Cupid laid by his brand and fell asleep:
A maid of Dian's this advantage found,
And his love-kindling fire did quickly steep
In a cold valley-fountain of that ground;
Which borrowed from this holy fire of Love,
A dateless lively heat, still to endure,
And grew a seething bath, which yet men prove
Against strange maladies a sovereign cure.
But at my mistress' eye Love's brand new-fired,
The boy for trial needs would touch my breast;
I, sick withal, the help of bath desired,
And thither hied, a sad distempered guest,
But found no cure, the bath for my help lies
Where Cupid got new fire; my mistress' eyes.
This and the next sonnet are based on a poem in the Greek Anthology attributed to Marcianus Scholasticus (5th cent. AD). Shakespeare possibly saw an English translation circulated by one of his friends. (KDJ suggests Ben Jonson). The epigram describes how the sleeping Cupid is robbed of his love-brand by the Nymphs, who seek to quench it by plunging it in a fountain. The fountain heats up and the brand is not quenched, so that the Nymphs thereafter bathe in hot water. Shakespeare amplifies the poem by bringing in the idea that the fountain becomes a medicinal cure, but he finds that it cannot cure him from the pangs of love. The only cure for that is to bathe in his mistress' eyes, the very place where Cupid fired his brand initially.
Were it not for the other 152 sonnets, we would consider these two final sonnets as fairly standard and belonging to the derivative tradition of sonnet writing which had been established and developed since the days of Petrarch (1304-1374). It was quite common to take a snippet from Greek mythology and work it into a poem. Compare for example the following sonnet from Richard Linche's sonnets to Diella (c.1596):
CUPID had done some heinous act or other,
that caused IDALEA whip him very sore.
The stubborn boy away runs from his mother,
protesting stoutly to return no more.
By chance, I met him; who desired relief,
and craved that I some lodging would him give.
Pitying his looks, which seemed drowned in grief,
I took him home; there thinking he should live.
But see the Boy! Envying at my life
(which never sorrow, never love had tasted),
He raised within my heart such uncouth strife,
that, with the same, my body now is wasted.
By thankless LOVE, thus vilely am I used!
By using kindness, I am thus abused. Diella 18.
Idalea = Venus.
Scores of similar sonnets were doubtless written in the period. A courtier who felt himself obliged to woo a recalcitrant dame of the court in the traditional manner, yet doubted his own poetic talents, could easily find a professional sonnet writer to compose one for him. There is nothing particulary bad or inadequate about these two closing sonnets. It is only because we have been accustomed to seeing the poet's heart laid bare throughout the sequence (or so we imagine it to be) that we are somewhat puzzled by two far more traditional offerings. Possibly they were written at a fairly early date, or, as has been suggested by Hutton ** who researched the background of these sonnets thoroughly, 154 was written first, and 153 was a second version, adapted more to fit the themes of the closing sonnets of the sequence to the dark lady. Whatever the explanation, there is no reason for doubting that they are genuinely Shakespearian, and their position here at the end of the series is entirely fitting and appropriate to the traditions of the period.
** James Hutton. Analogues of Shakespeare's Sonnets 153-54: Contributions to the History of a Theme. Modern Philology, XXXVIII [May 1941], 385-403.
The 1609 Quarto Version
CVpid laid by his brand and fell a ſleepe,
A maide of Dyans this aduantage found,
And his loue-kindling fire did quickly ſteepe
In a could vallie-fountaine of that ground:
Which borrowd from this holie fire of loue,
A dateleſſe liuely heat ſtill to indure,
And grew a ſeething bath which yet men proue,
Againſt ſtrang malladies a ſoueraigne cure:
But at my miſtres eie loues brand new fired ,
The boy for triall needes would touch my breſt,
I ſick withal the helpe of bath deſired,
And thether hied a ſad diſtemperd gueſt.
But found no cure,the bath for my helpe lies,
Where Cupid got new fire;my miſtres eye.