In faith I do not love thee with mine eyes,
For they in thee a thousand errors note;
But ’tis my heart that loves what they despise,
Who, in despite of view, is pleased to dote.
Nor are mine ears with thy tongue’s tune delighted;
Nor tender feeling, to base touches prone,
Nor taste, nor smell, desire to be invited
To any sensual feast with thee alone:
But my five wits nor my five senses can
Dissuade one foolish heart from serving thee,
Who leaves unswayed the likeness of a man,
Thy proud heart’s slave and vassal wretch to be:
Only my plague thus far I count my gain,
That she that makes me sin awards me pain.
The poet runs through a catalogue of the senses, to see what it is that attracts him to his mistress. In fact he finds nothing, and therefore concludes that it must be some perverseness in his heart that forces him to love her and to be her slave. His reward is that she gives him penances for the sin he is committing in loving her.
The poem is thought to rely heavily on ‘The Banquet of the Senses’, an allegorical story based on Ovid. But it has other antecedents as well, and one should not overlook the fact that it is almost a continuation sonnet to 130,
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
for in that sonnet the appeal is made to the senses of sight ( colour of lips, teeth, flesh etc.), hearing (the sound of her voice), smell (reek of her breath), and possibly taste (lips), none of which are enraptured by what they find. There are also other examples in the literature which run through a similar catalogue of the senses, and I have included a sonnet below by William Smith. It is much more conventional than this one of Shakespeare’s, in that the beloved has all the beauteous characteristics expected, for, even though they are not detailed, they are such as to give him exquisite pleasure, and the amber breath and crystal eyes stand in place of the usual coral, snow, pearls, ivory and gold with which Venus had bedecked the beloved. I have also included a short extract from Barnabe Barnes’s Parthenophil and Parthenophe which I take to be relevant.
There is therefore an element of parody in this sonnet of Shakespeare’s, as there was in the equivalent sonnet 130. For that reason it brings us down to earth with a bump, for it tears us away from the tortured conceits of the sonneteers, and perhaps from our own idealisations of the beings we love, and forces us to accept that the things we love often have an earthly and earthy beauty, much less than a divine one. For we also know that love is a power beyond rationality, and that it does not depend on the beloved being made of coral, or ivory, or rubies, but of flesh and blood with all its imperfections. The falseness lies in worshipping humans as if they were all Venuses and Adonises. The poet here finds himself perplexed that the woman he loves does not appeal to his five senses, as the tradition of sonneteering insists that she must, and yet he still loves and desires her.
For a parallel and more light hearted folk tradition of love, a blessed relief from the tortured conventions of the sonneteers, I have included at the end of the page an Elizabethan ballad which sings of Love attacking the defences of a maiden.
That day wherein mine eyes cannot see her,
Which is the essence of their crystal sight ;
Both blind, obscure and dim that day they be,
And are debarrèd of fair heaven’s light.
That day wherein mine ears do want to hear her ;
Hearing, that day is from me quite bereft.
That day wherein to touch I come not near her ;
That day no sense of touching have I left.
That day wherein I lack the fragrant smell,
Which from her pleasant amber breath proceedeth ;
Smelling, that day, disdains with me to dwell.
Only weak hope, my pining carcase feedeth.
But burst, poor heart! Thou hast no better hope,
Since all thy senses have no further scope.
Chloris 38. W. Smith, 1596.
From Parthenophil & Parthenophe
O kiss! that did all sense exceed!
No man can speak those joys! then Muse, be mute!
But say! for sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch,
In any one thing, was there ever such?
P&P.Madrigal16. Barnabe Barnes 1593.