Shakespeare’s unloved sonnet 145
by Bas Belleman
Those lips that Love’s own hand did make
Breathed forth the sound that said ‘I hate,’
To me, that languished for her sake:
But when she saw my woeful state,
Straight in her heart did mercy come,
Chiding that tongue that ever sweet
Was used in giving gentle doom,
And taught it thus anew to greet:
‘I hate’ she altered with an end,
That followed it as gentle day
Doth follow night, who like a fiend
From heaven to hell is flown away.
‘I hate’ from hate away she threw,
And saved my life, saying ‘not you.’
Sonnet 145 is probably Shakespeare’s most criticized poem – some even doubt it really is Shakespeare’s.1 And indeed, it is a notable poem, if only for its unorthodox meter. This Shakespeare sonnet employs a four beat rhythm. All other sonnets use the more mature iambic pentameter, which basically means they have a five beat rhythm. Furthermore, this sonnet seems too sweet for Shakespeare. Too naïve. Nothing like the Shakespeare we admire.
For such an odd sonnet it entices remarkably little attention. The great sonnet reader Stephen Booth, who has such a keen eye for all the sexual ambiguities in the sonnets, does not bother to point out that ‘hell’ was so often a metaphor for the vagina, as he does on nearly every other occasion. 2
The sonnet raises some concern, though. Helen Vendler, that other luminous reader of the sonnets, does not like the rhyme of the first four lines. To her ear, it is wrong “by the standards of the usual Shakespearean accomplishment”, since ‘make’, ‘hate’, ‘sake’ and ‘state’ resemble each other “too closely for comfort”. However brilliant and thought provoking her reading of the sonnets is, this critique could be off the mark. Or in any case she could say the same about the rhyme in lines five to nine of sonnet 139, that end on ‘sight’, ‘aside’, ‘might’ and ‘bide’. She does not.3
Andrew Gurr, who devotes an entire article to sonnet 145, calls it “arguably the worst of all the Shakespeare sonnets” and he unfolds the idea that this is a poem that Shakespeare used to woo his soon-to-be wife Anne Hathaway. ‘Hate away’ could be a pun on Hathaway, he notes, and Shakespeare was probably eighteen years old when he wrote this. “That the sonnet should be relatively crude and elaborately contrived is understandable, and even forgiveable, if it came from an eighteen-year-old poet,” claims Gurr, to which he later adds: “Perhaps Shakespeare kept it for sentimental reasons.” The main question of his article seems to be how such a mediocre poem ended up in the Quarto of Shakespeare’s magnificent sonnets.4
More recently, the Scottish poet Don Paterson calls it “an irrelevant bit of fluff” and thinks this is a bad poem by a young poet still working out what poetry is. Anne Hathaway probably asked him to put it in his collection, he speculates, and Shakespeare could not refuse.
I could not dwell on such objections, since I needed to translate this sonnet. I was working on a new translation of sonnets 127 to 154 into Dutch. I had to keep asking why Shakespeare used certain words, and not some of the easy words that I, for reasons of rhythm and rhyme, would like to use in Dutch. I read this poem over and over again.5
It made me realize this sonnet is probably more sexual than it is thought to be. The bawdy ambiguities have spectacularly gone unnoticed, even though sonnet 145 is embedded by Shakespeare’s most sexual sonnets, in which he addresses the notorious Dark Lady, someone who is neither kind nor beautiful, yet has an enormous sexual power over the poet.
Take a look at the very first line: Those lips that Love’s own hand did make. According to the usual footnotes, Love’s own hand must be Cupid’s hand. Yet as a translator, I had to ask: if that were true, why then did he not write Cupid’s hand? It would have fit the meter.
Love is an ambiguous concept in itself, the hands of love even more so. Could a genuine hand shape ‘those lips’? It easily could in many ways. The Dark Lady is not a work of art by the Gods. She is deceitful, she creates her own expression and uses cosmetics. Her lips could also express excitement, which fits the next line: to ‘breath forth a sound’ is not just talking, is it?
Bear with me now; once you change the perspective, the whole poem shifts.
To ‘languish’ is not just to pine, it also means to drip, as it does in Shakespeare’s play Cymbeline: “Nay, let her languish a drop of blood a day, and being aged die of this folly,” the king says. Either way, to languish for her sake could be read as a sexual act.
And when she sees his woeful state, she might see more than a face in agony. And yes, straight in her hart did mercy come. His woeful state strikes deeply. (‘Straight’ mostly meant ‘straightaway’ in those days, but it had a sense of decisiveness that already foreshadowed the later, more geometrical sense.)
And when commentators say that ‘giving gentle doom’ is saying something hurtful in a sweet way, they might be missing out on a joke. A tongue is not just for talking. Giving gentle doom could be a pretty accurate description of fellatio.
These ideas could shed some light on the often criticized imagery that now follows, where Shakespeare makes day come after night and then makes a devil (fiend) fly away from heaven into hell. Read as a sexual poem in the series of sonnets for the Dark Lady, this is not exactly puzzling. The poet loves this woman precisely for her sins, as he so often emphasizes in the other sonnets. To him, the sun rises when she sins. It is to his relief when she flies away into hell, which, by the way, is a sexual word.
When you think it over, ‘I hate’ could easily signify the foul language during harsh sex that later dissolves into love when the lovers are exhausted.
Apart from that, when the woman says ‘I hate… not you’, the reader in his mind probably adds: not you, but someone else. Maybe she hates all other men (“You are not like all the others”). Or she hates herself. It suits the kind of woman she seems to be. She is hardly polite or balanced.
Seeing all the objections to this curious poem, and seeing that good readers have ignored some obvious double meanings, one cannot help but suspect an unconscious, non-literary motivation. It looks like some readers congratulate themselves with their distaste for sonnet 145. They enjoy their objections, since these free them of a nagging concern. Shakespeare is a big name; how do we know we can trust our judgment when we read him? Could we be fooled by his reputation? Could it be that we do not point out his genius, but merely construe it? Could Shakespeare be an emperor who is not wearing any new clothes, but is in fact naked? The verdict on sonnet 145 may prove we have not lost our objectivity: when Shakespeare fails, we are not scared to acknowledge that.
We could mirror this concern, though. How can we be sure this is a bad poem? It is Shakespeare’s, for all we know. Most of his poems are terrific. Are we in fact pointing out the flaws of this poem or do we just follow the example of others and let them confirm out first impression?
I shall admit I like this poem. I like to see Shakespeare languish in language, so to say. I am not saying it is a great poem, but clearly, it is more challenging – and funnier – than it is given credit for.
1 Most notably C. Knox Pooler in his Arden Edition of the Sonnets (1918). Since there is no proof – we do not even know for sure Shakespeare approved of this publication – other editors usually quote his opinion and do not commit themselves.
2 Booth, Stephen. Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Yale University Press, 2000; first edition: 1977.
3 Vendler, Helen. The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999; first edition 1997.
4 Gurr, Andrew. ‘Shakespeare’s First Poem: Sonnet 145.’ In: Essays in Criticism (1971). Volume XXI, No.3. Read on http://willyshakes.com/sonnet/index.htm
5 The translation was published in February 2012. Belleman, Bas. Sonnetten voor de Donkere Dame. Uitgeverij Van Gennep. Including an introduction and comments.
Bas Belleman (1978) is a Dutch poet, translator and critic. He published two volumes of poetry, the first of which was nominated for the Dutch C. Buddingh’ Prize for the best first book of poetry. He read is poems on several international poetry festivals in Europe. In February 2012, he published a new translation of Shakespeare’s Sonnets to the Dark Lady, with an introduction and commentary. This article is an adaptation of his comments on sonnet 145.