:

Even though I call the woman who arouses and satisfies my lust "Love," do not assume that I have no conscience.

The lines have a surface meaning that is fairly easy to understand through this paraphrase: just because the speaker is in an illicit sexual relationship, it doesn't follow that he is without conscience. Or to put it differently, the sexual nature of the relationship doesn't preclude its being true love. And vice-versa: its being true love doesn't preclude a sexual relationship.

The rest of this answer is R-rated.


This harmony between sex and love might seem obvious to us in the 21st century. But until fairly recently, men would maintain a misogynist distinction between girls you fuck and girls you marry, with the former deemed "loose." Women with whom men had a sexual relationship outside marriage were not considered worthy of love and marriage—they were just vehicles for satisfying lust. The persistence of the game Fuck, Marry, Kill demonstrates that this split between lust and love is not entirely a thing of the past.

Particularly in the context of the 16th C., then, Shakespeare is making quite a radical claim by saying that lust and love are not in opposition, and that it's possible to have a relationship that's both lustful and in keeping with the dictates of one's conscience. Considering that in Christian belief lust is one of the Seven Deadly Sins, its being compatible with conscience is quite a claim.

But the couplet is even more complicated than that. A fuller explanation involves disentangling the intricate relationship between love and conscience that the sonnet sets up from the very first line, Love is too young to know what conscience is. This line deploys various puns on both love and conscience.

  • Love is Cupid, the god of love, represented as a baby. Cupid shoots his arrows indiscriminately; being a baby, he has no sense of how to weigh right and wrong in his actions, i.e., he is without conscience.
  • Love simply means romantic love as we usually understand the term. Romantic love too is a force which overpowers conscience.
  • Love is a euphemism for lust. Shakespeare often blurs the distinction between the the two, for example in Romeo and Juliet with a pun on prick:

    Is love a tender thing? it is too rough,
    Too rude, too boisterous, and it pricks like thorn. (I.iv.25–26)

  • Conscience means moral awareness, as we typically understand the term.
  • Conscience also has a bawdy meaning: "experience or knowledge of sex." The word con is French slang for a woman's private parts, and science, which etymologically means having knowledge. In the Oxford Shakespeare edition of Shakespeare's poems, Colin Burrows has a note to this line that says:

    The French con or "cunt" might be heard in the word,
    giving a quibble on "carnal knowledge". (p. 682)

The previous sonnets have related that the Dark Lady, the addressee of this sonnet, has cheated on the speaker with someone else. Although this act of betrayal would be against conscience, it can be explained away because in matters of love or lust, conscience in the sense of moral awareness is irrelevant; it is pertinent only in the sense of sexual experience.

Through such puns, this first line sets up multiple contradictory meanings of both "love" and "conscience." The entire poem switches back and forth between the contradictory meanings, so that each line and each verse can be interpreted in multiple ways. A thorough explanation can be found on the shakespeares-sonnets site.

The closing couplet brings home these different meanings in a rich and playful way:

No want of conscience hold it that I call
Her love, for whose dear love I rise and fall.

The speaker has already mentioned his flesh ... rising at thy name. Rise and fall also have an obvious sexual connotation. So there is an implied pun on the prick of conscience. Using this bawdy sense, the speaker is saying:

Just because I call this woman Love, it doesn't mean that I am a virgin. She arouses me physically and I have known her.

This reinforces the surface meaning discussed above which uses the straightforward sense of conscience:

Even though this woman causes me to tumesce (by arousing me) and detumesce (after the sex act is completed), this lust does not preclude my love for her being morally justified.

Rise and fall also has a non-sexual meaning: like a soldier, the speaker will rise up to defend the woman he loves, and will die to protect her if necessary. These words participate in Shakespeare's layering of various meanings, some ordinary and some bawdy, to provide a many-sided perspective on his love.

To sum up: The couplet exploits polysemy to make a complex, witty statement about the nature of his relationship with the Dark Lady. It is the climax to a poem that undoes conventional distinctions between lust and love, or morality and sinfulness. The difficulty of the poem underscores the impossibility of summing up this complicated relationship in an easy, facile, or glib way.

Reference:

  • Shakespeare, William. The Complete Sonnets and Poems. Ed. Colin Burrow. The Oxford Shakespeare, general ed. Stanley Wells. Oxford World Classics. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002.
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  • What does ‘hold’ mean here? (“No want of conscience ‘hold’ it...”)
    – user392289
    Feb 5 at 9:56
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    @user392289 maintain, assert, believe, assume. As in We hold these truths to be self evident.
    – verbose
    Feb 5 at 9:57
  • Excuse my relentless stupidity, but who/what is doing (or not doing) the holding? Is it a lack of conscience? Like I said, I’m having trouble with the syntax.
    – user392289
    Feb 5 at 10:04
  • 1
    @user392289 Do not hold it to be a lack of conscience that I call the woman whose love makes me rise and fall "love". Does that help? No worries.
    – verbose
    Feb 5 at 10:06
7

In sonnet 151, "gentle" Shakespeare equivocates on the meanings of "love" and "conscience", which results in a poem that is unsuitable for readers with Victorian sensibilities.

The equivocation begins in the first two lines:

Love is too young to know what conscience is;
Yet who knows not conscience is born of love?

"Love" in the fist line is Cupid, the god of desire and erotic love, who is represented in art as a young boy. He is, according to the poet, too young to know what conscience is, i.e. conscience in a moral sense, knowing right from wrong. In the second line, "love" means the experience or the emotion of love and leads to a "con-science" in a different sense, namely "knowing" what the French call con: the female genitalia. The poet is here saying that love leads to carnal knowledge.

The next two lines can be paraphrased as follows:

Then, kindly deceiver, do not invoke fault/misbehaviour
For fear that you [thy sweet self] turn out to be guilty of the same faults.

(The quarto edition of the Sonnets reads "Least" instead of "Lest" but editors reject this as an error. Shakespeare used the "... is ... amiss" rhyme also in sonnet 59 and used "amiss" also in sonnet 35: "Myself corrupting salving thy amiss,".)

The sonnet continues:

Since, you revealing my moral faults, I betray
My nobler part (controlled by "conscience" in a moral sense) to my body's impulses and thus treason/betrayal.

In line 5 "thou betraying me" can also mean "you cheating on me" (see "gentle cheater" in line 3), so there are two types of "betrayal" here: (1) revealing the poet's faults to the world and (2) being unfaithful to the poet.

The next two lines expand on "my gross body's treason". "Flesh stays no farther reason" means that the sexual appetites don't wait for ("stay") extra justification to spring into action. The next two lines describe this graphically:

But becoming erect at [hearing] your name it [my "flesh", euphemistically] points (its point or tip) at you,
as a splendid prize. Proud if this pride,

(For another example of "triumphant" in the sonnets, see sonnet 33: "With all-triumphant splendor on my brow,".)

Eric Partridge's Shakespeare's Bawdy has the following entry for "pride" (page 167):

In Sonnet 151, the lines 'Flesh stays no farther reason; But, rising at thy name, doth point out thee As his triumphant prize. Proud of this pride, He is contented thy poor drudge to be, To stand in thy affairs, fall by thy side' clearly shows that, as 'flesh' here denotes 'penis', so 'pride' denotes 'insurgent penis'; compare the modern euphemism, morning pride; (...).

With this in mind, "rise" and "fall" in the remaining lines are self-explanatory. The last two lines can be paraphrased as follows:

Don't think it shows a lack of conscience that I call
that woman "love" for the heartfell love of whom I rise and fall.

Both Kerrigan's and Burrow's editions put "love" in the last line in quotation marks, which clarifies the syntax a little. "Conscience" is again ambiguous here. In addition to the meanings explained above, there may be other ones at work here, quoted from Onion's Glossary:

  1. Sound judgement, reasonableness (...)
  2. Matter about which scruples are or should be felt (...)

The poet seems to be saying that he knows quite well what is meant by "love" (i.e. not just the feelings but also the carnal aspect) when he says he becomes erect and flaccid for it. But he is also alluding to a sense of duty that motivates him, just like a solder who "rises at thy name" and who chooses an opponent in battle ("point" in line 9).


Sources:

  • Onions, Charles Talbut: A Shakespeare Glossary. Enlarged and Revised Throughout by Robert D. Eagleson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.
  • Partridge, Eric: Shakespeare's Bawdy: A Literary & Psychological Essay and A Comprehensive Glossary. Revised and enlarged. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1968.
  • Shakespeare: The Complete Sonnets and Poems. Edited by Colin Burrow. The Oxford Shakespeare. Oxford University Press, 2002.
  • Shakespeare: The Sonnets and A Lover's Complaint. Edited by John Kerrigan. The New Penguin Shakespeare. Penguin, 1986.

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