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Quatrain 1 Summary

Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.

Lines 1-2

My love is as a fever, longing still
For that which longer nurseth the disease,

  • Hey, wait a minute. Is this the latest episode of "Burning Love" or a Shakespearean sonnet?
  • Just kidding, Shmoopers. This is definitely a sonnet.
  • Our speaker starts things off with a simile by comparing his "love" to a "fever."
  • Hmm. Where have we heard this idea before? Oh, we know. In the courtly love tradition, love is always getting compared to disease.
  • But our speaker doesn't compare his "love" to just any old illness. He says it's like a fever, which sort of implies that he's burning up with desire. 
  • Not only that, but this fever isn't getting any better because it always longs (it's "longing still") for the thing that makes the illness worse ("nurseth the disease").
  • Okay. Technically, fevers don't long for or crave things but, people do, right? So our speaker is personifying his fever in order to talk about his own sexual desire. Even though he thinks his desire is unhealthy, he can't overcome it—it's like an illness.
  • What's odd about these lines is how the speaker makes it sound like he doesn't really even want to get better. 
  • When he says his fever is "longing" for the thing that "longer" nurses his disease, the repetition of the word "long" implies that this guy actually wants to, or longs, to make his illness last even longer
  • In case we didn't get it, Shakespeare beats us over the head with the idea again. Did you notice how the word "still" has the word "ill" in it? "Still" means "always"—as in, our speaker is always "longing" for the thing that makes him ill.
  • Impressive word play aside, that's kind of an oddball idea, right? Why would anyone want to be sick all the time? Maybe we'll find some answers in the next lines.
  • But before we move on, let's do a quick sound check. Shakespeare's sonnets are mostly written in iambic pentameter, a type of meter that sounds like a series of five heartbeats: dadum dadum dadum dadum dadum. If you read line 1, it scans like this: my love is as a fever longing still.
  • Head on over to "Form and Meter" if you want to know more about this.

Lines 3-4

Feeding on that which doth preserve the ill,
The uncertain sickly appetite to please.

  • It looks like our speaker's not going to be letting go of this whole "my desire = a disease" idea any time soon. Technically, that means we're working with an extended metaphor
  • Here, he says his fever actually feeds on the thing that makes the illness last longer in order to fulfill ("please") some kind of craving ("appetite").
  • Okay. We're still talking about the speaker's sexual desire but now it's being compared to an appetite for food that's (1) totally unpredictable ("uncertain") and (2) super unhealthy ("sickly"). 
  • All this talk about "feeding" and "ill[ness]" sounds pretty bizarre until we realize that Shakespeare is making a little medical joke in this sonnet.
  • Ever heard the phrase "feed a cold and starve a fever"? Back in the 16th century, doctors would have advised their patients not to eat anything if they had a fever because they thought it would make it worse. (What? You want some evidence? Fine: in 1574, a dictionary writer named John Withals wrote "Fasting is a great remedie of fever." How's that? (source))
  • In Shakespeare's day, some folks also thought that fevers could be caused by something the patient ate (source). Not only that but a fever could cause them to keep craving the food that made them sick in the first place, especially if they got delirious and couldn't think straight. 
  • So like a feverish patient, our lusty speaker wants to keep "feeding" on the thing that made him ill to begin with. Plus, it's going to keep making him sick if he doesn't stop. Gee. What could he possibly be referring to here? That's right: sex.
  • But wait a minute. Are we still just talking about a metaphorical illness here? Because we're beginning to wonder if this dude has picked up a literal disease (like, say, an STD). 
  • Also, is our speaker telling us he can't stop sleeping around with a bunch of different partners? Or, that he can't stop hooking up with one person in particular, even though he knows that sleeping with that person is no good for him?

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