Thou blind fool, Love, what dost thou to mine eyes,
That they behold, and see not what they see?
They know what beauty is, see where it lies,
Yet what the best is take the worst to be.
If eyes corrupt by over-partial looks
Be anchor’d in the bay where all men ride,
Why of eyes’ falsehood hast thou forged hooks,
Whereto the judgment of my heart is tied?
Why should my heart think that a several plot
Which my heart knows the wide world’s common place?
Or mine eyes seeing this, say this is not,
To put fair truth upon so foul a face?
In things right true my heart and eyes have erred,
And to this false plague are they now transferr’d.
The poet reflects on his infatuation with the woman and is perplexed by what he finds. He is uncertain whether to blame his eyes or his heart, or both of them jointly. They both seem to be in error in supposing that so foul a person is in fact fair and worthy of love. The previous sonnets were far from flattering to the woman, having suggested that her sexual appetites were almost unlimited. This one is no better, and implies that she is like a common prostitute, being ‘the bay where all men ride’ and ‘the common’ where all men have free access.
Sonnets 46 & 47 describe a conflict between heart and eyes which is resolved by an alliance between the two. In this sonnet both heart and eyes are portrayed as being at fault in perverting what they perceive. But pride of place is given to the eyes, in that they are shown to lead the way and, being corrupt, they drag the heart along behind them. Of course the distinction is only poetic and has no psychological basis, nor did it have in Shakespeare’s day. He is merely elaborating a conceit which serves the purpose of illuminating the contradictions in his heart over his blind infatuation for the dark lady. The function of eyes in setting a soul on the pathway to love had been well established by Petrarch, ever since that fatal Good Friday on 6 April 1327 when he first set eyes on Laura in the Church at Avignon. (The date in fact is fictional, but readers presumably did not know that in the 15th and 16th centuries). Shakespeare is merely following this convention by attributing to the eyes the power to lead the way in love, and to subvert the personality. It is also entirely consistent with the blindness of Cupid, which does not however prevent Cupid from seeing with a sixth sense. As Virgil said Quis fallere possit amantem? ‘Who can deceive a lover?’
The sonnet continues in the less than flattering tone of flattery which the previous three sonnets have used. His mistress is a piece of common land to which all men have access, a harbour in which all ships ride, she has a foul face which is painted to look fair, and finally she is a false plague, which has the power to infect all at random. This is far from the tradition of the Petrarchan praise of Laura which had set the precedent for all sonneteers thereafter, so that mistresses were nearly always praised as lofty, beautiful, chaste and inaccessible goddesses. It is true that a contrary tradition had been established which rebelled against this slavery and fantastic idealisation of women, an idealisation which had little basis in reality. Sir Thomas Wyatt, whose poems Shakespeare would have known, had already introduced a more down to earth approach to loving and courtship. (See the example below left). And sonnet sequences had already been published which consisted of a main section devoted to adoration, followed by a concluding section which repudiated love, the cold beloved, and the slavery which held the lover in chains.
These poems to the dark lady are however rather different because of their psychological complexity and because the element of Petrarchan praise is replaced by straight speaking which is little short of insulting. The lady cannot have regarded it as flattery to be spoken of as a common prostitute, however much she might have enjoyed her power over men. Nor can it have been pleasing to be told that her face was foul, or that she was a ‘false plague’, or ‘as black as hell, as dark as night’ (147). Nothing in the sonnet literature of the time prepares us for such an onslaught on a loved one, and we have to conclude that, despite the occasional tender words to his mistress, the poet did not find the experience uplifting, certainly not spiritual, and that it was in many ways a source of revulsion and self-disgust which he found it impossible to flee from or expiate from his soul.
Sir Thomas Wyatt
THE LADY TO ANSWER DIRECTLY WITH YEA OR NAY. (c. 1528 – 36)
MADAM, withouten many words,
Once I am sure you will, or no :
And if you will, then leave your bourds,
And use your wit, and shew it so,
And, with a beck you shall me call ;
And if of one, that burneth alway,
Ye have any pity at all,
Answer him fair, with yea or nay.
If it be yea, I shall be fain ;
If it be nay—friends, as before ;
You shall another man obtain,
And I mine own, and yours no more.
bourds = tricks; mockery.
I shall be fain = I shall be eager.