In ‘Sonnet 130,’ Shakespeare 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.
Sonnet 130 William ShakespeareMy 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 damasked, red and white,But no such roses see I in her cheeks;And in some perfumes is there more delightThan in the breath that from my mistress reeks.I love to hear her speak, yet well I knowThat 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.
Explore Sonnet 130: My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun
In ‘Sonnet 130,’ William Shakespeare contrasts the Dark Lady’s looks with the conventional hyperboles used in contemporary sonnets.
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. For example, her eyes are nothing like the sun and her lips are not rosy. Besides, her skin is dun and her hairs are like wires. 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.
The meaning of this poem is interesting to understand. Though Shakespeare presents the main idea in the couplet, each section reveals the qualities of a lady the speaker loves. According to the poetic persona, his beloved is unlike the beautiful things of nature. She is as she is, not a lady with heavenly attributes. The speaker loves a lady with whom he can share his heart. There is no need to have a goddess if one has a partner who understands the minute emotional impulses. That’s why the speaker proclaims his love is rare as he does not flatter her with false epithets.
Structure and Form
Usually, most Elizabethan love poetry was written in the tradition of the Petrarchan sonnet. Contemporary poets, such as Philip Sidney and Watson, would use the Petrarchan sonnet for its poetic form, whereas in ‘Sonnet 130,’ Shakespeare mocks all the conventions of it. This sonnet consists of three quatrains, followed by a rhyming couplet. The rhyme scheme of this piece is ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. Shakespeare composed the poem in iambic pentameter with a few variations. It means the meter is based on five beats or iambs per line.
Shakespeare uses the following literary devices in his ‘Sonnet 130’.
- Simile: It occurs in the first two lines: “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;/ Coral is far more red than her lips’ red”.
- Metaphor: Readers can find an implicit comparison between music and human voice in this line “That music hath a far more pleasing sound”.
- Hyperbole: It occurs in the following lines: “If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head” and “Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks”.
- Irony: Readers can find the use of irony in the final couplet. Here, Shakespear ironically comments on the epithets used by contemporary poets.
- Allusion: According to scholars this sonnet alludes to the convention of glorifying a lady’s beauty in contemporary as well earlier sonnets.
- Alliteration: It occurs in “Coral is far more red than her lips’ red”, “hear her speak”, etc.
The main theme of this piece deals with the conventional way of glorifying a speaker’s beloved and how Shakespeare looks at her lady love. It is a matter of seeing a human by her worth in one’s life. Using far-fetched comparisons to elevate a lady actually elongates the distance between two souls. Shakespeare says they are at a similar level. Their love exists on this plane. He loves the lady as she already is. She does not have anything sparkling or glorious in her looks, yet the speaker treats his relationship as rare. This sonnet also taps on the themes of love and perception vs reality.
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.
The poetic persona opens ‘Sonnet 130’ 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. Her breasts are rather “dun”, which is another word for grey-brown. Her hair is described as black wires.
I have seen roses damasked, 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.
The speaker’s beloved 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 elevating her, brings her further down to earth.
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.
As he continues to write, he admits that he loves to listen to her voice when she speaks. Yet he knows that the sound of music is more soothing than her voice. Still, he adores her voice as it is. 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 humans to enter the pantheon of the gods.
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.
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.
Scholars have attempted to push forward the idea that ‘Sonnet 130’ 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 possibly 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 ‘Sonnet 130’.
Tone and Mood
The difference between the Fair Youth and the Dark Lady sonnets is not merely in address, but also in tone and mood: 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 and mood 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 come to fruition.
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 ‘Sonnet 130’ by her dark skin and hair. The Dark Lady was called so for having those characteristics as described in this sonnet. As with the Fair Youth, scholars identity her with a real historical individual, Lucy Negro.
Explore how to understand Shakespeare’s sonnets.
About William Shakespeare
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 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 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“.
William Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 130’ is about the realistic portrayal of his mistress that is in contrast with the convention of the courtly sonnets.
All the 154 sonnets of Shakespeare were first published in 1609.
In this sonnet, Shakespeare parodies the convention of contemporary sonnets and satirizes the attempt of glorifying one’s beloved to an unrealistic height.
Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 130’ is a love poem. In this piece, Shakespeare talks about how the Dark Lady is unlike any other lady as described in conventional sonnets and how his love for the lady is rare.
In this sonnet, the mistress’ description is unusual in respect to the convention of flowery, courtly sonnets. Her eyes are unlike the sun and she does not have red lips. Besides, her skin is dun and her hairs are like black wires. According to Shakespeare, her mistress reeks and she has a dull voice. When she walks, her footfall makes sounds.
Readers who have enjoyed ‘Sonnet 130’ can consider reading the following Shakespearean sonnets from the Dark Lady sequence. You can also read more William Shakespeare poems.
- ‘Sonnet 127: In the old age black was not counted fair’ – This Shakespearean sonnet explores changing opinions on beauty and the use of makeup in contemporary times.
- ‘Sonnet 132: Thine eyes I love, and they, as pitying me’ – The sonnet describes the impact the Dark Lady’s eyes have on the speaker.
- ‘Sonnet 137: Thou blind fool, Love, what dost thou to mine eyes’ – This piece is about the speaker’s love for the Dark Lady. It condemns love for misleading the speaker about her.
- ‘Sonnet 145: Those lips that Love’s own hand did make’ – This sonnet details a woman’s changing regard for the speaker.
You can also read about the best of Shakespeare’s love sonnets and the greatest Shakespearean sonnets.