Love is too young to know what conscience is,
Yet who knows not conscience is born of love?
Then, gentle cheater, urge not my amiss,
Lest guilty of my faults thy sweet self prove:
For, thou betraying me, I do betray
My nobler part to my gross body's treason;
My soul doth tell my body that he may
Triumph in love; flesh stays no farther reason,
But rising at thy name doth point out thee,
As his triumphant prize. Proud of this pride,
He is contented thy poor drudge to be,
To stand in thy affairs, fall by thy side.
No want of conscience hold it that I call
Her love, for whose dear love I rise and fall.
One of the most puzzling sonnets, because the logic of it is not at all clear, and because there is very little in the literature of the time which gives clues as to how we should interpret it. Most of the Elizabethan sonnets are entirely restrained, and one almost believes that no thought of sex could ever have entered the lover's head. To a certain extent this is mere convention, and one has to read between the lines to see that complaints of the beloved's coldness, or that she is harder than flint and rock, imply that she refuses to give any sexual favours, not even a kiss. Occasionally a sonneteer oversteps the mark. Sidney, for example gives Stella a kiss while she is sleeping, and also writes a sonnet on desire, which I give below. But there is only one other sonnet which I know of among the many produced by Elizabethan sonnet writers which, like this one, oversteps the conventional bounds of what it is permissible to say of sexual desire. Sonnet 76 of Barnabe Barne's sequence Parthenophil and Parthenope instructs his 'upright parts of pleasure' to fall down, and tells his wanton thighs that they cannot entwine themselves round his mistress's thighs, as he had hoped. (The sonnet is given in full below). The sonnet may have had some influence on this one of Shakespeare's.
However none of this is much use in guiding our interpretations, for we lack the background knowledge of the fault that he is charged with, which he threatens to throw back upon his mistress, and we do not have information from other sources that Cupid and conscience were linked in any way.
The poem explores the relationship between sexuality and love, and comes to the conclusion that the two cannot be separated, a conclusion at variance with the established tradition, from Petrarch onwards, which emphasises the soul at the expense of the body, and veers much more towards the neo-Platonic view that only the visions of the soul are worthy of consideration.
For further discussion on Shakespeare's use of the word 'conscience' in Henry VIII and elsewhere an article by Dr. T. Merriam is especially recommended. Use the link below to view it.
Sir Philip Sidney, Astrophel and Stella, 72 (1591).
Desire, though thou my old companion art,
And oft so clings to my pure love, that I
One from the other scarcely can descry,
While each doth blow the fire of my heart;
Now from thy felloswhip I needs must part,
Venus is taught with Dian's wings to fly:
I must no more in thy sweet passions lie;
Virtue's gold now must head my Cupid's dart.
Service and honor, wonder with delight,
Fear to offend, will worthy to appear,
Care shining in mine eyes, faith in my sprite:
These things are left me by my only dear;
But thou, Desire, because thou wouldst have all,
Now banished art. But yet alas how shall?
Sidney's poem about desire says almost nothing about sexuality, and one is left to infer that he desired to sleep with Stella. She has refused and told him that only spiritual hopes are permitted, service and honour, wonder with delight etc.
Barnabe Barnes, Parthenophil & Parthenophe, 76. (1593).
Be blind, mine Eyes! which saw that stormy frown.
Wither, long-watering Lips! which may not kiss.
Pine Arms! which wished for sweet embraces miss,
And upright parts of pleasure, fall you down!
Waste, wanton tender Thighs! Consume for this;
To her thigh-elms, that you were not made vines!
And my long pleasure in her body grafted.
But, at my pleasure, her sweet thought repines.
My heart, with her fair colours, should be wafted
Throughout this ocean of my deep despair:
Why do I longer live? but me prepare
My life, together with my joys, to finish!
And, long ere this, had I died, with my care;
But hope of joys to come did all diminish.
The poem is about disappointed desire, and for its time it is extraordinarily explicit. For it is clear that upright parts of pleasure and my long pleasure are euphemisms for penis. Vines (l.6) were trained to grow up and twine round elm trunks.
The 1609 Quarto Version
LOue is too young to know what conſcience is,
Yet who knows not conſcience is borne of loue,
Then gentle cheater vrge not my amiſſe,
Leaſt guilty of my faults thy ſweet ſelfe proue.
For thou betraying me, I doe betray
My nobler part to my groſe bodies treaſon,
My ſoule doth tell my body that he may,
Triumph in loue,fleſh ſtaies no farther reaſon,
But ryſing at thy name doth point out thee,
As his triumphant prize,proud of this pride,
He is contented thy poore drudge to be
To ſtand in thy affaires,fall by thy ſide.
No want of conſcience hold it that I call,
Her loue,for whoſe dear loue I riſe and fall.