W William Shakespeare

Sonnet 127 by William Shakespeare

‘Sonnet 127,’ also known as ‘In the old age black was not counted fair,’ explores changing opinions on beauty and the use of makeup in Shakespeare’s contemporary world.

Sonnet 127’ is one of William Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets. It is the first poem in the Dark Lady sequence of sonnets. They deal with the speaker (who is usually considered to be William Shakespeare himself) and his relationship with his mistress, the Dark Lady. This sonnet, and those which follow, are concerned with what’s beautiful and how concepts of beauty are changing. The speaker is right at the heart of that. 

As with the Fair Youth, there is no consensus in regard to who the Dark Lady is or if she was even a real person. 

In the old age black was not counted fair,
Or if it were, it bore not beauty’s name;
But now is black beauty’s successive heir,
And beauty slandered with a bastard shame:
For since each hand hath put on Nature’s power,
Fairing the foul with Art’s false borrowed face,
Sweet beauty hath no name, no holy bower,
But is profaned, if not lives in disgrace.
Therefore my mistress’ eyes are raven black,
Her eyes so suited, and they mourners seem
At such who, not born fair, no beauty lack,
Sland’ring creation with a false esteem:
   Yet so they mourn becoming of their woe,
   That every tongue says beauty should look so.

Sonnet 127 by William Shakespeare
Sonnet 127 by William Shakespeare


Summary

Sonnet 127’ by William Shakespeare is the first Dark Lady sonnet. It addresses the speaker’s mistress’s beauty and dark complexion.

In the first lines of ‘Sonnet 127,’ the speaker spends several lines describing the fact that nowadays, women use makeup, and he finds himself irritated by it. It’s hard to tell who is naturally beautiful and who is taking nature’s power into her own hands and changing her appearance. Luckily for him, his mistress, the Dark Lady, doesn’t use cosmetics. She has beautiful dark features that are just now starting to be considered beautiful. She’s so striking, in fact, that her eyes seem to be mourning those who aren’t naturally beautiful. They also influence those around them into thinking that her sadness about this fact is a new kind of beauty all its own. 

Themes 

Throughout ‘Sonnet 127,’ the poet engages with themes of beauty and transformation. He considers the past and the present and decides that the way women are today is less natural and less genuine than they were in the past. Before, it was easy to tell who was beautiful and who wasn’t. But, today, women wear make-up and make it much more difficult. They all darken their complexions in a way that resembles the natural beauty of his mistress. The poet also spends lines alluding to how what’s considered beautiful can change over time. 

Structure and Form 

‘Sonnet 127’ by William Shakespeare is a traditional sonnet that follows the pattern Shakespeare popularized. It contains fourteen lines that are divided into two quatrains, or sets of four lines, and one sestet, or set of six lines. They rhyme ABABCDCDEFEFGG as the vast majority of Shakespeare’s sonnets do.

In iambic pentameter, each line contains five sets of two beats, known as metrical feet. The first is unstressed, and the second is stressed. It sounds something like da-DUM, da-DUM. The fifth line is a particularly good example of the pattern. The poem can also be divided into three sets of four lines and a final two-line couplet. The fourth line is a particularly good example of iambic pentameter. 

Literary Devices 

Shakespeare makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Sonnet 127’. These include but are not limited to examples of: 

  • Alliteration: the repetition of words with the same consonant sound. For example, “bore” and “beauty” in line two and “beauty” and “bastard” in line four. 
  • Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point—for example, the transition between lines ten and eleven. 
  • Metaphor: a comparison between two unlike things using like or as. For example, Shakespeare compares his mistress’s eyes to the dark feathers of a raven. 


Detailed Analysis 

Lines 1-4

In the old age black was not counted fair,
Or if it were, it bore not beauty’s name;
But now is black beauty’s successive heir,
And beauty slandered with a bastard shame:

In the first lines of ‘Sonnet 127,’ the speaker begins by addressing the fact that ideas about beauty are changing. He knows that in the past, a dark complexion wasn’t considered beautiful. Or, if it was, he adds, no one admitted they thought so. It “bore not beauty’s name,” meaning no one called it beautiful. But, now, things have changed. “Black” is becoming more popular. It’s more legitimate to call something dark beautiful than it is to call something light beautiful. 

Lines 5-8 

For since each hand hath put on Nature’s power,
Fairing the foul with Art’s false borrowed face,
Sweet beauty hath no name, no holy bower,
But is profaned, if not lives in disgrace.

In the next lines, the speaker asserts his opinion in regard to cosmetics. He’s irritated by the fact that any woman can now turn to cosmetics as a way of enhancing their natural appearance. This feels unnatural to him, as if the woman is trying to take “Nature’s power” into her own hands. They devalue beauty, he thinks. Then, when one sees something beautiful, it is less impactful than it would’ve been otherwise. He believes that true beauty, that which nature alone bestowed upon a woman, doesn’t exist anymore.

Lines 9-14 

Therefore my mistress’ eyes are raven black,
Her eyes so suited, and they mourners seem
At such who, not born fair, no beauty lack,
Sland’ring creation with a false esteem:
Yet so they mourn becoming of their woe,
That every tongue says beauty should look so.

It’s not until the ninth line of the poem that the speaker brings in his mistress, the Dark Lady. She has eyes that are “raven black,” a great example of a metaphor. Her beauty matches the current fashion, but she doesn’t have to improve herself with makeup. Her dark eyes appear to be in mourning for those who make themselves beautiful with makeup. These people are not naturally beautiful and are the exact demographic that Shakespeare’s speaker (or perhaps the Bard himself) is annoyed with. 

The poem concludes with the speaker saying that the Dark Lady’s beauty is so powerful that she’s transforming what others think beauty should be in her sadness. 

Similar Poetry

Readers who enjoyed ‘Sonnet 127’ should also consider reading some of the other William Shakespeare poems. For example: 

  • Sonnet 40’ – discusses the speaker’s recent choice to sleep with the Youth’s mistress.
  • Sonnet 101’ – directed at the speaker’s muse who is failing to provide him with needed inspiration.
  • Sonnet 29’ – depicts the speaker’s depression as he despairs his fate and his difference from other luckier men.
  • Sonnet 92’ —discusses the fact that the speaker is going to die happily, having just known the Fair Youth. 

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About
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
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