“My love is as a fever, longing still/For that which longer nurseth the disease…”

Shakespeare Sonnet #147

My love is as a fever, longing still
For that which longer nurseth the disease,
Feeding on that which doth preserve the ill,
The uncertain sickly appetite to please.
My reason, the physician to my love,
Angry that his prescriptions are not kept,
Hath left me, and I desperate now approve
Desire is death, which physic did except.
Past cure I am, now reason is past care,
And frantic-mad with evermore unrest;
My thoughts and my discourse as madmen’s are,
At random from the truth vainly express’d;
For I have sworn thee fair and thought thee bright,
Who art as black as hell, as dark as night.




My love is as a fever, longing still

My love is like a fever, still longing

For that which longer nurseth the disease,

For that which feeds the disease,

Feeding on that which doth preserve the ill,

Feeding on that which prolongs the illness,

The uncertain sickly appetite to please.

All to please the unhealthy desires of the body.

My reason, the physician to my love,

My reason, love’s doctor,

Angry that his prescriptions are not kept,

Angry that I do not follow his directions,

Hath left me, and I desperate now approve

Has left me, and desperate I find that

Desire is death, which physic did except.

Desire leads to death, which physic (reason) will not allow.

Past cure I am, now reason is past care,

Now reason is past caring, now I am past cure,

And frantic-mad with evermore unrest;

And I am frantic with continual unrest.

My thoughts and my discourse as madmen’s are,

My thoughts and my words are like a madman’s,

At random from the truth vainly express’d;

Lies foolishly uttered;

For I have sworn thee fair and thought thee bright,

For I thought you were moral and bright (shining as a star),

Who art as black as hell, as dark as night.

But you really are black as hell and dark as night.


sickly (4) ] Love as a sickness is the primary motif of the sonnet. Notice Shakespeare’s word choices: fever (1), disease (2), ill (3), physician (5), prescription (6), physic (8), death (8), and cure (9). Also note the more subtle word play with physician and physic. The focus on illness might be connected to venereal disease. Note Sonnet 144, “Till my bad angel fire my good one out” (14). Many critics believe this is a direct reference to a sexually transmitted disease.

the physician to my love (5) ] The poet’s reason acts as his doctor, advising him on the proper course of action. In the next line we see that death is not a remedy which the physician will allow the poet.

approve (7) ] Find by experience.

black (14) ] A play on the dark complexion of the poet’s mistress.

Shakespeare’s scathing attack upon the morality of his mistress exemplifies their tumultuous and perplexing relationship. The three quatrains outline the poet’s inner struggle to cope with both his lover’s infidelity and the embarrassing self-admission that he still desires her to gratify him sexually, even though she has been with other men. The poet yearns to understand why, in spite of the judgment of reason (5), he still is enslaved by her charms. Confused by his own inexplicable urges, the poet’s whole being is at odds with his insatiable “sickly appetite” (4) for the dark lady. He deduces in the final quatrain that he surely must be insane, for he calls his mistress just and moral when she obviously is neither. Not until later sonnets (150-1) do we see a change of tone and a cool-headed acknowledgment of the recklessness of the whole affair.

In Sonnet 151, the poet admits that he cannot continue the relationship because it betrays his “nobler part” (6) i.e. his soul, and in Sonnet 152 we are witness to the end of the affair. Is Sonnet 147 autobiographical? Did Shakespeare really have an affair with a raven-haired seducer? Critics are divided on this matter, and, until some new documents are uncovered, we shall never know the truth. Attempts have been made to solicit possible historical candidates for the role of the dark lady, based on their likely association with Shakespeare. The most famous contenders are Mary Fitton, lady-in-waiting to Queen Elizabeth; Lucy Morgan, a brothel owner; and Emilia Lanier, the mistress of Lord Hunsdon, patron of the arts. I’ll leave you with a skeptic’s view of the autobiographical nature of the sonnets:

Every sonneteer of the 16th century, at some point in his career, devoted his energies to vituperation of a cruel siren….In Shakespeare’s early life the convention was wittily parodied by Gabriel Harvey in “An Amorous Odious sonnet entitled The Student’s Loove or Hatrid, or both or neither, or what shall please the looving or hating reader, either in sport or in earnest, to make of such contrary passions as are here discoursed”. The Dark Lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets may therefore be relegated to the ranks of the creatures of his fancy. It is quite possible that he may have met in real life a dark-complexioned siren, and it is possible that he may have fared ill at her disdainful hands. But it was the exacting conventions of the sonneteering contagion, and not his personal experiences or emotions, that impelled Shakespeare to give the dark lady of his sonnets a poetic being” (Sidney Lee, quoted in the Alden edition, p. 359).



My love is as a fever longing still,
For that which longer nurseth the disease;
Feeding on that which doth preserve the ill,
The uncertain sickly appetite to please.
My reason, the physician to my love,
Angry that his prescriptions are not kept,
Hath left me, and I desperate now approve
Desire is death, which physic did except.
Past cure I am, now Reason is past care,
And frantic-mad with evermore unrest;
My thoughts and my discourse as madmen’s are,
At random from the truth vainly expressed;
For I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright,
Who art as black as hell, as dark as night.

Perhaps as a natural continuation of the renunciation of the previous sonnet, or perhaps independently of it, the poet here reflects on his woeful state. He is like a patient in a fever who has been declared by the physician to be past cure. All his thoughts and words are like those of madmen, and everything is uttered at random, without any coherence. His fever lends him words, and although he cannot explain his infatuation, he feels it to be wrong, and yet he is compelled to continue drinking and eating the same noxious food which brought on his disease in the first place. Hence there is no escape for him, and he sees himself trapped in the black vortex of hell in which his mistress resides, and there is no release from the darkness.

The 1609 Quarto Version

MY loue is as a feauer longing ſtill,
For that which longer nurſeth the diſeaſe,
Feeding on that which doth preſerue the ill,
Th’vncertaine ſicklie appetite to pleaſe:
My reaſon the Phiſition to my loue,
Angry that his preſcriptions are not kept
Hath left me,and I deſperate now approoue,
Deſire is death,which Phiſick did except .
Paſt cure I am,now Reaſon is paſt care,
And frantick madde with euer-more vnreſt,
My thoughts and my diſcourſe as mad mens are,
At randon from the truth vainely expreſt.
For I haue ſworne thee faire,and thought thee                                                                                  bright,
Who art as black as hell,as darke as night.


1. My love is as a fever longing still,

My love = my passion for you, my infatuation.
longing still = constantly desiring, incessantly eager.
fever – A term often associated with love which Shakespeare has already used in connection with his aberrant behaviour when he appeared to have deserted the youth and distracted himself with other loves:
How have mine eyes out of their spheres been fitted
In the distraction of this madding fever!
Medically a fever was ‘an vnnaturall heate grounded in the hearte and lyuer’. (OED cites this from 1547). Given the uncertain knowledge of the time, it could be applied to almost any illness. The usual treatment would be blood letting, which was supposed to reduce the inner pressures and temperature:
DUM. I would forget her; but a fever she
Reigns in my blood and will remembered be.
BIR. A fever in your blood! why, then incision
Would let her out in saucers: sweet misprision!
Since fever brought on ravings, there was a widespread belief that the sick persons always irrationally desired the thing which was no good for them. They might wish for fruit or drinks for example, which the physician would consider to be unsuitable and damaging to the health. Hence the prescription (line 6) could be, as well as medicine, a prohibition against the consumption of these supposedly undesirable foods. Compare :
……………….and your affections are
A sick man’s appetite, who desires most that
Which would increase his evil.

2. For that which longer nurseth the disease;

longer = for a longer time. The proximity of longing and longer makes it seem as if the patient longs to prolong his illness.
that which etc. = the unsuitable food or drink which caused the disease initially.
= nurses. The word is ambiguous, for it suggests two opposites, ‘brings back to health’, and ‘tends carefully, so that it (the illness) stays’.

3. Feeding on that which doth preserve the ill,

Feeding on – i.e. his love is feeding on the forbidden fruit.
which doth preserve the ill = which causes the illness to remain.

4. The uncertain sickly appetite to please.

(In order to) satisfy my wavering, distempered desires.
appetite = desire for food. But, in the context of a diseased love, it signifies lust, carnal desire. OED.3 gives: ‘one of those instinctive cravings which secure the preservation of the individual and the race’. Shakespeare’s use of the word is often rather stronger and more specific than OED indicates, as the following three extracts show:

Behold yond simpering dame,
Whose face between her forks presages snow;
That minces virtue, and does shake the head
To hear of pleasure’s name;
The fitchew, nor the soiled horse, goes to ‘t
With a more riotous appetite.

Moreover, urge his hateful luxury
And bestial appetite in change of lust;

There is no woman’s sides
Can bide the beating of so strong a passion
As love doth give my heart; no woman’s heart
So big, to hold so much; they lack retention
Alas, their love may be called appetite,
No motion of the liver, but the palate,
That suffer surfeit, cloyment and revolt;

The subject of the line is ‘my love, which is like a fever’ (line 1). Note that the word order is inverted – ‘in order to please the sickly appetite’.

5. My reason, the physician to my love,

My reason – one of the faculties of the soul. Its presence here, as also the feeding metaphors, help to tie this poem in with the previous one.
the physician = the doctor. The two words were used by Shakespeare without distinction. Shakespeare’s daughter Susanna married the physician John Hall in 1607.

6. Angry that his prescriptions are not kept,

prescriptions = rules of good health, the regimen given as a means of curing a disease, proscriptions (i.e. orders to avoid certain things). In more recent use the word came to mean ‘the medicine (which had been written down by the doctor)’.
= observed, obeyed. As in ‘to keep one’s promise’.

7. Hath left me, and I desperate now approve

Hath left me – i.e. my reason has left me.
I desperate
= I, having become desperate; in desperation, I etc.
= demonstrate, show by my experience, give proof that.

8. Desire is death, which physic did except.

A line of uncertain meaning which is variously glossed. ‘Desire, such as I experience it, will bring my death, although the appropriate medicine would have averted it’. ‘Any desire which militates against good medical practice brings death to the patient’. ‘Sexual desire shortens life, but medicine can allay the effects of it’. ‘Sexual desire under certain conditions which would cause physicians to forbid it, will prove fatal’. The difficulty is partly in the word ‘except’, but also in the compression of ‘desire is death’. except probably means here ‘took exception to’. (See SB.p.518-9). There was a belief that every orgasm shortened one’s life by a day. There may also be a reference to venereal disease in ‘desire is death’. It was widespread and often fatal. See the note below to line 13.

9. Past cure I am, now Reason is past care,

An echo of the proverb ‘Past cure past care’, meaning that when curative remedies have been exhausted to no effect, there is no point in worrying any further, but also equivalent to the more humdrum ‘Don’t cry over spilt milk’. Shakespeare has inverted it by saying ‘Reason is past care i.e. beyond hope, therefore I am past cure’.

10. And frantic-mad with evermore unrest;

And frantic mad = and I am frantically mad; I have become frantic. Note that Q’s spelling of ‘mad’ as ‘madde’ allows a confusion with made. Thus ‘I have been made frantic by my love for you’. The spelling of ‘mad’ in the following line is conventional.
evermore unrest
= unrest which is incessant and endless. Evermore seems here to have an adverbial force, but if taken as two words, ‘ever more’, it could mean unrest, disquiet, which is continually increasing.

11. My thoughts and my discourse as madmen’s are,

There is a feverish quality to these two lines, in keeping with the theme of fever introduced at the start. He no longer knows what he is saying or if his thoughts have any meaning.
my discourse
= my speech; my reasoning, my faculty of reasoned speech. As in:
O, God! a beast, that wants discourse of reason,
Would have mourned longer Ham
where wants = lacks.
as madmen’s are
– i.e. my speech is like madmen’s speech.

12. At random from the truth vainly expressed;

random – Q’s randon was a variant of the time, based on the French word meaning ‘headlong, in a violent rush’.
at random from the truth
= wide of the truth, straying erratically and irrationally from the truth, furiously rushing from the truth.
vainly expressed
= spoken to no purpose, spoken with foolhardiness.

13. For I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright,

The couplet explains how he has strayed at random from the truth, for he has sworn that his beloved is something which she is not, that she is fair and beautiful, when she in fact is dark and benighted. The most disturbing aspect of these concluding lines is that they are so brutal and unforgiving. The epithets have both physical and moral significance, for he seems determined to prove that she was not beautiful either in soul or body. There was indeed a tradition within the sonneteering world at the time that the beloved was not always as fair as Petrarch’s fairest Laura. But it was essentially a playful tradition, in that there was a determination to find something different to look at. Robert Tofte, for example, in 1597, declares
My mistress seems but brown“, say you to me.
‘Tis very true, and I confess the same.
This is the cause: for brown and pitiful
I left a fair, but yet a faithless Trull.
Laura III.31.
But Shakespeare’s sonnet breaks off from that tradition, for it heaps vilification on the beloved as if she were a tart. For Tofte the faithless Trull was the one he had left, not the one he was busy praising at the moment. Whereas here the poet loves, or pretends to love, what he finds dark, black, bestial, and morally unfathomable. It is tempting to ask whether or not this is his madness speaking, whether or not he is as guiltless as we might assume, whether or not the man who left to his wife the second best bed night not have been a swine with women. For it is not impossible that the writer who gave the world some of the finest women ever created in fiction should be unable to form a satisfactory relationship with them in his life. The harsh judgement which here he levies upon his mistress, as he does also, but less vitriolically, in 131,137 and 152, does not seem to have caused too much disturbance, even among female critics, who, one would expect, might be more sensitive to these possibilities. (KDJ and HV for example both comment on this sonnet unecstatically and with little sense of discomfort at its content, except perhaps by excusing it as mad ravings). Yet it is surely appropriate to ask for whom the sonnet was intended. Was it one of the sugared sonnets among his private friends, was it intended for his mistress, or was it for the wider world, the public who might read eventually the full sequence? All these possibilities fill one with a sense of unease, and however much one might wish to praise the poem for its unfailing honesty, one wonders whether that is really a sufficient justification for its cruelty.
Alternatively we could perhaps look for a mundane explanation, and see this as the meanderings of someone who is suffering from a bad dose of the pox. The closing line, with its suggestions of hell and darkness, is, as always, suggestive of the female hell, the vagina, which burns with the flame of venereal disease, as in Timon of Athen’s outburst:
………………………………………..be whores still;
And he whose pious breath seeks to convert you,
Be strong in whore, allure him, burn him up;
Let your close fire predominate his smoke,
And be no turncoats:
The essential condition for cure of the illness was obviously abstention from intercourse, which the poet does not seem to be able to manage, and the physician despairs of him. Apart from that, treatment was possible by ‘suffumigation with cinnabar in a meat-pickling vat’, an experience not likely to be very pleasant. The patient was at the same time kept on a low diet. After such a cure anyone might well feel dejected and low and be capable of writing a sour sonnet or two about his mistress.

14. Who art as black as hell, as dark as night.

See note above. The blackness of hell and the darkness of night, and vice versa, were proverbial attributes.



Sonnet 147 falls in the realm of the Dark Lady sonnets (Sonnets 127-154). It falls towards the end of the Dark Lady sequence. These sonnets, unlike the sonnets which refer to the young man, are typically more aggressive and are usually referring to either the Dark Lady specifically, her relationship with the speaker, or the love triangle between the speaker, the Dark Lady, and her additional lovers. In the second grouping of sonnets in which sonnet 147 falls, the speaker’s feelings toward to dark lady change several times. Sonnet 147 is another turning point in which the speaker reverts to anger towards the Dark Lady. There are several theories as to who the Dark Lady actually is, if not a fictional character, however there is no substantial “proof” to allow these theories to be considered truth.[1]

Towards the end of the sonnets, beginning at Sonnet 147, the speaker returns to his previously disturbed state. The image of feeding within sonnet 147 is a continuation of imagery begun in sonnet 146. In Sonnet 147, the image of feeding changes from feeding death to feeding illness. In fact, as to the image of “Feeding”, Fred Blick has demonstrated that Sonnets 146 and 147 are influenced by the correspondingly numbered Psalms 146 and 147 and that they are designed as a pair. In the case of Sonnet 146 this influence is found in the vocative address to the “soul”, in the synchronous correspondence of argument of Psalm and Sonnet relating to “Feeding” and in the remedying of ills. In the case of Sonnet 147 unhealthy “Feeding” and the healing of love “as a fever” brought on by fatal “Desire” which “Phisick did except”, is seen in Psalm 147’s “feeding the young ravens” (carrion feeding ravens, symbolic of Death) and in “medicine” for the “broken in heart” (see Psalm 147 verses 3 and 9).


Like many of the sonnets written by Shakespeare, sonnet 147 was written to or about the Dark Lady. There’s an obvious sexual tone to the sonnet. A jolted lover is describing their inability to stop loving their mistress, who has not seemed to remain faithful. The sonnet itself seems to be sexually ambiguous, there is no reference to gender, so one could argue that this sonnet is homoerotic or heterosexual, but due to the couplet describing someone “…black as hell, as dark as night”, the general consensus is that this sonnet was written to or about the Dark Lady.

Analysis and Criticism of Lines 1-8

Robert Appelbaum is a critic who wrote an article on Sonnet 147 in The Greenwood Companion to Shakespeare. The following is his prose paraphrase of the first two quatrains in order to better understand Shakespeare’s language:

“My love is like a fever; it keeps longing for the thing that strokes it and only makes it worse; it feeds on what makes it sick in order to gratify a volatile, pathological appetite. My rational mind, which would act as a physician and cure me of this morbid love, is angry because its prescriptions have not been followed, and so it has abandoned me. In a desperate condition, I now find by experience that desire, which rejected medicine (or which medicine proscribed), is death”

Appelbaum begins by discussing that the first quatrains are entirely subjective in outlook and the poem develops metaphysical ideas, similar to the poems of John Donne. “It dramatizes a condition of the inner life, at once physical and mental, through which an individual has failed to prevent himself from falling in to the extreme, unhealthy madness of love” . He argues there are statements that each dominate the quatrain in which it appears. The statement he talks about in the first quatrain is:

“My love is like a fever.” Appelbaum suggest that like a fever, this is a love that burns. More importantly, this statement addresses the pre-modern medicine belief that fevers didn’t happen because of an infectious pathogen, but because of something that was eaten. The feverous subject continues to desire this food that made it sick, even though to consume more of this product makes the disease worse.

The statement that dominates the second quatrain is, “My reason has left me.” Appelbaum explains this as because the speaker’s reason has left him, he cannot keep himself from continuing to feed on the cause of his illness- and the idea of death approaches.

Therefore, Appelbaum concludes that these quatrains “develop the idea of a man who, having contracted a pathological condition, has spun out of control, in the course of which a truth that is not truth at all begins to form in his mind: “desire is death”

Next, he examines the idea of the divided self. He says that one of the most interesting aspects of the sonnet is what if offers to the psychology of inward experience that was taken for granted in Shakespeare’s time. There are two instances of the divided self. First, the poet is divided from his own passion. “This is a division of the self where love and desire are experienced like an illness, and the illness itself experienced like a gluttonous fever”. Then he spent time discussing the idea of eating something “cold.” He writes, “In medicine of Shakespeare’s time, a fever could be triggered by eating something too “cold,” though not necessarily something cold in a literal sense; it may be a question of something “cold” in a medical, analogical sense. The body would heat up (literally) in order to compensate for this “coldness.” But as the body was heated up, the individual might then crave to eat more of the “cold” substance to cool himself, though the effect would only be to trigger more eat. So a deprived or “sickly appetite” would be avaricious for a substance that would seem to make the individual better but could only make the individual worse”. The speaker asserts that this is what love is like. The speaker desires more and more of the person that makes him sick with love, and “feeding” on this love-object ends up making him sicker.

However, as the speaker gets sicker with passion for a love that is harmful, his reason is still able to tell him to stop. The second instance of the divided self is a division between one’s rational mind and one’s passionate behavior. The rational mind can prescribe a treatment for the passion, for instance, tell it to stop eating, but the passion is too strong and continues. The speaker believes that his reason can actually get angry and abandon him, making him desperate. However, he’s still conscious enough to recognize the most stunning idea of the poem that “desire is death.”

Appelbaum says Shakespeare’s thoughts of the rational mind vs. passion foreshadow Freud’s later idea of the conflict between Eros and Thanatos (or the life drive vs. the death drive) and the Ego surrendering to the Id, while disregarding the wisdom of the Superego.

Helen Vendler also looked at Sonnet 147 in The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. In her criticism, she focused mostly on the language and word choice of the sonnet. Her ideas are that certain parallels in rhythm “foreground” conceptual resemblances. For example, the subject phrase “my reason” matches rhythmically and positionally its verb phrase “hath left me.” At the same time, “Desire is death” matches its parallel which is “past cure I am.” She argues that the alliterating chain of words disease, desperate, desire, death, discourse, dark tells the story of the poem.

She discusses that the paradox of the sonnet is that the “madman” is in actuality perfectly clear about what the truth is. Because of this, we cannot believe him when he tells us that Reason has left him.

Carl Atkins provided his criticism of Sonnet 147 in Shakespeare’s Sonnets with Three Hundred Years of Commentary.” He notes that the first quatrain is an extended simile of a patient with a fever, keeping himself ill with things he doesn’t really like. This does not follow according to Atikins, because any cure “based on the theory of the four humors would forbid a feverish patient food”.This is based on the modern proverb, “feed a cold and starve a fever.” The simile continues with Reason acting as a physician and the patient ignoring his own damage.

Atkins describes that lines 7 and 8 have caused some difficulty of interpretation because the phrase “I desperate now approve” is unclear. He and other scholars such as Dowden interpret “I desperate” as “I, who am desperate.” Some critics such as Schmidt defines “approve” as “experience,” but other critics argue against this because there is little basis for that in Shakespeare.

The line “Desire is Death” (line 8) is central to the poem. It should be noted that there is a biblical reference here, as Romans 8:6 reads: “For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace.” This simply means that if one follows the appetites and passions of the body, death will come, but if one is spiritual they will live peacefully. The speaker in Sonnet 147 is preoccupied and “mad” with passion, which according to the bible, will lead to death. As to Sonnets 146 and 147 considered as a pair, Fred Blick (see above) has pointed out that “Desire” in Sonnet 147 is on one side of a metaphorical equarion. On the other side stand the “rebel powers” of 146. The speaker’s “soul” of 146 and “mind” of 147 are afflicted by “rebel powers” and “Desire” respectively. These afflictions are equivalent to “Death” which “Phisick” and “terms devine” could forestall.

Analysis and Criticism of Lines 9-14

Continuing Applebaum’s Modern English prose paraphrase,

I am past being cured; my rational mind that should cure me is past caring for me. I am frantically mad, ever unable to seep. My thoughts and words are like a madman’s, at odds with the truth and poorly articulated. For I have sworn that you are fair, and have regarded you as beautiful physically and morally, although you are “as black as hell, as dark as night”

Vendler has an interesting way to look at this sonnet which most all critics see as a descent into madness. She notices the etymology of the words used in the quatrains vs. the couplet, seeing a distinctly “elaborate Latininity of diagnosis and explanation” in the quatrains, and a “predominantly Anglo-Saxon lexicon” in the couplet. This descent can be seen as a devolution

Latin is the language of science, and the narrator begins as very diagnostic. However, in his lashing out in the couplet, he puts the more base words, the words of true emotion that were not overrun by the Latin language influence, into play.

Vendler also sees the dichotomy of the first person self-referential tone of the quatrains and the second person exclamations in the second quatrain the couplet “departs from the self-referential tone.” This tone is very important as Vendler makes the assertion that the narrator is not mad. The narrator abandons his hope and reason, not the other way around.

“He says he knows what Reason says, but he no longer cares to observe its mandates.” He also describes his actions as like those of a madman. This Narrator has given up on civilized life, instead agreeing to rule himself by his emotions, after he forced his Reason out.

Vendler further backs up her claim by noting the rhyme structure in the couplet, “perfect symbolic balance—6, 4, 6, 4” Vendler sees this as a perfect example of “madness’ of thought and protection.”

Stephen Booth, who writes with a language-based approach, has one very interesting note. He says three lines reflect popular proverbs. Two Shakespeare uses include “Frantic mad with unrest” and proverb states, “Desire has no rest.” Along with “Black as hell” being a common descriptor in Shakespeare’s time.

But the most interesting was Shakespeare’s use of “Past cure, past care.” Meaning a sickness that could not be cured should not be thought about. However, “Shakespeare is here not merely reproducing the proverb, but playing with it, for he has here inverted it. The case is past cure because the physician has ceased to care.”

And finally, from David West:

My love is a fever, longing still

For that which longer nurseth the disease,

Feeding on that which doth preserve the ill,

Th’uncertain sickly appetite to please.               4

My reason, the Physician to my love,

Angry that his prescriptions are not kept,

Hath left me, and I, desp’rate now, approve

Desire is death, which Physic did except.                       8

Past cure I am, now Reason is past care,

And frantic mad with evermore unrest.

My thoughts and my discourse as madmen’s are,

At random from the truth vainly expressed,                    12

For I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright,

Who art as black as hell, as dark as night.

My love is like a fever, craving what finds it.

I disobeyed my physician, reason, and he has abandoned me,

   and I am now proving that desire is death.

I am delirious, thinking and speaking like a madman,

for I thought you beautiful, and you are black as hell.

1-4  In the second ode of his second book Horace compares greed to dropsy, as an affliction which makes the sufferer crave water, and water feeds the dropsy, ‘crescit indulgens sibi dirus hydrops’, ‘the dreaded dropsy grows by indulging itself.’ Cravings of this sort occur also with fevers, and Shakespeare selects the telling detail, the seeming eternity of suffering. In this author ‘longing still/For that which longer nurseth the disease’ is not idle wordplay, but suggests the patient’s sense that this condition is never going to end. The absurdity of the craving is conveyed twice, first in the paradox of nursing a disease, then in feeding on something that preserves an ill(ness) in order to gratify the appetite of a sick and uncertain mind.

5-8  Now comes a comic interlude. The Physician, Reason, has been called in, has prescribed, and the Physic he recommended has saved the patient’s life. But, as patients do, S has not persevered with the prescription, and, as doctors sometimes do, this one has given up his patient and gone off in high dudgeon. S’s Reason has left him. Abandoned and despairing, he is proving by experience that desire is death, that his disease is terminal, and that the Physic had ‘excepted’ desire, removed it. The nearest support for this interpretation of ‘except is in Richard II 1.2.72, ‘which fear, not reverence, makes thee to except,’ where ‘except’ is glossed as ‘set aside’ (by Peter Ure in the 1956 Arden Shakespeare edition). ‘Except against’ meaning ‘take exception to’ occurs in Two Gentlemen of Verona at 1.3.83 and 2.4.153.

9-12  The proverb ‘past cure, past care’ expresses the traditional wisdom that, if a patient is incurable, care will not help him. Shakespeare has not merely repeated this sentiment, but has inverted it to fit his argument, ‘past care, [therefore] past cure.’ Now that care has abandoned the patient, he cannot be cured. In 10 his sleeplessness has driven him mad, and in 12 his thoughts are ‘At random from the truth, vainly expressed.’ In Henry VI I 5.5.41 ‘He talks at random; sure the man is mad.’

13-14  The commanding logic of this writing shines clear in 11-13, ‘Thoughts’ and ‘discourse’ are caught up in order in 12 with ‘truth’ and ‘expressed,’ and then in reverse order in ‘sworn’ and ‘thought.’ He has sworn her fair but she is black as hell; he has thought her bright but she is dark as night.

The poem is not pointless hypochondria. It has been leading to its dire conclusion, all the more crushing because of its monosyllables. His love for the Black Lady became a craving and a fever and has driven him mad. It will lead to his death. The madness is defined in the last two lines, and ‘fair…bright…black…dark’ all contain moral meanings. (144.3, 152.13). The darkness is not simply the absence of light. It is the presence of evil.”

My next post:  Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning – my introduction to our final play, The Two Noble Kinsmen.

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2 Responses to “My love is as a fever, longing still/For that which longer nurseth the disease…”

  1. GGG says:

    You might like this version too–John Hurt: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JH8gm0wFYUI

    Rock version was fun….

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