The little Love-god lying once asleep
Laid by his side his heart-inflaming brand,
Whilst many nymphs that vow’d chaste life to keep
Came tripping by; but in her maiden hand
The fairest votary took up that fire
Which many legions of true hearts had warm’d;
And so the general of hot desire
Was sleeping by a virgin hand disarm’d.
This brand she quenched in a cool well by,
Which from Love’s fire took heat perpetual,
Growing a bath and healthful remedy
For men diseased; but I, my mistress’s thrall,
Came there for cure, and by that I prove,
Love’s fire heats water, water cools not love.

Am I the odd-one-out for liking the final two sonnets as much as I do? Yes, they’re little cute stories about Cupid and don’t involve any elaborate verbal trickery or even any complex ideas. And yes . . . well, I guess those are solid enough indictments about which I don’t have much to say.

But I can retort with this classic literary argument: come on, now!

While I don’t believe Shakespeare necessarily devised the order of the sonnets (the printer Thomas Thorpe seems to have had a lot of creative influence in how that first edition wound up) I can’t help but read this as a capstone to all the rest. Sure it’s allegorical, but there’s Will again (or, I should say, the poetic subject) in the story with the mythological beings, experiencing something close to a summation of everything he has been painstakingly describing thus far.

Cupid here is set up almost as a sleepy night watchman. He’s left his dangerous weapon untended while he takes a nap, and the forces of chastity are seizing the opportunity to cool this guy off permanent-like. I like the nymphs a lot, actually; here they seem to be trying to do a good deed in their way, taking the heat of love and passion and cooling it down so it can’t harm anyone else. But the opposite happens, Cupid’s arrow heating up the water and turning it into some kind of healthful restorative spring of eternity. Water cools not love, after all.

So much glorious contradiction. Love is a painful malady that needs curing. Yes! Love exists regardless of you, despite you, even. Yes! It’s restorative, lifting you up, curing not itself but quite possibly everything else. Of course. All of it, maddeningly, refreshingly yes. The end feels almost like relief from worry and thought. It’s a statement of fact that we can trust and rely on forever: love burns, heals, rejuvenates, and for better or for worse, no matter what that may mean to you at any given moment of your life, it’s bigger than you and it’s always there.

Always.

Shakespeare ends his deep collection of musings on immortality with a simple, arrow-straight story about always.

Thanks, Will! And happy 400th – you did it.

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