When my love swears that she is made of truth I do believe her,/though I know she lies…”

Shakespeare Sonnet #138

SONNET 138

When my love swears that she is made of truth
I do believe her, though I know she lies,
That she might think me some untutor’d youth,
Unlearned in the world’s false subtleties.
Thus vainly thinking that she thinks me young,
Although she knows my days are past the best,
Simply I credit her false speaking tongue:
On both sides thus is simple truth suppress’d.
But wherefore says she not she is unjust?
And wherefore say not I that I am old?
O, love’s best habit is in seeming trust,
And age in love loves not to have years told:
Therefore I lie with her and she with me,
And in our faults by lies we flatter’d be.

SONNET 138

PARAPHRASE

When my love swears that she is made of truth

When my mistress swears that she is faithful

I do believe her, though I know she lies,

I do believe her, though I know she lies,

That she might think me some untutor’d youth,

That she might think I am some inexperienced youth,

Unlearned in the world’s false subtleties.

Ignorant of all the deceit that exists in the world.

Thus vainly thinking that she thinks me young,

Thus foolishly thinking that I am still young,

Although she knows my days are past the best,

Although she knows that my best days are behind me,

Simply I credit her false speaking tongue:

Foolishly I give credit to the untruths she tells about me;

On both sides thus is simple truth suppress’d.

So that both of us are supressing the ugly truth.

But wherefore says she not she is unjust?

But why does she not tell me that she is unfaithful?

And wherefore say not I that I am old?

And why do I not admit that I am old?

O, love’s best habit is in seeming trust,

O, love’s best disguise is the pretence of truth,

And age in love loves not to have years told:

And older lovers do not like to have their age pointed out:

Therefore I lie with her and she with me,

That is why I lie to her and she to me,

And in our faults by lies we flatter’d be.

And the lies we tell each other help us forget our respective faults.

 

ANALYSIS

lies (2): meaning both “tells lies” and “lies (has sex) with other men.”

That (3): So that.

vainly (5): wrongly.

Simply (7): i.e., Like a simpleton.

credit (7): believe.

wherefore (9): why.

unjust (9): dishonest (about her fidelity).

habit (11): guise.

age in love (12): older lovers.

Therefore I lie…me (13): Notice again the double meaning of lie. The line can also be interpreted as “That is why I sleep with her and she with me.”

In Sonnet 138 the poet candidly reveals both the nature of his relationship with the dark lady and the insecurities he has about growing older. Unlike his intense yet healthy love affair with the young man, the poet’s fling with his mistress is (for now) uncomplicated and practical, fulfilling his most basic needs of both sexual pleasure and continual reassurance that he is still worthy of love despite his age. So emotionally detached is the poet from his mistress that he prefers simply to ignore her lying and adultery. The poet’s glib indifference toward his mistress is startling, particularly when juxtaposed with his profound concern for the young man, who cannot even be the subject of a rival poet’s work without rendering him “tongue-tied” and “faint” (Sonnet 80).

The Sonnets as a whole show us that time is the poet’s great nemesis and, although the dominant theme in Sonnet 138 is the comfort that lies bring to an insecure mind, a discourse on the ravages of time is once again present. A variation of Sonnet 138 was originally included in The Passionate Pilgrim (1599), along with Sonnet 144. There are minor differences between the two poems and for those who wish to do a comparison of the two I reprint it here:

WHEN my love swears that she is made of truth,
I do believe her, though I know she lies,
That she might think me some untutor’d youth,
Unskilful in the world’s false forgeries.
Thus vainly thinking that she thinks me young,
Although I know my years be past the best,
I smiling credit her false-speaking tongue,
Outfacing faults in love with love’s ill rest.
But wherefore says my love that she is young?
And wherefore say not I that I am old?
O, love’s best habit is a soothing tongue,
And age, in love, loves not to have years told.
Therefore I’ll lie with love, and love with me,

Another perspective:

The sonnet continues the contradictions of the previous one. In 137 his heart believes one thing, (that she is his alone), but knows that it is not true, while his eyes also, seeing a certain fact, refuse to acknowledge that it is true. Here the poet insists on believing something which he knows to be untrue. The poem hinges on the various meanings of ‘to lie’: the obvious one of telling untruths, and the less direct one of deceiving oneself; ending with a a third meaning of ‘to sleep with’, ‘to have sex with’. This gives the more realistic motivation for lover and beloved behaving as they do to each other, and lying in their hearts for comfort and pleasure’s sake.

The opening line sets the scene by suggesting that there is a need to patch up the loving relationship, the woman having to swear that she is true, implying that doubt has arisen, and the poet having to pretend that he is younger than he is for fear of losing her. The basis for love is therefore flawed and the love between them mirrors the flaws in their characters. Nevertheless they seem to reach a plateau of relative contentment, and can almost enjoy the game of deception.

This sonnet and 144 were both printed in The Passionate Pilgrim, a collection of 20 poems which appeared in 1599, published by William Jaggard. It is generally thought to have been a pirated edition, unauthorised by Shakespeare, although the title page claims that it is “By W. Shakespeare.” Three lyrics from Love’s Labours Lost are included in the collection, the other poems being of uncertain authorship, although it is thought that some of the others might well be by him (e.g. Crabbed age and youth / Cannot live together.). Below is the version of 138 that appears in Jaggard’s book. Opinion is divided as to the relative merits of each version, but many commentators think that the Q version is an improved re-working of the original 1599 (or earlier) version.

When my love sweares that she is made of truth,
I do beleeue her (though I know she lies)
That she might thinke me some vntutor’d youth,
Vnskilful in the worlds false forgeries.
Thus vainly thinking that she thinkes me young,
Although I know my yeares be past the best :
I smiling, credite her false speaking tounge,
Outfacing faults in loue, with loues ill rest.
But wherefore sayes my loue that she is young ?
And wherefore say not I that I am old :
O, Loues best habit’s in a soothing toung,
And Age in loue, loues not to haue yeares told.

  Therefore I’le lye with Loue, and loue with me,
  Since that our faultes in louve thus smother’d be.

The 1609 Quarto Version

WHen my loue ſweares that ſhe is made of truth,
I do beleeue her though I know ſhe lyes,
That ſhe might thinke me ſome vntuterd youth,
Vnlearned in the worlds falſe ſubtilties.
Thus vainely thinking that ſhe thinkes me young,
Although ſhe knowes my dayes are paſt the beſt,
Simply I credit her falſe ſpeaking tongue,
On both ſides thus is ſimple truth ſuppreſt :
But wherefore ſayes ſhe not ſhe is vniuſt ?
And wherefore ſay not I that I am old ?
O loues beſt habit is in ſeeming truſt,
And age in loue,loues not t’haue yeares told.
Therefore I lye with her,and ſhe with me,
And in our faults by lyes we flattered be.

From David West:

 When my love swears that she is made of truth,

I do believe her though I know she lies,

That she might think me some untutored youth,

Unlearned in the world’s false subtleties.                           4

 

Thus vainly thinking that she thinks me young,

Although she knows my days are past the best,

Simply I credit her false-speaking tongue,

On both sides thus is simple truth suppressed.                 8

 

But wherefore says she not she is unjust?

And wherefore say not I that I am old?

O, love’s best habit is in seeming trust,

And age in love loves not to have years told.                 12

 

Therefore I lie with her and she with me,

And in our faults by lies we flattered be.

 

She says it is true and, though I know she lies,

I believe her to make her think me a young innocent.

Thinnking she thinks me young although she knows I’m not,

I believe her lies. Each of us is suppressing the truth.

Why not admit it? She knows the best dress for love is pretence of loyalty,

and I want to conceal my age.

So we lie together flattering each other by our lies.

1-4 No one swears they are true unless doubts have been rasied. The Black Lady goes further. She swears ‘that she is made of truth,’ implying that she has never been unfaithful, although in Sonnets 134-7 S has raged about her infidelities. He knows she is lying, but in an act of deliberate self-deception he decides to believe, hoping to persuade her he is young and inexperienced. The older man (in 1609 he was 45) is touchy about his age. ‘Untutored youth’ and ‘unlearned’ are the language of education.

5-8 He keeps up this calculated self-deception, although he knows it does not deceive his mistress, and the folly of all this is audible in ‘believe…know…think…thinking…thinks…knows…credit,’ a great falsework of ABCCCBA. He believes her although he knows she lies, vainly thinking she thinks, although she knows. Similar but glibber tangles appear AW 2.1.157 ‘But [I] know I think and think I know most sure,’ and in Thom Gunn’s poem ‘Carnal Knowledge,’ ‘You know I know you know I know you know.’

Deception continues in line 7, where ‘simply’ suggests naivety (he is not naïve but scheming), and in line 8, where ‘simple truth’ is plain truth. Polyptoton is the repetition of a word in a different form. Here it is repetition in a different form and a different meaning, polyptoton with a twist demonstrating the treachery in the subject matter. ‘Simple’ has yet a third common meaning. What is simple is single, not composite or complex, and in 8 Shakespeare, the arch-contraster, opposes ‘simple’ to ‘both.’

Each is lying, she in pretending to be faithful, he in pretending to be young. This is a demonstration of lies at the heart of love. But there are lies and lies. Her lie is an act of betrayal, his is a harmless attempt to pose as a gullible youngster. He sees through her lie but subscribes to it as a tactic of continuance – a willed suspension of disblief.

9-12 ‘Why does she not admit she is unjust?’ She is unjust to him in the sense that she is untrue, picking up the argument from the first line. The same word is used again of truth in love, and again it rhymes with ‘trust,’ in PP (The Passionate Pilgrim) 18,19-22:

Serve always with assured trust,

And in thy suit be humble true

Unless thy lady prove unjust

Press never thou to find a new.

‘Why does she not admit she lies?’ in 9; ‘Why do I not admit that I do the same?’ in 10. The answer to 9 comes in 11 and the answer to 10 comes in 12. No aging lover likes to have his age ‘told,’ which may carry two meanings of the word, ‘revealed’ and ‘counted’ (see 30.1). But what is the answer to line 9? Why does she not admit that she is false? If trust means confidence, reliance, line 11 is no answer. She is not lying because she wishes to seem to trust her lover. The explanation is that ‘trust’ could be used to mean fidelity, honesty, as in RJ 3.2, 86 ‘There’s no trust, no faith, no honesty in men.’ The best habit love can wear is a habit, a dress, of apparent honesty. She knows she looks her best if she pretends to be faithful.

The language of natural speech gave drama to lines 2-6. A similar technique represents the idiom of lovers’ recriminations in 9-10, when ‘wherefore says she not’ is followed not by ‘wherefore say I not,’ but by ‘wherefore say not I,’ an effect like the minute variation in 54.12, 58.12, 115.10, and 13, and 124.4. Again S weighs the balance against his mistress. He does not want her to know his age. She does not want to admit she has a troop of lovers.

13-14 After the balanced lines 9-12, the interplay of persons becomes denser, ‘I…her…she…me’ in 13, before the two join in ‘out’ and ‘we’ in line 14. The last three sonnets have carried a cataract of obscenities and risqué puns, which make it impossible to read this final couplet as though it refers only to falsehood. They flatter each other with their lies as they lie together making love, the wit and the picture sharpened by an early sense of the word ‘flatter,’ to touch or stroke lightly and caressingly (see 33.2). The wit carries a supercargo of bitterness.

 ———————–

My next post:  An introduction to King Lear, Sunday evening/Monday morning

Enjoy.  And enjoy your weekend.

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One Response to When my love swears that she is made of truth I do believe her,/though I know she lies…”

  1. Pingback: Sonnet 138 | The Business of Shakespeare

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