Study Guide

Sonnet 147 Analysis

  • Sound Check

    For thoughts on this poem's sound, head on over to our line-by-line summary.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    When the first edition of SHAKE-SPEARES SONNETS hit the presses in 1609, each sonnet was assigned a number (1-154) instead of its own. (Hey. Have you ever tried coming up with a bunch of titles after cranking out 154 poems? It's tough work, Shmoopers.)

    We're not quite sure who came up with the order of the sonnets because Shakespeare probably didn't have anything to do with their publication. But we do know the order is pretty important. Why? Because when we read them, the sequence unfolds like a complicated story that involves some recurring "characters" and situations. In other words, it's a rather loosey-goosey story, all in 152 poems.

    Sonnets 1-126 all seem to be addressed to a young guy critics like to call the "Fair Youth." Sonnets 127-152 seem to be mostly about the speaker's sordid affair with a woman who's got dark physical features and shady morals. (That's why literary critics like to call these the "Dark Lady" sonnets.) In Sonnet 147, the speaker accuses his unnamed lover of being "as black as hell, as dark as night" (13-14), which is why we think he's talking to the same "dark" mistress that shows up in so many of the other poems.

    One last thing, Shmoopers. Sometimes sonnets are referred to by their first lines, which is why #147 is often called "My love is as a fever, longing still."

  • Setting

    Even though Shakespeare doesn't specify a physical setting for Sonnet 147, we can't help but imagine our speaker in a hospital room. After all, the guy kicks things off by comparing his sexual desire to a "fever" (1). Then he proceeds to describe his lust as a horrifying "disease" (2) that makes him so "ill" (3) that he's afraid it's going to lead to his "death" (8) because he can't get his "sickly" (4) sexual appetite under control.

    Of course, we know this is an extended metaphor to describe what's going on in our speaker's mind, which points us to the sonnet's psychological setting. Comparing his desire to a fever gives him a chance to describe what it feels like to be crazy in lust. At one point, he even says he's been talking and acting like a madman (11). He says his desire has made him "frantic mad" and has caused him to completely lose his ability to reason (10).

    That's probably why so many theatrical performances of Sonnet 147 imagine the speaker as a patient in a psychiatric facility.
    Heck, we've even seen the sonnet performed by a bunch of actors dancing around in straightjackets.

  • Speaker

    Paging Dr. Shakespeare! We've got a lovesick patient on our hands, Shmoopers. Actually, lustsick is probably a better way to describe the speaker of Sonnet 147. The guy spends 12 out of 14 lines of the poem comparing his passion and desire to a burning "fever" (1) that's not getting any better.

    If you're thinking "Gee, that sounds kind of hot," think again. This sonnet is all about the destructiveness of sexual desire and the speaker's inability to get out of an unhealthy relationship with someone who's been playing him like a chump. (And possibly giving him an STD.)

    What's interesting about this sonnet is that our feverish speaker's symptoms get worse and worse as the sonnet progresses. Eventually, he says he's lost his mind: "My thoughts and my discourse are as madmen's are, / At random from the truth vainly expressed;" (11-12). Wow. He sounds a little out of breath and disoriented here, just like someone who's delirious from fever and can't think straight.

    But do we really believe him when he says his lust has made him lose his mind? He certainly wants us to think so but, it's hard to say because the guy sounds pretty coherent in the sonnet's final couplet. That's where he stops ranting and raving like a madman and directly addresses his lover. Check out what he says:

    For I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright,
    Who art as black as hell, as dark as night.
    (13-14)

    Um, yikes. Supposedly, this is the proof that the speaker has been talking and acting like a "madman." He's basically saying that, like a crazy person, he once thought his mistress was beautiful, honest, and good, but the truth is that she's ugly and morally corrupt.

    By the way, you're welcome to disagree with us but we think he's talking to the same mistress that shows up all over the place in Sonnets 127-152. Literary critics call her the "Dark Lady" because she's often described in the sequence as having dark physical features and lousy morals.

    That's a pretty nasty thing to say, right? Why's he so ticked off? Like we said, it seems like our speaker is accusing his mistress of cheating on him. Also, it's totally possible she's literally made him "ill" by giving him an STD, especially since he goes on and on about "disease" (2), "ill[ness]" (3), and his "sickly appetite" (4). Oh, did we mention he thinks "desire is death" (8)? Head on over to "Themes: Sex" if you want to know more about what he might mean by that.

    So our speaker feels like a chump who's been deceived by his mistress and himself. But how are we supposed to react to his ugly attitude toward this woman? Do you think his insulting remarks are justified? If not, are we supposed to excuse the speaker's behavior and write it off as the ranting and raving of a madman? Does the speaker get a free pass because he's so lovesick and has lost his mind?

    Plenty of people have made that argument. On the other hand, some readers just aren't buying his whole madman routine and think it's just an excuse to hurl some ugly insults at his mistress. Hmm. Now, who does that remind us of? Oh, we know. Hamlet does the same thing to Ophelia.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (5) Base camp 

    We know sonnets can be intimidating but, the cool thing about this one is that Shakespeare starts with a single idea (that sexual desire is like an illness that leads to death) and lets his speaker run with it. (Extended metaphor, anyone?) So even though some of the language and word order can get tricky in Sonnet 147, you'll be okay if you keep in mind that desire = sickness and death. According to our speaker, anyway. If you get confused, you can always check out our "Summary" to set the record straight.

  • Calling Card

    Bashing the "Dark Lady"

    A big tip-off that you're reading one of Shakespeare's sonnets is the speaker's nasty attitude toward his mistress—it seems like the guy is always criticizing her "dark" features. We know from sonnets like Sonnet 130 that our speaker's mistress has dark hair and a dark complexion. (That's partly why literary critics are always running around calling her the "Dark Lady.") What's weird is that the speaker is always going out of his way to tell her that tons of people think dark complexions are ugly and that light complexions are considered the standard of beauty. (Ever read Sonnet 127?)

    That's not all. The speaker of the sonnets also has another obnoxious habit: he tends to associate his mistress' dark skin and features with promiscuity and deception. In the final couplet of Sonnet 147, the speaker tells her that he once convinced himself that she was "fair" and "bright" but, it turns out that she's "black as hell, as dark as night" (13-14).

    What the heck does he mean by that? Well, he's talking about her looks and her morals. He once thought she was beautiful and good ("fair" and "bright"). But now, he knows that she's ugly and totally corrupt. That's pretty insulting, don't you think?

  • Form and Meter

    Shakespearean Sonnet

    Will Shakes wasn't the first person to write a sonnet in English but he was most definitely the best, which is why this particular sonnet form is named after our guy. Pretty impressive, right? We can't remember the last time a form of poetry was named after us.

    So what is it exactly that makes a poem a Shakespearean/Elizabethan sonnet? Well, they all have the same form and meter, which we're more than happy to break down for you.

    The first thing you need to know is, they're all 14 lines long. That is, except for Sonnet 99, which has one extra line, and Sonnet 126, which is only 12 lines long. Hey, even Shakey liked to shake it up a bit.

    Each sonnet consists of 3 quatrains followed by a rhymed couplet. Here's how the quatrains and the couplet are divided in Sonnet 147:

    Quatrain 1
    My love is as a fever, longing still
    For that which longer nurseth the disease,
    Feeding on that which doth preserve the ill,
    The uncertain sickly appetite to please.


    Quatrain 2

    My reason, the physician to my love,
    Angry that his prescriptions are not kept,
    Hath left me, and I desp'rate now approve
    Desire is death, which physic did except.


    Quatrain 3

    Past cure I am, now reason is past care,
    And frantic mad with evermore unrest,
    My thoughts and my discourse as madmen's are,
    At random from the truth vainly expressed;


    Rhymed Couplet

    For I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright,
    Who art as black as hell, as dark as night.

    Okay. Great. Why does the sonnet's structure matter? Because it allows us to follow the speaker's thought process in a logical way as he tries to work out a problem, that's why. Here's how it unfolds in 147:

    • The 1st quatrain introduces the subject. The speaker's desire is like an illness that's not getting any better. 
    • The 2nd quatrain develops the subject further and even introduces more conflict. The speaker says that he's lost his ability to reason because his sexual appetite is so out of control. Also, he feels like he's on the verge of death. 
    • The 3rd quatrain of a sonnet is usually where the speaker offers a solution to the problems he's just introduced. But in Sonnet 147, the speaker just gives up hope and says there's no cure for him because he's gone completely mad. 
    • Finally, the rhymed couplet offers up a strong conclusion. In this case, the speaker offers proof that he has in fact lost his mind. He has been completely fooled by his mistress. He once thought she was a good person but, it turns out she's not.

    Shakespearean sonnets almost always include a feature called a turn or volta. This is a moment in the poem where the theme or the tone changes in a sudden and surprising way. Sonnet 147's turn comes at line 13, where the speaker suddenly stops describing all of the symptoms of his lovesickness and accuses his lover of being dishonest, unfaithful, and immoral. Check it out:

    For I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright,
    Who art as black as hell, as dark as night.
    (13-14)

    Whoa. Until now, we didn't even know he was addressing anyone in particular because he was so caught up in his own emotional drama. At this point, we're totally stunned by this sudden and violent accusation.

    Getting His Iambic On

    Just like Shakespeare's plays, the sonnets are mostly written in a meter called iambic pentameter, which is a pretty formal but also very natural sounding meter. It sounds like a series of 5 heart beats: dadum dadum dadum dadum dadum

    For example, you could scan line 13 as follows:for I have sworn thee fair and thought thee bright.

    That leaves us with one more thing: the rhyme scheme. In a typical Shakespearean sonnet, the rhyme scheme usually goes a little something like this: ABABCDCDEFEFGG.

    So, here's how it breaks down in Sonnet 147:

    My love is as a fever, longing still A
    For that which longer nurseth the disease, B
    Feeding on that which doth preserve the ill, A
    The uncertain sickly appetite to please. B
    My reason, the physician to my love, C
    Angry that his prescriptions are not kept, D
    Hath left me, and I desp'rate now approve C
    Desire is death, which physic did except. D
    Past cure I am, now reason is past care, E
    And frantic mad with evermore unrest, F
    My thoughts and my discourse as madmen's are, E
    At random from the truth vainly expressed; F
    For I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright, G
    Who art as black as hell, as dark as night. G

  • Love as a Disease

    If you just sort of scan through Sonnet 147, you'll notice a lot of words and phrases related to illness and disease: "fever," "disease," "ill," "death," past cure," frantic mad," and so on. What's all this about? Well, the speaker uses an extended metaphor to compare his sexual desire to a "fever" that's getting worse and worse and will eventually lead to his death. In other words, the guy thinks his lust for his mistress is unhealthy because it's so overwhelming and dangerous. (It's also possible he has an STD, poor guy.) Of course, being "lovesick" is a pretty common metaphor that comes from the courtly love tradition but, in this sonnet, Shakespeare takes the idea and totally runs with it.

    • Line 1: Our speaker kicks off the poem with a simile comparing his "love" to a "fever." So we're pretty sure he's talking about lust (not love) here Shmoopers because "fevers" are associated with heat and burning desire.
    • Lines 2-4: This is where the speaker says he's like a patient who wants to keep eating the thing that made him sick. (Seems like he's comparing his sexual desire to an unhealthy appetite, don't you think?) The food reference is a little confusing until we realize that Shakespeare is giving a shout-out to the old school medical practice of feeding a cold and starving a fever. 
    • Lines 5-7: The speaker introduces another metaphor that further develops the idea that his lust is an illness. He calls his ability to reason (think rationally) a doctor who's trying to cure him of his disease. 
    • Line 8: When the speaker says "desire is death," he's suggesting that his desire is totally killing him. Does he mean that literally or just metaphorically? Here are some options for how we can read this line: (1) He might have an STD that could literally kill him. (2) He could be making a joke. ("To die" is common Elizabethan slang for "orgasm." Plus, some folks used to think that each male orgasm could take one day off a dude's life.) (3) He could be worried that his lust is sinful and will cause his spiritual death. Maybe the guy's been up all night reading these passages from the Bible: Romans 6:19-23, 8:6; Ephesians 2:1-3.
    • Line 9: Shakespeare takes a common 16th-century proverb here and gives it a twist. The saying "past cure, past care" usually means that it's pointless to worry about a sick patient who's not going to get better and can't be cured. Here, our speaker says he's past the point of hoping for a cure because his doctor (a.k.a. his ability to reason) has given up on him. 
    • Lines 10-12: By the time we reach these lines, our speaker sounds a lot like a patient who's delirious from his fever—he says he's gone "frantic mad," which implies that his sexual desire has made him completely irrational and is driving him nuts.
  • Feeding and Appetite

    So Shakespeare's probably not going to get his own cooking show, despite this poem's references to food and eating. In Sonnet 147, lust is associated with a sick patient's desire for the food that makes him sick and prevents him from getting better. Nope. That doesn't sound appetizing at all. All in all, this sonnet has a pretty gross outlook on sexual desire—it's portrayed as an unhealthy appetite that can lead to death.

    • Line 2: This line seems to anticipate the feeding metaphor that's going to get developed in the following lines. When the speaker suggests that he's craving the thing that "nurseth" his disease (a.k.a. his lust), he's saying that he desires the thing that's going to keep making him sick. The word "nurseth" is interesting because it can mean "to feed" (like a mom nurses her baby). 
    • Lines 3-4: Now the speaker comes right out and says that he's "feeding" on the thing that makes him sick in order to please an "uncertain sickly appetite." At this point, it's pretty clear Shakespeare is comparing sexual desire to an unhealthy appetite for food. By the way, Shakespeare does this a lot. Ever read Troilus and Cressida?
  • Longing and Longer, Still and Ill

    In the opening lines of the sonnet, Shakespeare beats us over the head with the idea that the speaker is so messed up that he actually wants to make his illness last longer. (Translation: since illness is a metaphor for sexual desire, it seems like the guy just can't give up a steamy relationship he's in, even though he knows it's bad for him.) So how does Shakespeare beat us over the head with the idea? With some clever wordplay, of course.

    • Lines 1-2: This is where the speaker says he's "longing" for (he desires) the thing that makes his disease last a "longer" period of time. See what he's doing here? The repetition of the word "long" makes it sound like this guy actually wants to or, longs to make his illness last even longer. 
    • Line 1: Did you notice how the word "still" has the word "ill" in it? "Still" means "always"—as in, our speaker always wants the thing that makes him ill. "Still" seems like a pretty deliberate word choice.
    • Steaminess Rating

      R

      Sonnet 147 is all about lust but it's not exactly a steamy read. Our "disease[d]" speaker pretty much sums up everything when he says "desire is death" (8).

      Gee. Why does he think that sexual desire = death? We're guessing he feels this way because

      (1) STD's were a huge problem in Elizabethan England and our speaker may have picked up one of these unpleasant social diseases.
      (2) "To die" is common Elizabethan slang for "orgasm."
      (3) Some Elizabethan's thought that every male orgasm took one day off the dude's life.

      Go to "Themes: Sex" if you want to know more about this.

    • Allusions

      Biblical Shout-Outs

      • The phrase "desire is death" (8) might be a shout-out to the following Biblical passages: Romans 6:19-23, 8:6; Ephesians 2:1-3

      Shout-Outs to 16th- and 17th-Century Proverbs

      • "Past cure, past care" (9)
      • "Desire has no rest" (10)
      • "As black as hell" (14)

      Major Literary Influences

      Shakespeare may be the best sonnet writer of all time but he didn't exactly invent the wheel. Here's what you need to know about the major poets that influenced Shakespeare's sonnet writing:

      • Francis Petrarch (1304-1374): This 14th-century Italian guy is the Mac Daddy of all love sonneteers. He's famous for the 366 Italian (a.k.a. Petrarchan) Sonnets that appear in a book called Il Canzoniere (Song Book) a.k.a. Rime Sparse (Scattered Rhymes).

        Petrarch's sonnets are addressed to a hot girl named Laura, who seems to enjoy torturing the poet. (Kind of like the mistress in Shakespeare's Sonnet 133 is accused of getting off on torturing the speaker and his buddy.) Petrarch's "smokin' hot yet unattainable girl" becomes a major cliché in 16th-century English literature—we're talking everything from Romeo and Juliet to Shakespeare's Sonnets.
      • Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542): This 16th-century English dude made sonnets cool in England when he translated a bunch of Petrarch's work into English. Basically, he did for sonnets in the 1500s what Bon Jovi did for power ballads in the 1980s. Wyatt's stuff appeared in the first ever printed English poetry anthology, Tottel's Miscelleny (1557).
      • Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (1517-1547): He's another 16th-century English guy who (along with Wyatt) made the sonnet popular in England. Surrey's poetry is also featured in Totell's Miscellany.
      • Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586): This English poet was famous for writing Astrophil and Stella (published 1591), which was the first ever English sonnet cycle. It contained 108 sonnets and 11 songs. Hmm. Not too shabby.
      • Edmund Spenser (1552-1599): Yep. Another English poet. Spenser wrote Amoretti (published 1595), a sonnet cycle dedicated to his wife. Aww. He was another major influence on Shakespeare.

      Shout-Out to Shakespeare's Real Life Mistress?

      Some folks think the mistress (a.k.a. the Dark Lady) in the sonnets is a real person Shakespeare may have hooked up with. We're not convinced there's any hardcore evidence that the sonnets are autobiographical but, if you want to know more, here are some of the major candidates:

      • Emilia Lanier: She was a dark-haired and dark-complexioned woman who hung out in Elizabeth's court and also mingled with theater types and aristocrats. Also, she was a poet and a bit of a feminist. At one point, she was the mistress of Lord Chamberlain (aka the dude who sponsored Shakespeare's acting company).
      • Elizabeth Vernon: The wife of one of Shakespeare's patron's, the earl of Southampton. (Some people think the "Fair Youth" addressed in Sonnets 1-126 is this guy.)
      • Mary Fitton: Fitton was a maid of honor to Queen Elizabeth I and had an affair with one of Shakespeare's patrons, a dude named William Herbert. (F.Y.I., some people think William Herbert is the "Fair Youth" of the sonnets.)