Sonnet 130 by William Shakespeare

Of the 154 sonnets that Shakespeare wrote throughout his lifetime, 126 were written to a figure known as the Fair Youth. The remaining 28 poems were written to the Dark Lady, an unknown figure in Shakespeare’s life who was only characterized throughout the poem by her dark skin and hair. The difference between the Fair Youth and the Dark Lady sonnets is not merely in address, but also in tone: while the Fair Youth sequence use mostly romantic and tender words, the Dark Lady sonnets are characterized by their overt references to sex and bawdiness. Scholars have attempted to illustrate the difference of tone between them by stating that the Fair Youth sequence refers to spiritual love, while the Dark Lady sequence refers to sexual passion. There have been a number of attempts to identify the Dark Lady, however none have some to fruition.

 

Sonnet 130 Summary

Sonnet 130 satirizes the tradition – stemming from Greek and Roman literature – of praising the beauty of one’s affection by comparing it to beautiful things, typically in a hyperbolic manner. For example, it was not uncommon to read love poems that compared a woman to a river, or the sun. Therefore, the imagery used throughout the poem would have been recognizable to contemporary readers of the Sonnet because it was playing with an established tradition that contemporary poets would have made use of quite frequently, so far as to lead it to become cliché.

It is written in iambic pentameter, with a rhyming couplet at the end.

 

Sonnet 130 Analysis

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask’d, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.

The poetic speaker opens the poem with a scathing remark on his beloved’s eyes: they are ‘nothing like the sun‘. As per Elizabethan tradition, such a comparison would have been almost expected, however the poetic speaker continues to deride his beloved’s appearance by slashing any attempt to match her to things found in nature. If snow is white, her skin is not – dun is another word for grey-brown; her hair is described as black wires, and she does not have a pleasant flush to her cheeks. He goes so far as to condemn the smell of her, and the sound of her voice.

The idea behind the Elizabethan tradition of love poetry was to elevate one’s love to a near unachievable plane; to make a mortal woman read in such a manner that she became elevated to near goddess status. The poetic speaker, rather than elevate her, brings her further down to earth. As he continues to write, he admits that he has never seen a goddess go, but his mistress walks on the ground. That line in particular seems almost openly satirizing the tradition itself, as it is well known that many Elizabethan poets would compare their lovers to things that mortals could not achieve, leaving the realm of human to enter the pantheon of the gods.

Related poetry:   Sonnet 6 by William Shakespeare

Despite her shortcomings, the poet insists that he loves her, not because she is a goddess, not because she is an unattainable beauty, but because she is his, and because she is real. He loves her for what the reality is, and not because he can compare her to beautiful things.

Usually, most Elizabethan love poetry was written in the tradition of the Petrarchan sonnet. Contemporary poets, such as Sidney and Watson, would use the Petrarchan sonnet for its poetic form, whereas in Sonnet 130, Shakespeare mocks all the conventions of it.

Other scholars have attempted to push forward the idea that the poem is ultimately a romantic one in nature. They point out that Elizabethan love poetry tended to emphasize and praise people for qualities that they could not, or would not, have possible been able to possess, whereas this, through mentioning all the mistress’ qualities, is actually complimenting her. It is quite a stretch to reach this conclusion, and it is not the popular interpretation of the poem, however an argument can be made that the poetic speaker spends an inordinate amount of time describing his mistress down to the bare bones. The lines he spends on her description could very well symbolize his true adoration for the mistress, and her looks. By contrast, poets who compare their lovers to nature are not really describing them as they are, but idealizing them – and therefore, the poet seems to hint, they cannot love their beloved as much as he loves his mistress.

 

Historical Background

William Shakespeare was born in 1564 in Stratford-Upon-Avon to an alderman and glover. He is widely regarded as the greatest English writer of all time, and wrote 154 sonnets, two long narrative poems, and 38 plays, though recently another play has been found and attributed to William Shakespeare. So little record of his private life exists that most of what people know about Shakespeare stems from scholarly discussion and speculation, rather than actual records or facts. It is still unknown who many of the figures in his sonnets are, or whether or not Shakespeare authored his own works or merely signed his name on completed plays, and convincing arguments exist on both sides.

He began a successful career in London as part of the King’s Men, working as a writer, actor, and part-owner. He produced most of his work in a 23-year-period. Many of his plays were actually published throughout his lifetime, however it was only in 1693 that a collection of all his works was published – posthumously. This was known as the First Folio, and in it it contained all of Shakespeare’s plays, with a preface by Ben Jonson, who described Shakespeare as ‘not of an age, but for all time.’

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