Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
is available for $16.00 from FootHills Publishing, P.O. Box 68, Kanona NY 14856 or see www.foothillspublishing.com.

Tourist Snapshots is available for $8.95 from Randy Fingland, CC Marimbo, P.O. Box 933, Berkeley CA 94701 or see www.ccmarimbo.com.

Dada Poetry: An Introduction was published by Nirala Publications. It may be ordered on Amazon.com for $25 plus shipping. American buyers may order a copy from me for $23 including shipping.

The other books are also available from the author William Seaton. Write seaton@frontiernet.net.


A categorized index of all work that has appeared on this site is available by looking under the current month in the Blog Archive section and selecting Index.

This site is listed in BlogCatalog and
Literature Blogs
Literature blog






Saturday, April 1, 2017

The Play of Convention in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 153




Sonnet 153 (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.



For the last two hundred years the reading of poetry has been progressively impoverished by the Romantic denigration of convention. Today poetry tends to be prosaic and colloquial and few readers apart from academics have the competence to appreciate the intertextuality of earlier works. The fact is that convention, far from stultifying and reducing expression, allows more semiotic density. Far from simply reproducing models, the skilled writer, while sometimes using convention as shorthand for content previously expressed, more frequently reverses expectations, twists them, enlarges or constructs them, alters their tone, or, in a myriad other ways, builds upon what had been already written to construct something entirely new. The use of convention enables the author to reach higher levels of subtlety in thematics and, at the same time, to increase the formal pleasures of structural variation. Such structural play can only be called academic only if the same is said of The Well-Tempered Clavier.

The Cupid sonnets that conclude Shakespeare’s collection are a case in point. Often written off as conventional, routine, perhaps not even from the master’s hand, “outliers” at any rate, they betray upon close examination an almost musical play of ideas and contraries superimposed over the melody of the words.

One may take as a starting point the Greek Anthology lyric (IX, 627) attributed to Marianus Scholasticus. [1] This is the text of Paton’s accurate if uninspired translation.


Here under the plane trees tired Love lay softly sleeping, having entrusted his torch to the Nymphs. Said the Nymphs among themselves, “Why not do it at once? Would that together with this we could put out the fire in men’s hearts.” But it was the torch that set fire to the water, and henceforth the Love-Nymphs pour forth here hot water for men to bathe in.


Surely this piece itself is a spun sugar confection for those who thought they had heard all possible changes rung on similar elements. Ignoring the considerable prior history of its meter, words, and figures, what does the poem suggest? Surely the first implication is the persistence of desire; Eros’ torch cannot be doused. Secondarily, the aetiological implication of the origin of warm bathing associates love with an ameliorating factor, something that makes life more civilized, more livable. And why were the nymphs hostile to love prior to their becoming “love-Nymphs” (“nymphs of Eros”)? What is expressed in mythological terms as their association with Artemis appears as well in philological data in the word nymph’s links with words indicating “veiled,” and thus (in contradistinction to Muslim practice) young and marriageable. In psychological terms one might associate this resistance to love with the woman’s selectivity and cautious reserve, as opposed to the men’s fire in the heart. [2] Similar notions conceived by men include the troubadour’s lady’s “daunger” or the animals of Thurber’s “Courtship Through the Ages.”

These far from original principles provide the conventional thematics for these final two sonnets which have struck many readers as superfluous or intrusive. The fact is, though, that they could plead sufficient formal precedent as well: the pattern of concluding a sonnet sequence with irregularities, often a few Anacreontic or fescinnine pieces and then a longer poem was set in Spenser’s Amoretti and Epithalamion, Samuel Daniel’s Delia, Lodge’s Sonnets to Phillis, and other collections.

Yet each of the poem’s terms Shakespeare has adapted either from the Anthology or from a later use of the story is markedly altered in Sonnet 153. Rather than repeating clichés, the poet is enriching, enlarging, criticizing, or overturning them in a captivating rapid-fire lyric that plays with reader expectations until the concluding couplet when, as at the end of the tragedies, all returns to normal once again.

While in the epigram Eros intentionally hands off his torch to a nymph for safe-keeping, the sonnet has her taking it without his knowledge. This departure is reinforced later when the sonnet describes what can only be the origin of his love in the circumstance of the nymph first relighting the torch, then, as a test, touching his breast, rendering him instantly but arbitrarily love-sick. [3] Having fallen victim to Eros through chance, he can gain no respite in an ordinary bath but only with the favorable looks of his beloved. Though helplessness before love’s onslaught is an ancient topos, it is here more evident in the more modern poem.

More significant is the sonnet’s drift to double entendre. Though the associations are only latent in the Greek poem, [4] the reader who has noted considerable risqué play in the earlier sonnets will not overlook the correspondence of torch and “vallie-fountaine” with genitals. Indeed, attempting to douse the hot phallus in the moisture not only fails to put out the fire, it heats the water into a “seething bath” due to the “holie fire of love.” [4] The brand is relighted at the eye of the beloved though it had never seemed to be put out, and the lover’s heart is set aflame anew, paradoxically to seek solace or cure only in that same mistress’ eye. “Eye” itself was used to suggest the female sex as in Benedick’s lines from Much Ado About Nothing: “I will live in thy heart, die in thy lap, and be/ buried in thy eyes.” [5]. Whereas the Greek epigram had perhaps slightly ruefully described the ineradicable power of desire, the English sonnet introduces the whole complex of self-consciousness about sexuality with its euphemistic concealment causing sniggering foregrounding.

Shakespeare has, in fact, deployed not only the terms of inherited Classical myth, but has added parallel but quite different obscene and courtly love conventions, thus thickening the plot considerably. By doing so he has not vitiated but has enriched his meaning; he has not lost but rather has gained precision and individuality. The fact that at least three basic sets of language, metaphor, affect are inextricably interlaced in Sonnet 153, while formally a tour de force, a dazzling finale for the volume, results not in confusion or interference. Instead the reader infers a love experience in which each set of expectations bears partial truth. At a given moment one or another may be dominant, while at other times all three may weave routes about each other in a precise and beautiful dance of words.

Used adeptly, convention serves as a means of increasing the semiotic density of a passage. Shakespeare chose to use one of the most convention-bound forms, the sequence of love sonnets, to express the complexities of his persona’s experience of love, and, at the culmination of his magnificent and subtle sequence, he simultaneously evokes a variety of erotic paradigms through allusions to a host of earlier poems. It is through such devices as rhetorical figures such as allusion that literature is uniquely capable of expressing such tensions, contradictions, and out-and-out paradoxes.



1. The Anthology is, of course, a very late collection, and Marianus one of the latest of its authors. His poem was based on a lengthy previous tradition we cannot here engage. The role of convention in the Anthology itself is suggested by the fact that this poem appears in a series of lyrics using the image of bathing. For other prior uses of the theme see James Hutton’s "Analogues of Shakespeare's Sonnets 153-154: Contributions to the History of a Theme" (Modern Philology, XXXVIII [May 1941], 385-403).

2. The fire of love is a universal trope of great antiquity. Among its forms are the medieval mystical Incendia Amoris and Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.”

3. Compare the love potion in Tristan and Iseult.

4. These associations do have Classical antecedents. See, for instance Martial, Epigrammaton 3.93.27, in which a torch represents a penis and the female genitals are explicitly named.

5. Compare A Midsummer Night’s Dream “But I might see Cupid’s fiery shaft/ Quenched in the chaste beams of the watery moon.” (II, i) To some readers the bath refers to treatments for syphilis, implying recognition of darker aspects of love-making.

6. V, ii.

Notes on Recent Reading 30 [Bradford, Scott, Marquand]

On Plymouth Plantation (Bradford)

Though the USA has since been shaped by the practice of slavery, industrialization, and immigration, one continues to look to Bradford for an account of an American essence, and he delivers. The middle class origin of the first settlers is quite explicit, and Bradford documents the persecution they encountered as Dissenters in England as well as their difficulties in the Netherlands before they took the daring leap across the ocean. On the scene during the beginning of the colony he names in his title, he details (often in self-justification) the settlers’ contractual obligations to investors and their protection of their own interests, including once boarding a ship that had come to trade without permission, a raid that resulted in death. The collectivist will read with sorrow of the colony’s beginning in communalism only to fall back after a few years to private ownership of land. Here, too, one can read a contemporary account of Roger Williams’ break – Bradford calls him a devout and righteous man, but woefully misguided. He has no such sympathy for Thomas Morton, whose followers erected the famous maypole at Merrymount about which Hawthorne wrote. Morton himself had said that he found the natives (or, as he said, “Infidels”) “most full of humanity, and more friendly than the other [i.e. the Christian Englishmen]. “ One can imagine an entire alternative America. Though the economic plays a large role in his values, Bradford was sincere in his religious beliefs and, in fact, as he wrote toward the end of his life, he lamented the falling off in fervor that had occurred since the rough early days. The book has a consistent value that accumulates from the mass of detail Bradford records. His prejudices and self-interest only enrich the account further.


The Talisman (Scott)

To read Scott with pleasure one must understand the value of convention. The reader whose gorge rises at phrases like “trusty steed” and “valiant knight” will put the book down after a single page. To me these predictable patterns approach the depth of myth. There are reasons that the popular is popular but it is only rarely that a purveyor of best-sellers will be as talented as Scott. The historian of orientalism will find the tale slim pickings. Saladin and his court exactly mirror their European opponents in civilization and in heart. In fact the antagonists could be anywhere at any time. Far from diminishing the story’s cultural nationalism, this strengthens it with the assumption that all people must share the same values. The story reassures its audience of their culture in a way largely dependent on pure abstract structure that (as is generally true of taboo). The rules could be of any sort. What matters is who practices them. For the reader who shares with Scott an admiration of love and honor the story retains its power.


Point of No Return (Marquand)

Having read The Late George Apley as a teenager (when I believe Marquand’s literary standing was higher), I was curious to read this when I came upon it in a Salvation Army store. Point of No Return is (like the earlier novel) intently concerned with class. Marquand’s own family, though possessing the finest of American pedigrees, had fallen on relatively hard times, and he attended Harvard as a scholarship student in an era when that school was even more thoroughly than today the all-but-exclusive reserve of the ruling class. Perhaps one reason for Marquand’s decline is that the Eastern WASP establishment is no longer clearly in control.

However that may be, this book is concerned with the relation between what it calls the upper-upper class and the upper middle class which characterizes the hero, Charley Gray. I was pleased at least that Marquand did not make his hero a sensitive and rebellious player, but rather that far more common type, a striver seeking to rise a rung or two on the socio-economic ladder. My own background in a family occupying a lower stratum in a very affluent suburb fed at times my interest, but, for better or worse, I rejected money and consumerism very early while Charley feels only a slight ambivalence. In the end, when he thinks he has hit a reverse in his career, he feels suddenly liberated, only to fall back into line when he finds he had been mistaken. The American idolatry of status and money certainly persists, though much in this 1949 novel is dated. The bankers here spend their time not trying to generate profit from hedge funds and minute price fluctuations, but instead coddling wealthy and aged clients. They also wear “boiled shirts,” though surely these were almost obsolete, worn only by the most conservative of businessmen.

Apart from jumbling the chronology, the narrative is straightforward. The characters are well-drawn but shallow. Perhaps Marquand would have contributed as much to American literature if he had continued to produce genre books like his popular Mr. Moto mystery series.

Biking as a Spiritual Discipline

I am still biking twenty-five miles a day, taking me about ninety minutes, not counting time spent applying sun screen, and I continue to hope the routine may ward off the Reaper for a while, and allow me along the way to eat rich dinners without assuming an altogether unseemly form. It is rather a lavish expenditure of hours and energy, though, and consumes, I figure, little short of ten per cent of my waking life, an alarming cost for one with little taste for athletics. Wishing to justify the practice on other than physical grounds, I have lately been contemplating the mental and spiritual rewards of this exercise. I like to think that without this more ethereal reinforcement, I may not have been able to keep riding so long.

Many thoughtful people have found running, jogging, or riding to be a useful time to contemplate concepts, or the order of words in either prose or verse. Scientists and engineers as well as poets find that inspiration may arise in such paradoxical moments when the mind is in one way totally engaged and yet in another altogether unharnessed. The mind can benefit from its removal from the concerns of everyday life. This benefit is functional and incidental and resembles the opportunity afforded by long distance driving, knitting, and similar occupations.

Yet it is true as well that any such repetitive physical action is, as the Zen abbots knew, a form of meditation and may assist the mind in its approach toward enlightenment. The mandala is of less importance than the focus itself in Tibetan sand painting. Surely the monks could be making images of Donald Duck.

Even without intention routine tends to empty the mind. I recall when I would be driving my old commute and would suddenly return to immediate conscious awareness after a space of mental wandering without ever losing total prudential driving alertness in one part of my cranium.

The liberating effect is purely dependent on repetition. There is good reason that devotees repeat formulae and the Sioux chanted their divine scat songs for hours. Surely the field work songs of the old South sustained cotton pickers through long days, and for all one knows, the minds of the home weavers of ore-industrial days may have soared in the most imaginative flights of fancy. The brilliant work and field songs of the old South formed the rich subsoil in which the blues grew. I have always thought the worst job would be on a production line, yet perhaps those laborers, too, could relax into an all-too-familiar routine and feel their minds float free. All conscious recourses to icons, mandalas, St. Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises and all the rest are refinements of the technology of managing human consciousness which, however varied the imagery and assumptions, depend on a fundamentally similar method.

Those who achieve high levels of athletic performance must certainly be practicing a form of meditation, at the very least a single-minded focus on the task at hand which paradoxically may be experienced as an escape from the physical which under these circumstances continues without conscious attention. Concentration on the physical can vault consciousness beyond muscles and rushing blood. The push of ego can lead to ego’s disappearance.