sonnetCXLI

In faith I do not love thee with mine eyes,
For they in thee a thousand errors note;
But 'tis my heart that loves what they despise,
Who, in despite of view, is pleased to dote.
Nor are mine ears with thy tongue's tune delighted;
Nor tender feeling, to base touches prone,
Nor taste, nor smell, desire to be invited
To any sensual feast with thee alone:
But my five wits nor my five senses can
Dissuade one foolish heart from serving thee,
Who leaves unswayed the likeness of a man,
Thy proud heart's slave and vassal wretch to be:
   Only my plague thus far I count my gain,
   That she that makes me sin awards me pain.

The poet runs through a catalogue of the senses, to see what it is that attracts him to his mistress. In fact he finds nothing, and therefore concludes that it must be some perverseness in his heart that forces him to love her and to be her slave. His reward is that she gives him penances for the sin he is committing in loving her.

 

The poem is thought to rely heavily on 'The Banquet of the Senses', an allegorical story based on Ovid. But it has other antecedents as well, and one should not overlook the fact that it is almost a continuation sonnet to 130,
My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;

for in that sonnet the appeal is made to the senses of sight ( colour of lips, teeth, flesh etc.), hearing (the sound of her voice), smell (reek of her breath), and possibly taste (lips), none of which are enraptured by what they find. There are also other examples in the literature which run through a similar catalogue of the senses, and I have included a sonnet below by William Smith. It is much more conventional than this one of Shakespeare's, in that the beloved has all the beauteous characteristics expected, for, even though they are not detailed, they are such as to give him exquisite pleasure, and the amber breath and crystal eyes stand in place of the usual coral, snow, pearls, ivory and gold with which Venus had bedecked the beloved. I have also included a short extract from Barnabe Barnes's Parthenophil and Parthenophe which I take to be relevant.

There is therefore an element of parody in this sonnet of Shakespeare's, as there was in the equivalent sonnet 130. For that reason it brings us down to earth with a bump, for it tears us away from the tortured conceits of the sonneteers, and perhaps from our own idealisations of the beings we love, and forces us to accept that the things we love often have an earthly and earthy beauty, much less than a divine one. For we also know that love is a power beyond rationality, and that it does not depend on the beloved being made of coral, or ivory, or rubies, but of flesh and blood with all its imperfections. The falseness lies in worshipping humans as if they were all Venuses and Adonises. The poet here finds himself perplexed that the woman he loves does not appeal to his five senses, as the tradition of sonneteering insists that she must, and yet he still loves and desires her. 

For a parallel and more light hearted folk tradition of love, a blessed relief from the tortured conventions of the sonneteers, I have included at the end of the page an Elizabethan ballad which sings of Love attacking the defences of a maiden.

From Chloris,

 

  That day wherein mine eyes cannot see her,
Which is the essence of their crystal sight ;
Both blind, obscure and dim that day they be,
And are debarrèd of fair heaven's light.
  That day wherein mine ears do want to hear her ;
Hearing, that day is from me quite bereft.
That day wherein to touch I come not near her ;
That day no sense of touching have I left.
  That day wherein I lack the fragrant smell,
Which from her pleasant amber breath proceedeth ;
Smelling, that day, disdains with me to dwell.
Only weak hope, my pining carcase feedeth.
  But burst, poor heart! Thou hast no better hope,
  Since all thy senses have no further scope.    

Chloris 38. W. Smith, 1596.

 

From Parthenophil & Parthenophe

    O kiss! that did all sense exceed!
No man can speak those joys! then Muse, be mute!
  But say! for sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch,
  In any one thing, was there ever such?

P&P.Madrigal16. Barnabe Barnes 1593.

The 1609 Quarto Version

IN faith I doe not loue thee with mine eyes,
For they in thee a thouſand errors note,
But 'tis my heart that loves what they diſpiſe,
Who in diſpight of view is pleaſd to dote.
Nor are mine eares with thy toungs tune delighted,
Nor tender feeling to baſe touches prone,
Nor taſte, nor ſmell, deſire to be inuited
To any ſenſuall feaſt with thee alone :
But my fiue wits,nor my fiue ſences can
Diſwade one fooliſh heart from ſeruing thee,
Who leaues vnſwai'd the likeneſſe of a man,
Thy proud hearts ſlaue and vaſſall wretch to be :
   Onely my plague thus farre I count my gaine,
   That ſhe that makes me ſinne,awards me paine.

Commentary

1. In faith I do not love thee with mine eyes,
In faith = truly. A mild oath, comparable to in good faith of 131, and beshrew that heart of 133. The dark lady was perhaps in the habit of using such expressions, and the poet responds to her by using them in reply, for example as a result of some protestation on her part. One can imagine her saying, not too convincingly, 'In faith, I do love thee more than I can tell'.
mine eyes = my eyes. The psychological tension between eyes and heart is a familiar theme, already used in 24, 46-7, and 132-3. It is traceable back ultimately to Petrarch, e.g.:
these are those lovely eyes which always are
housed in my heart among the blazing flames,
describing which I find I'm never tired.
Can.75. trans. J.G. Nichols.
2. For they in thee a thousand errors note;
they = my eyes.
errors = blemishes, faults, physical imperfections. Strictly speaking the word is from the Latin errare to wander, and hence it implies also a wandering from the path of virtue, but the claim that it is the eyes which have detected these errors limits the scope somewhat, for eyes are not very helpful in detecting moral faults.
note = notice, count up.
3. But 'tis my heart that loves what they despise,
my heart - the ruling principle in love matters, equivalent approximately to 'the mind, the emotions'.
what they despise = what the eyes see and condemn.
4. Who, in despite of view, is pleased to dote.

Who = which i.e. my heart.
in despite of view = despite what the eyes see. Probably a pun intended on in despite of you, since the sound of the two phrases is nearly identical.
is pleased to dote = is happy to love you to distraction. To dote is to love foolishly and without judgement. Compare:
For well thou know'st to my dear doting heart 131

and see the note thereon (Sonnet 131)

5. Nor are mine ears with thy tongue's tune delighted;
thy tongue's tune = the sound of your voice. Probably a derogatory and sarcastic phrase, in line with the comments on her appearance and smell. Compare sonnet 130
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;

But despite the negative at the beginning of the line, the words themselves contribute to the sense of being pleased and delighted. He could after all have said 'Mine ears are with thy tongue's tune disgusted', which has an entirely different and insalubrious effect.
6. Nor tender feeling, to base touches prone,
Nor tender feeling = Nor is my sense of touch. I do not think that the word tender here is much more than a space filler, unless one wishes to assume that the poet is drawing attention to his remarkable sensitivity to the sense of touch. It could however be generally descriptive, implying that touch is a particularly delicate and fine sense. Or it could be intended as a contrast with the baseness of her caresses, indicating that where tenderness was expected it was not to be found.
to base touches prone
= liable to be stimulated by crude and coarse caresses. The phrase could be generally descriptive of the sense of touch, i.e.'tender feeling, which is always prone to be influenced by suggestive touches'. Or it could be specific to the poet - 'my sense of touch, which is not so eager for sensual stimulation as to be moved by you'. In either case there is obviously a suggestion of sexual stimulation in the words 'base touches'.
7. Nor taste, nor smell, desire to be invited
Nor taste, nor smell = neither taste nor smell, the remaining two of the five senses. Compare 131 :
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
desire to be invited
- taste and smell have been personified, so, continuing the imagery, they may be invited to a feast with the beloved. However they are not much pleased with what they find. Unlike a traditional beauty, she does not distil honey from her lips, and her smell is not pleasing either, certainly not the pleasant amber breath which is admired in the sonnet to Chloris above.
8. To any sensual feast with thee alone:
To any sensual feast - feast and banquet seem in some cases to be synonymous, although the word 'feast' could also refer to whole days of celebration as well as the actual eating and drinking. Compare sonnet 47:
With my love's picture then my eye doth feast
And to the painted banquet bids my heart;
Compare also
When we, in kind embracements, had agreed
To keep a royal banquet on our lips;
How soon have we another feast decreed.
Zepheria 26 Anon. 1594.

sensual
- this has overtones of sexual meaning, as in
For thou thyself hast been a libertine,
As sensual as the brutish sting itself.
AYL.II.7.
One could perhaps paraphrase these two lines (7-8) as 'nor are my senses of taste and smell stimulated by sharing any intimate time with you, and in that respect you definitely do not turn me on'. The mention of a feast is mainly metaphorical, and need not be taken to indicate a shared banquet with the two of them alone. (See the quotation above from Zepheria). The only feasting is that of each one upon the other.
The conventions which the poet is following dictate that taste and smell be included in his descriptions, as well as the other senses. It does not follow that specific encounters are here referred to, or specific practices, such as kissing, licking, toe-sucking, or whatever. What sexual practices were indulged in at the time we are not likely to discover from Elizabethan literature, which is fairly restrained in its descriptions.
9. But my five wits nor my five senses can
my five wits - this refers to a curious offshoot of Elizabethan psychology, whereby the five physical senses, sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell were supposedly matched by five inner or intellectual senses. These were common wit (= common sense), imagination, fantasy, estimation, memory. Needless to say the distinction could hardly be maintained with any accuracy, since it has no psychological basis, and the phrase 'five wits' often meant the 'five senses'.
10. Dissuade one foolish heart from serving thee,
one foolish heart = me, the poet who is foolishly in love with you.
serving thee = being your servant, being a slave. Being your stud and satisfying you sexually.
11. Who leaves unswayed the likeness of a man,
who = which (i.e. my heart).
unswayed = unruled, with nothing in control, rudderless.
the likeness of a man = one who looks like a man, but is not one, because he has lost control of his wits and his senses; an empty shell of a man.
12. Thy proud heart's slave and vassal wretch to be:
Thy proud heart - this echoes
Bear thine eyes straight, though thy proud heart go wide
of the previous sonnet. A chaste beloved's heart was always described as proud and cruel.
vassal wretch = enslaved lowly creature.
The tradition of being a slave and vassal to one's mistress was well established. Compare, for example Sidney's
Oh ease your hand, treat not so hard your slave A&S.86.
A vassal was the tenant of a lord in medieval England. His social condition was almost equivalent to that of serfdom, but, after the Black death of the 14th century, labour shortages contributed to a breakdown of the existing social order, and vassalage to a lord declined. Nevertheless many of the larger Elizabethan households were run on the supposition of absolute devotion and near slavery to the lord and master (or mistress, if the master had died and she had not remarried). The term vassal was therefore easily understood by Renaissance readers. wretch had a variety of meanings, most of them indicating social and economic deprivation. Sometimes it was used as a term of endearment, but here the term is more that of 'inferior, outcast person'.

to be - the word order is reversed. 'To be the slave of thy proud heart'.

13. Only my plague thus far I count my gain,
my plague = my wretched addiction to loving you; you yourself, who have infected me with desire for you (and perhaps with venereal disease as well).
I count = I consider, I count up, I tot up.
my gain = my profit, something advantageous to me.
14. That she that makes me sin awards me pain.

That she that = that woman who, that (beloved, cursed) female who. There are two distinct possibilities here. That could simply be a conjunction, leading on from the previous line. Thus 'I count it as profit to me that the one who etc.' But the more forceful and more Shakespearian meaning is as first given, 'that female person who, i.e. you, who have infatuated me', especially as it concurs with the concluding line of sonnet 130, which foreshadows this one:

As any she belied with false compare.

(See the introductory note above for the links this sonnet has to130).  awards me pain = gives me torment (such as traditional cold beauties give to their lovers, by refusing all contact); gives me penance. The reference is not only to the pain of loving, which all sonneteers agree to, but also to the relationship between the sinner and the earthly confessor, or priest, or to the ultimate pains of purgatory which are suffered by the dead as a reward for their sins. The following from William Percy's Coelia of 1594 is illuminating:
If it be sin so dearly for to love thee,
Come, bind my hands! I am thy prisoner!
...............
Enjoin me penance whatsoever likes thee;
Whate'er it be I'll take it thankfully !
  Yet since for love it is I am thy Bondman
  Good COELIA, use me like a Gentleman. Coe.7.

There are three ideas which are common to both these sonnets, love as sin, awarding of penance, and being a vassal or Bondman. The rather lame and (to us) laughable conclusion of the Percy one should not distract us too much from its obvious links with Shakespeare, and it helps us to untwist the strands of ideas which Shakespeare is using. The idea of love as sin was an agreed convention, for by definition the lover was at fault for loving and having lustful desires, while the beloved was a chaste and cruel Saint who only tolerated love of her person in so far as it was conducive to virtue. Hence she had a right to administer pain, or penance. Sins automatically required absolution, which was given by the priest in confession, but a penance was attached to the absolution, in the form of the recitation of prayers, e.g. five Our Fathers and five Hail Mary's.


The words used here by Shakespeare, award, pain, sin, have a religious significance, which is obvious in the case of sin, but less so with the other two words. OED gives for award meanings which are mainly associated with the law courts, and Shakespeare only uses the word three times elsewhere, twice in the Merchant of Venice in a legal context. But also there are two other relevant examples, under OED 5: to sentence, to consign (to custody etc.): 1548 Udall, etc. Erasm. Par. Heb. vi. 2 (R.) That last judgment, which shall awarde some to eternall felicitie, and other some to euerlastyng paynes.
1602 W. Fulbecke 1st Pt. Parall. 83 Yet euerie of them shall be awarded to prison.


There is also a close link between pain and penance, since penance, which was the undergoing of some suffering as part of the process of remission of one's sins, could include the pain of purgatory. OED gives as the primary meaning of pain (OED.1) Suffering or loss inflicted for a crime or offence. It can also mean the sufferings and/or punishment of hell or purgatory (2.b), and the word is also linked with peine forte et dure, a type of torture applied to those who refused to speak. SB (p.483) thinks that Shakespeare refers to this in the previous sonnet:
.......do not press
My tongue-tied patience with too much disdain;
140.
Clearly the knot of ideas included in this couplet is complex, embracing doctrines of sins' forgiveness through purgatorial pains, or the penance of the confessional, or the judicial torture of peine forte et dure.

The primary meaning is of course the pain of rejection by or indifference of the beloved, but there are secondary meanings associated with repentance, either at the last judgement or in the confessional, as discussed above, the pain of judicial torture, peine forte et dure, and perhaps also the pain of venereal disease.

 

Additional notes

BEAUTY'S FORT  

When raging love with fierce assault.
Strikes at fair BEAUTY'S gate ;
What army hath she to resist
And keep her court and state ?


She calleth first on CHASTITY
To lend her help in time ;
And PRUDENCE no less summons she,
To meet her foe so brim.


And female COURAGE she alway
Doth bring unto the wall ;
To blow the trump in her dismay,
Fearing her fort may fall.


On force of words she much relies,
Her foe without to keep ;
And parleyeth with her two bright eyes,
When they her dyke would leap.


Yet natheless the more she strives,
The less she keeps him out ;
For she hath traitors in her camp,
That keep her still in doubt.


The first and worst of these the FLESH
Then woman's VANITY
That still is caught within the mesh
Of guileful FLATTERY.

These traitors ope the gate at length :
And in, with sword in hand,
Came raging love; and all her strength
No longer can withstand.


PRUDENCE and CHASTITY both too
Submit unto the foe :
And female COURAGE nought can do,
But down her walls must go.


She needs must yield her castle strong,
And LOVE triumphs once more :
'Tis only what the boy hath done
A thousand times before.


None may resist his mighty power ;
And though a boy, and blind,
He knows to choose a happy hour
When maidens must be kind.

16th. Cent.

Keep her court and state = keep her unmolested, in the state and condition of life she was in formerly.
brim = brilliant, bright.
alway = always
trump = trumpet (to summon the defenders)
in her dismay = in her forlorn state
Her foe without to keep = to keep the enemy (foe) outside
parleyeth = negotiates
with = using
when they = when the enemy
her dyke = the moat round her castle
natheless = nevertheless
still = always; mesh = net
guileful = deceitful
ope = open
all her strength etc. = all the woman's strength can no longer hold out
the foe = love, Cupid
nought can do = is powerless
down her walls must go = the walls (of her Courage, which is like a walled town or castle), will inevitably come tumbling down.
She needs must = she has to
the boy = Cupid
He knows to = he knows how to.
kind = gentle, generous; following their nature.