William Shakespeare 1609
The Sonnets devoted to the “dark lady” run from “Sonnet 127” to “Sonnet 154”; this poem, perhaps the most famous of the sequence, is a no-holdsbarred description of one of the most intriguing women in English literature. The question as to who she actually is has intrigued Shakespeare’s critics since the sonnets were first published in 1609. Most probably, “the dark lady,” along with the “fair youth” and the “rival poet,” are characters created for the sonnet sequence, inspired partially by fictional characters and real-life acquaintances. “Sonnet 130” provides no further clues as to her identity, but paints a verbal portrait of the “dark lady” that is as unconventional and frank as the speaker’s proclamation of his love for her. In refusing to rely on conceits to describe her features, the speaker turns his back on poetic tradition; consequently, he describes a person who is a unique individual—whether or not she only existed on paper. Though his honesty may seem painful at times, the speaker’s last two lines reveal the depth of his love for this special woman.
Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon on or about April 23, 1564. His father was a merchant who devoted himself to public service, attaining the highest of Stratford’s municipal positions—that of bailiff and justice of the peace—by 1568. Biographers have surmised that the elder Shakespeare’s social standing and relative prosperity at this time would have enabled his son to attend the finest local grammar school, the King’s New School, where he would have received an outstanding classical education under the direction of highly regarded masters. There is no evidence that Shakespeare attended university. In 1582, at the age of eighteen, he married Ann Hathaway of Stratford, a woman eight years his senior. Their first child, Susanna, was born six months later, followed by twins, Ham-net and Judith, in 1585.
These early years of Shakespeare’s adult life are not well documented; some time after the birth of his twins, he joined a professional acting company and made his way to London, where his first plays, the three parts of the Henry VI history cycle, were presented in 1589-91. The first reference to Shakespeare in the London literary world dates from 1592, when dramatist Robert Greene alluded to him as “an upstart crow.” Shakespeare further established himself as a professional actor and playwright when he joined the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, an acting company formed in 1594 under the patronage of Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon.
The members of this company included the renowned tragedian Richard Burbage and the famous “clown” Will Kempe, who was one of the most popular actors of his time. This group began performing at the playhouse known simply as the Theatre and at the Cross Keys Inn, moving to the Swan Theatre on Bankside in 1596 when municipal authorities banned the public presentation of plays within the limits of the City of London. Three years later Shakespeare and other members of the company financed the building of the Globe Theatre, the most famous of all Elizabethan playhouses. By then the foremost London Company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men also performed at Court on numerous occasions, their success largely due to the fact that Shakespeare wrote for no other company.
In 1603 King James I granted the group a royal patent, and the company’s name was altered to reflect the King’s direct patronage. Records indicate that the King’s Men remained the most favored acting company in the Jacobean era, averaging a dozen performances at Court each year during the period. In addition to public performances at the Globe Theatre, the King’s Men played at the private Blackfriars Theatre; many of Shakespeare’s late plays were first staged at Blackfriars, where the intimate setting facilitated Shakespeare’s use of increasingly sophisticated stage techniques. The
playwright profited handsomely from his long career in the theater and invested in real estate, purchasing properties in both Stratford and London. As early as 1596 he had attained sufficient status to be granted a coat of arms and the accompanying right to call himself a gentleman. By 1610, with his fortune made and his reputation as the leading English dramatist unchallenged, Shakespeare appears to have retired to Stratford, though business interests brought him to London on occasion. He died on April 23, 1616, and was buried in the chancel of Trinity Church in Stratford.
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
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any She belied with false compare.
The subject of “Sonnet 130,” as well as Sonnets 127 through 154 of Shakespeare’s sequence, is known as the “dark lady”—not only because of the mystery that surrounds her, but because of her appearance as described in this poem. Certainly, the speaker is mocking the employment of a typical Petrarchan conceit, in which women’s eyes were compared to the sun, stars, and other heavenly bodies; such expressions lose their subtlety of meaning with overuse and become cliches. But in refusing to describe his mistress in the expected way, the speaker has also identified her as an individual. Her glance is not light or bright, but deeper and perhaps more profound.
Red coral, used in jewelry, was of a color thought pleasing for lips; even today, “coral” is a common shade of lipstick. Smooth, milky-white skin was also valued for its beauty during Shakespeare’s time. As the speaker bluntly proclaims, his mistress’s features do not measure up to the typical standards of attractiveness; indeed, his description of her skin as a dull grayish brown sounds like an insult. But is it? Pure whiteness represented virginity. Alternately, this woman’s coloring might not just represent her dirtiness, but also her earthiness, and perhaps her natural sexuality (note the play on the word “dun”). There is also the possibility that the mistress is of a darker-skinned race.
The comparison was not quite as unflattering during the Renaissance as during modern times. Threads of beaten gold used in jewelry were the basis of the idea of wires, not the utilitarian metal cords of today. The term “black wires” also does not rule out the possibility that the mistress was of a different ethnicity, such as Asian or African.
Damask is a deep rose color, in addition to a fabric decorated with highly wrought patterns. The “dark lady’s” face apparently does not possess the healthy glow of the first, or the luster and richness of the latter.
- There are several audio recordings of readings of Shakespeare’s sonnets, including Sonnets of Shakespeare, by Spoken Arts, Inc.; Living Literature: The Sonnets of Shakespeare, by Crown Publishers, Inc.; and Shakespeare: The Sonnets, by Argo Records.
- Shakespeare’s Sonnets is a Films for the Humanities & Sciences video featuring an in-depth look at the poems and recitals of selected sonnets by such actors as Ben Kingsley and Claire Bloom.
- A modern adaptation of “Sonnet 130” can be found in the title song of the singer Sting’s 1987 A & M release, Nothing Like the Sun, which incorporates lines from Shakespeare’s poem into its lyric.
The idea that “reek” and “stink” are synonyms did not develop until at least a century after Shakespeare wrote this sonnet. Renaissance readers would understand that the mistress’s exhaled breath was not as pleasant as some perfumes—probably a very realistic observation, but a surprising departure from the traditional flattering line.
“Her voice is music to my ears”: this is not an uncommon cliche even today, though the speaker deliberately shunned its sentiment in this sonnet several centuries ago. Though his judgement sounds harsh, he pays her an unusual compliment in commending her conversational arts—especially during the Renaissance, when women were not considered the intellectual equals of men.
A typical Petrarchan conceit might flatter a female subject by comparing her gait to an immortal’s stride. This speaker refuses to compare his mistress with that which he has never seen. As in line 3, her description suggests that she has an earthy quality; to use another cliche, she has “both feet on the ground.”
This couplet explains why these lovers will remain a couple, even after 12 lines of frank commentary regarding the woman’s shortcomings and imperfections. The “dark lady” and the reader can now be certain that the speaker will not flatter because of habit or tradition; so when he claims that she is precious and exceptional to him, his words ring true. Indeed, he loves her for all her faults, not for what he might have built her up to be. She is unconventional and unpredictable, but so is he in his approach towards romance; her earthiness and his bluntness seem to make a good match.
Appearances and reality
In “Sonnet 130” Shakespeare explores how we perceive things and (especially) people around us. Specifically, he is interested in the ways love and traditional forms of thinking about or expressing love can color our perceptions. The poem sets up a series of expectations in the reader, based on long-established conventions of love poetry that stretch from the popular blazon form, to the sonnets of Petrarch, and back to medieval love poetry. As Shakespeare uses the images of such things as the sun, coral, snow, and roses, the reader instantly recognizes them as standard materials of love poetry and expects the lover to be compared favorably—or even judged superior—to these things. This is a love poem, the reader understands, and the object of the poet’s love will be shown to be better or more beautiful than anything else in the world. However, Shakespeare overturns the conventions and defies the reader’s expectations by showing the lover as inferior to the usual standards. As the poem progresses, the reader begins to think that maybe the woman is ugly and starts to wonder what kind of love poem this is. The reader is thrown into uncertainty. The conventional standards of love poetry don’t apply. The reader becomes more and more convinced that the poet doesn’t love the woman at all. With the closing couplet, however, Shakespeare seems to reverse himself again by insisting that he thinks his love “as rare / As any She belied with false compare.”
Topics for Further Study
- In the form of a letter, write a response to this poem from Shakespeare’s mistress, expressing whether she is flattered or offended by his statements.
- What characteristics of the sonnet are displayed here? Based on the evidence of this poem, what kinds of sentiments are typically expressed in the sonnet form? Give specific examples.
All appearances to the contrary, he does love her after all. Even though the woman doesn’t fit the standard model of beauty, even though the poet doesn’t sound like a traditional lover, and even though the poem doesn’t follow convention, she is in truth beautiful, he does actually love her, and this is in reality a love poem.
Creativity and imagination
“Sonnet 130” can also be read as an examination of the nature of the poetic imagination. Throughout the poem Shakespeare inverts the conventional forms poets have used for centuries to describe the perfect woman. The metaphors and similes comparing the lover’s eyes to the sun, her voice to music, and so forth are the tools of the poet’s trade, as it were, devices employed to convey what is present in the poet’s imagination. But Shakespeare refuses to use these tools; over and over the speaker insists that such comparisons are false. Her lips are not as red as coral, her breasts are not as white as snow, her breath is not finer than perfume. The climax of this series of repudiations comes in lines 11-12, where the lover is contrasted to a goddess. Goddesses are mythological figures; wholly creations of the imagination, they have no connection to the real world. As such, they have been used by poets to express an absolute ideal, a perfection not possible in real life. In this sonnet, however, when Shakespeare declares that his lover is of this world, that she “treads on the ground,” he appears to reject the world of the imagination, preferring the actual world instead.
A similar view is expressed in Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Theseus, the wisest and highest-ranking person in the play (and so carries a good deal of authority) argues that poets, lovers, and madmen are all similar in their use of imagination:
The lunatic, the lover, and the poet
Are of imagination all compact.
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold;
That is the madman. The lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt.
The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to aery nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination,
That if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy;
Or in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy a bush is suppos’d a bear! (V.i.7-22)
Theseus scoffs at the way all three create something out of nothing by means of the imagination. He seems to suggest that using the imagination means blowing things out of proportion, a sentiment that is like the one expressed in Sonnet 130. A similar note is sounded in Hamlet, when the hero warns a troupe of actors not to overdo it when they perform a play he has given them:
do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently, for in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say, whirlwind of your passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness. O, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to totters, to very rags, to spleet the ears of the groundlings, who for the most part are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb shows and noise. (III.ii.4- 12)
Here the actor’s imagination, like that of the poet, exaggerates and distorts. Art, Hamlet goes on to say, should be true to life.
Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance, that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature: for any thing so o’erdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure. (III.ii. 17-24)
Time and time again in his work, Shakespeare criticizes art that is overblown, that is made only of the “aery nothing” of the imagination, and he praises art that is rooted in reality, that holds “the mirror up to nature.” “Sonnet 130,” with its condemnation of poetic hyperbole as “false compare,” is in this respect characteristically Shakespearean.
The sonnet (from the Italian “sonnetto”, or “little song”) owes much of its long-standing popularity to the Italian poet, Petrarch. By the mid-sixteenth century, this fixed poetic form was adopted by the English, who borrowed the fourteen-line pattern and many of Petrarch’s literary conventions. English writers did, however, alter the rhyme scheme to allow for more variety in rhyming words: while an Italian sonnet might rhymeabba, abba, cdc, dcd, an English or Shakespearean sonnet rhymes abab, cdcd, efef, gg.
In all but three of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets (“Sonnet 99,” “Sonnet 126,” and “Sonnet 145”), the first three groups of four lines each are known as quatrains, and the last two lines are recognized as a couplet. The three breaks between the quatrains and the couplet serve as convenient places where the writer’s train of thought may take a different direction. In “Sonnet 130,” the quatrain’s work support each other in a common way of thinking about the mistress; the couplet, however, is a great surprise, as it seems to contradict the mood and meaning of the lines preceding it.
“Sonnet 130” is written in iambic pentameter. Iambic meter, the most familiar rhythm in the English language, is simply the succession of alternately stressed syllables: an iamb, a type of poetic foot, is a group of two syllables in which the first is unstressed and the second is stressed. The use of “penta” (meaning “five”) before “meter” means that there are five iambs per line. One of Shakespeare’s only divergences from the rhythmic flow in “Sonnet 130” is in line 13, when he includes an extra syllable in the poetic foot “by heaven”; this break in the regular meter emphasizes the sincerity behind his oath, and perhaps suggests the height of his emotion for his mistress.
The Renaissance: Shakespeare lived and wrote during the Renaissance, a time of great political, cultural, and social change. The influence of the Catholic Church, which had dominated all aspects of life throughout Europe during the Medieval period, was giving way to more secular, less spiritual forces. In religion the Reformation challenged the absolute authority of the pope in spiritual matters and emphasized the faith and devotional practices of the individual. Along with this dispersion of spiritual
Compare & Contrast
- 1558: Elizabeth I became Queen of England and ruled until her death in 1603. A Protestant country, England was continually threatened by its Catholic neighbors, France and Spain, and Elizabeth herself survived several assassination attempts made by English Catholics. Fears regarding spying, treachery, and outright attack were pervasive throughout Elizabeth’s reign.
Today: Elizabeth II has ruled Britain since 1952. The early years of her reign took place during the height of the Cold War, in which Western democratic countries such as Britain and the United States were in a continual state of hostility with the communist Soviet Union and its allies. As in the reign of Elizabeth I, spying, treason, and invasion were a constant source of worry. Since the collapse of communism in the late 1980s, however, Britain has entered a period of relative peace, a condition never enjoyed by the first Elizabeth.
- 1600: A French commercial partnership obtained a monopoly on fur trade in the New World, while the English East India Company was established in hopes of challenging Dutch control of the spice trade.
Today: England, France, and other continental countries are moving to form the European Economic Community, a union designed to help European countries compete more effectively in the truly global marketplace, which is dominated by such economic giants as Japan and the United States.
- 1604: King James I publishes his Counterblaste to Tobacco, describing smoking as “a custome loathsome to the eye, hatefull to the nose, harm-full to the braine, dangerous to the lungs, and in the blacke stinking fume thereof, nearest resembling the horrible Stigian smoke of the pit that is bottomlesse.”
Today: Over fifty million Americans still smoke, despite its being identified as a cause of heart disease, emphysema, and lung cancer. Over 390,000 Americans die each year from the effects of smoking.
- 1605: The first newspaper began publication in Antwerp, Belgium.
Today: People get news and information from a host of sources and media, including print newspapers, books, and magazines, television and radio broadcasts, cable and satellite services, CD-ROMs, and internet sites.
- 1609: The ship Sea Venture, part of a convoy sailing to the aid of starving English settlers in the Virginia Colony, was shipwrecked on an island. Previously unexplored, the island had been called the Isle of Devils and was thought to be inhabited by demons.
Today: The Isle of Devils is now called Bermuda. It remains a colony of Great Britain and is one of the oldest members of the British Commonwealth. Because of its pleasant subtropical climate, it is a popular vacation destination.
authority came a redistribution of political power to individual states, which were throwing off the control of the pope in Rome. Art and culture, too, experienced a reawakening (“renaissance” means “rebirth”) as sacred themes in painting, drama, and poetry were replaced by human concerns, such as love, honor, and physical beauty. Writers and painters sought to create new standards, new definitions of what was true, good, or beautiful, based on direct experience rather than on received knowledge or traditions. This impulse can be clearly seen in “Sonnet 130,” in which Shakespeare systematically overthrows conventional ideas about love and beauty in favor of more personal, clear-eyed, and down-to-earth definitions. For the speaker of the sonnet, poetic devices and techniques, in use for hundreds of years, no longer seem applicable—indeed, they seem deceitful. Women who are described using lofty comparisons, the poet states, are “belied with false compare.” His lover, in contrast, is no goddess, she is “nothing like the sun”; and his description of her as a real woman who “treads on the ground” therefore comes across as truer, more realistic.
Queen Elizabeth I: Shakespeare’s rejection of traditional notions of femininity and feminine beauty in “Sonnet 130” can be viewed as a response to a situation very rare for the time: the presence of a woman on the throne of England. Although Shakespeare’s sonnets were first published in 1609 (during the reign of James I), at least some were written a decade or more earlier (during Elizabeth’s reign) and circulated in manuscript among the author’s friends. For the most part, during Shakespeare’s time English society (and that of the rest of Europe as well) was male dominated. Women were seen as inferior to men. Girls received less schooling than boys; since they were not allowed to pursue a profession, a good education was not considered necessary for them. Domestic skills such as cooking, weaving, and spinning were highly valued in women, and training in these formed the bulk of the education they did receive. The only road open to women was marriage, and in that wives were subservient to their husbands.
A notable exception to these rules was the English monarch herself. Queen Elizabeth held a position of power and authority universally held elsewhere by men. Moreover, she was widely considered a strong and effective ruler and a brilliant politician. She led her country through dangerous times, continually repelling threats by Spain, France, and other forces hostile to England. This image of a strong, capable woman stood in marked contrast to the prevailing stereotypes of women, and caused heated debates among many of her subjects, including some of her own court advisors. Queen Elizabeth never married, and throughout her reign she was repeatedly urged to take a husband, who would be made king. This, it was believed, would eliminate the anxiety and uncertainty many felt with a woman monarch. Elizabeth, however, used the prospect of marriage to her as a political tool, holding out the possibility as a means of influencing foreign rulers as well as lords within her own country.
With such a powerful figure on the throne, accepted views regarding women were beginning to be questioned, even if they were never wholly discarded. In “Sonnet 130” we see Shakespeare taking part in this reevaluation, rejecting conventional, idealized descriptions of feminine beauty and beginning to explore alternatives. It is perhaps significant that Shakespeare provides no definite, unified definition of beauty to replace the one he questions. That would be merely to replace one stereotype for another; and in the changing, tumultuous times in which Shakespeare lived, the reassuring certainty that stereotypes can provide would perhaps ring hollow and false.
Shakespearean critics have never formed a consensus as to whether “Sonnet 130” should be viewed as a serious work of art or an amusing trifle. In Shakespeare’s Sonnets: Self, Love, and Art, Philip Martin claims that the poem has been wrongfully dismissed as pure satire when it fact it is a passionate defense of all that is “unstereotyped, unpredictable, unique.”Alternately, Stephen Booth argues in Shakespeare’s Sonnets that the poem “appears to have no target and no aim but to be funny.”
Also divided is critical opinion of the “dark lady,” the subject of this poem and all the sonnets from 127 to 154. Though she has often been denounced as a common prostitute or she-devil, she has also been recognized as an earthy woman with a healthy sexual appetite. In an article in Studies in Philology, M.L. Stapleton observes that some of her detractors may have been limited by their own “patriarchal morality” and old-fashioned “sense of propriety.”
Joanne Woolway is a freelance writer who recently earned her Ph.D. from Oriel College, Oxford, England. In the following essay, Woolway analyzes how, in “Sonnet 130,” Shakespeare “succeeds ... in turning traditional poetic conventions around.” She also takes a close look at the ways Shakespeare’s versification—his skill patterning of stressed and unstressed syllable—supports the poem’s meaning
In the sixteenth century, a form of poetry called the blazon was briefly popular. “Blazon” is a technical term usually used to describe heraldry. It always involved a detailed summary of all of the main features and colors of an illustration and also described the position and relation of one picture
What Do I Read Next?
- Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets in all. The first 126 are addressed to a young man or “Friend” as he is called by the poet. (Sonnets 1-17 form a subgroup dealing with the subject of immortality through procreation.) Sonnets 127-152 are addressed to a mysterious “Dark Lady,” the poet’s mistress, who may have seduced the Friend. The last two do not fit into either of the two main groupings. Some of the most famous of Shakespeare’s other sonnets are Sonnet 18 (Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?), Sonnet 29 (When in disgrace with Fortune and men’s eyes), Sonnet 30 (When to the sessions of sweet silent thought), and 116 (Let me not to the marriage of true minds).
- The sonnet has been perhaps the most popular form in English verse. Countless poets have employed it. Among Shakespeare’s contemporaries, Sir Philip Sidney and Edmund Spenser composed important sonnet sequences (groups of sonnets in which the poems are thematically related). Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella was published in 1591, and Spenser’s Amoretti, was published in 1595. The fourteenth-century Italian poet Petrarch was a significant innovator of the sonnet form, and his works influenced Shakespeare and other poets. His sonnets are available in a number of English translations, including Rime Disperse(1991), translated by Joseph A. Barber.
- Over the centuries the sonnet form has been employed in two general types of verse: love poetry and religious poetry. Shakespeare, Sidney, and Spenser all wrote love sonnets. John Donne’s Songs and and Sonnets(1633) features some of the best-known religious sonnets in English literature, including “Holy Sonnet 10” (Death be not proud).
to another. This method of depiction was translated into poetry and was used to portray the features of the human, usually female, body. A typical blazon would start with the hair and work downward, focusing on eyes, ears, lips, neck, breasts and so on. Sometimes, it would start at the feet and work its way up. (One famous example of the blazon is English poet Edmund Spenser’s description of Belphoebe in book two of his poem The Faerie Queene.) This form was well suited to the style of courtly love poetry that was flourishing at this time, as it allowed writers to project an idea of an idealized and distant woman whose features they could admire from afar.
Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 130” is interesting because it works by inverting the traditions of the blazon form. The reader knows what to expect from this type of poetry, and so the dramatic force of the poem comes from his or her expectations being turned upside down. The surprise is greatest in the first four lines, in which the contrary imagery is gradually revealed. While the first line does not sound so different from a conventional love poem or poem of praise, by the time the second line has reached its concluding semicolon, the reader is beginning to wonder what the point of the poem is. Here is a poem that, instead of using the superlatives usually associated with this kind of writing, begins to suggest that this woman is not an epitome of beauty and that more beautiful things exist: coral, we are told, is redder than her lips. While hardly flattering, this is not, however, too extreme a criticism, and so we enter the third line still almost expecting the poem to revert to tradition and begin its praise of the woman’s features. But this still does not happen, and indeed a note of criticism—not a harsh one, but a criticism nonetheless—is introduced. Her breasts are not white, as they were supposed to be, but “dun,” a kind of pale brown color. By this time, the reader’s suspicions have been thoroughly awakened, and the effect is continued in the following line, that suggests that the woman’s hair looks like black wires. In an age that held up fair hair and skin as ideals of female beauty, this is clearly not only unflattering, but is verging on the insulting.
“Shakespeare’s insistence through his speaker in Sonnet 130 to have a real, flesh and blood mistress rather than an ideal goddess is typical of his whole cycle.”
Having established a tone of criticism in this first section, Shakespeare is content to expand his thesis with further examples. Ironically, he still uses the stock images of love poetry, such as roses, perfume, and music to describe his love. As before, however, they are used in the most unexpected way and with a dramatic timing that fully draws out their element of surprise. Damasked roses are the stuff of love poetry, but the trope of line 5 is quickly undercut by line 6 which completely negates the praise at which the previous line had hinted. Indeed, it almost makes line 5 pointless: why list beautiful things only to point out that no comparison can be made from them? Again the timing is crucial; the surprise that is generated from the non-comparison is far more effective in eliciting a response to and a sense of engagement with the poem than the usual stock phrases of love poetry could themselves provoke. The subverting of these conventional figures of speech even seems to suggest something of their emptiness. As these images pile up, only to be discarded, we begin to suspect that the poet has something profound to say about the language of love poetry itself. Here Shakespeare is perhaps making a point similar to the one he made in As You Like It, in which a character mockingly describes a “lover, / Sighing like a furnace, with a woeful ballad / Made to his mistress’ eyebrow.” Taken to extremes, Shakespeare is saying, poetic fashions can become ridiculous.
You may have noticed that the form of the poem, a sonnet, allows the different sections of Shakespeare’s exposition to be carefully arranged so as to deliver his meaning to his readers at a controlled pace. This is particularly apparent in the first four lines, where the reader only gradually becomes aware of what is going on because the lines are
paced through the four separate sentences before reaching a conclusive moment of criticism in the fourth line. The rhyme scheme follows the pattern that Shakespeare used in most of his sonnets, namely cdcd, efef, gg. So the next two sets of four follow the pattern of the first four and similarly draw attention to the woman’s faults. The last two lines are different, however, both in the thrust of their argument and in their versification. One of the features of the sonnet form is that it usually features a turn or change of argument or perspective toward the end of its fourteen lines. This is called a volta. In a Shakespearean sonnet, the volta occurs between lines 12 and 13, so in “Sonnet 130” it appears just before the concluding lines. The volta is signaled by the change from alternating rhymes to a rhyming couplet: “rare” and “compare” create a concluding rhyme to set this section apart from the rest of the sonnet. This is, of course, highly appropriate, for it is at this moment that Shakespeare introduces, with perfect dramatic timing, the central and unexpected point of his poem: that although his mistress is not conventionally beautiful, he loves her more than any other woman and will not judge her value by mere appearance.
The rhythm of certain lines of the sonnet subtly supports the sense of the words. Line 12 is an example of a particularly clever effect that Shakespeare achieves by making the line different from the others around it. In a sonnet, each line usually consists of ten syllables, which can be divided into five units, or “feet.” Each foot consists of an unstressed and a stressed beat. This is called iambic pentameter. Iambic means that the foot has an unstressed and a stressed beat, in that order, and pentameter means that there are five such feet in the line. A typical example of this versification can be found in line 11, “I grant I never saw a goddess go.” It has ten syllables and can be divided into five feet, with the stress falling on “grant,” “ne-,” “saw” “god,” and “go.” Now compare line 12. It too has ten syllables, but the way in which they are emphasized when read aloud is very different. Whereas the stress would fall on “mis-” in a regular line, here it does not; because a comparison is being made with what has gone before, the emphasis has to be put on “My.” Similarly in the words between the commas (”when she walks”), the emphasis has to fall on “she” so as to make the sense of the line clear. Already the rhythm has been severely disrupted; instead of the usual unstressed-stressed sequence, we instead have a line that is stressed, unstressed, unstressed, unstressed, stressed, unstressed. This ordering makes sense if we look at the subject matter. Line 11 refers to how a goddess would walk, and is completely regular. Line 12, on the other hand, describes the earthly footsteps of a human who, as we know, is not conventionally graceful or beautiful. In the line that describes her movement, therefore, it is entirely appropriate that the verse should be irregular and even clumsy. The last four words of line 12 make the point particularly clearly: it is impossible to read “treads on the ground” without putting a stress on each of the words. The form matches meaning. This, Shakespeare is hinting, is how his mistress walks, one foot in front of the other, like a normal human being. This is not a goddess gliding, but an earthling plodding.
We can see, therefore, that it is through a combination of dramatic timing, careful wording, and skillful versification that Shakespeare succeeds in turning traditional poetic conventions around in this sonnet. The poem could be said to flatter through the most unexpected means and to show not only its author’s love for his mistress, but also his delight in placing himself above the usual poetic practices of courtly love.
Source: Joanne Woolway, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1997.
Paul R. Thomas
This excerpt details the history of the literary ideas that make up the composition of Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 130.”
We all sense that literary ideas, even commonplace ones, often go through a period of development, followed by a time of artistic flourishing, only to be discarded on the dustheap of time out of overuse. The ancient business of the effictio, the well-established head-to-toe description we so often see in Chaucer’s portraits in the General Prologue and the Canterbury Tales, for example, flourished in the same fourteenth century in Italy in the Laura love lyrics of Petrarch. When the Renaissance poets of England finally caught up with the Petrarchan conceit—that idealized development of the medieval effictio that Petrarch employed so lovingly to memorialize his Laura—the ancient topos [literary theme] soon became a familiar face, yielding all its secrets at the hands of the sonneteers, briefly changing its name to blazon, and fading in its beauty through overuse. Over-familiarity had bred contempt.
Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 shows a deep knowledge of and a begrudging respect for that ancient business of the effictio, the blazon, the Petrarchan conceit. But, Shakespeare invokes the topos of the World Upsidedown to breathe new life into the overused Petrarchan conceit by turning it on its head....
The notion that something formerly flourished is transferred by Shakespeare into a very imaginative notion of the sort of beauty that cannot endure into his very “modern” day, as depicted in Sonnet 130. In Nigel de Longchamps’ writing in the late twelfth century, we see over and over again the idea of the world upsidedown in the writer’s contemporary society. Brunellus the ass travels all over Europe because of his desire to change his short tail and to become wise by studying at the universities of Salerno and Paris. In the end, all the ass has learned is how to hee-haw and how to get his tail cut even shorter—thus the title of this satiric work, the Speculum Stultorum, the Mirror of Fools....
Could it be said that in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 the poet transforms the time-worn topos of the World Upsidedown into “modern” youth’s criticism of age, wherein age is represented by the now traditional cliche of the Petrarchan conceit?
Let us now roam in a rather random way ... to establish a reasonably clear notion of Petrarch’s usual practice in delineating his idealized Laura, a woman who differs very little from the portraits of Chaucer’s fin amor beauties such as Emelye, Criseyde, and Dorigen a little later in the same fourteenth century when Petrarch wrote. All are blondes of incredible slenderness and beauty.
In Petrarch’s third sonnet, there is already an implicit comparison between the sun and Laura’s eyes, echoed in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 by the lover’s denial in line one that his “mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”:
It was the morning of that blessed day
Whereon the Sun in pity veiled his glare
For the Lord’s agony, that, unaware,
I fell a captive, Lady, to the sway
Of your swift eyes: that seemed no time to stay
The strokes of Love: ...
In this sonnet, in which the beloved does not fall victim to the arrows of Cupid, her eyes become the bright Sun as the Sun is dimmed in remembrance of Christ’s crucifixion.
The fairness of Laura’s complexion and the golden color of her hair is described idealistically in Sonnet 13, in which the glowing brightness of gold predominates:
When Love his flaming image on her brow
Enthrones in perfect beauty like a star,
As far as she outshines the rest, so far
I feel the blaze of passion surge and grow.
Yet still I bless the place, the hour when so
Supremely high, at light so singular
I dared to look: “O heart, you blessed are
To gaze upon that pure, that golden glow,”
I murmur. “She inspired the splendid thought
Which points to heaven and teaches honest eyes
All worldly lures and winning to despise:
Through her that gentle grace of love is taught
Which by the straight path leads to paradise,
And even here hope’s holy crown is wrought.”
Shakespeare’s mistress has none of the quality of this goddess who guides the lover to paradise nor does the beloved of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 possess that golden beauty of the ideal mistress. Instead, the upsidedown mistress has black wires on her head and dun-colored breasts. Perhaps an even better version of these ideas and a clearer source for Shakespeare’s lines, “I grant I never saw a goddess go: / My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground,” occurs in Petrarch’s Sonnet 90:
Golden upon the wind her loose hair streaming,
Twisted into a thousand curls was shaken;
And from her eyes, which seldom now awaken
To answer mine, a fiery light was gleaming;
Ah!—was it fancy?—but with wistful seeming,
Her lovely face by pity’s tint was taken:
What marvel that my heart, so long Love’s beacon,
Should flame out, fueled so by Love’s fierce
She was no mortal in her stately moving,
But stepped an angel; and her accents glowing
Beyond all human tones passed human heeding,
A spirit of Heaven!—a sun alive was proving
My power of sight... What matters that sun’s
The slackening bow puts no stop to the bleeding.
In a very poignant sense, Laura does come from a former age, the age of the idealized courtly lover. Many of the sonnets that describe her perfect beauty were written after her death, Sonnet 267 being one good example.... In Sonnet 279, the poet recollects the beauty of the love he lost to the plague in 1348:
While Love his slow eternal elegy weaves,
Then, then I see her whom this blind earth presses!
Those eyes like wells of stars, those golden tresses,
That voice like tears, that silver breast which
In true blazon fashion, Petrarch remembers Laura’s eyes, her hair, her voice, and her breast—all features mentioned in less flattering terms in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130. Petrarch’s Sonnet 292 features the following parts of Laura’s body: the eyes, the face, the limbs, the golden locks, and the angelic smile. Though Shakespeare may not have known Petrarch’s sonnets directly, though there is some evidence that Shakespeare did know some Italian sources for his plays, at least he was influenced by the Petrarchan conceit in his sonnets to the point that he could play with it and turn the conceit upside down in praise of the modern woman—perhaps the sort of woman described in Sonnet 144 as a “woman colour’d ill.”... Shakespeare’s insistence through his speaker in Sonnet 130 to have a real, flesh and blood mistress rather than an ideal goddess is typical of his whole cycle, and the numerous personifications of Cupid or Love in Petrarch only figure in the last two of Shakespeare’s sonnets....
The simple, almost holy tone of Petrarch’s Sonnet 245 contrasts with the rational tone of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 and also raises the image of the rosy cheeks that the speaker of Shakespeare’s sonnet questions:
Two glowing roses, fresh from Paradise,
That there, on May-Day morning, leaped in light—
Sweet gift sent by a lover wise and white
With age to two young loves in equal wise:
Whereat, so soft the speech, and to the eyes
So excellent his mien (a savage might
Have softened), the same lustre glimmered bright
In both and on their cheeks burned the swift dyes.
“Never had sun looked on a lovelier two,”
Said he, as with a smile and sigh he spoke,
Pressing their ardent palms and turning away.
Of words and roses each shared like and true.
Even now my worn heart breaks, as once it broke,
With bliss, 0 happy syllables! Holy day!
How the tone of such a sonnet contrasts with the “argument” of the speaker in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130. In the opening two lines, he denies usual poetic comparisons declaratively:
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red....
The pattern of the string of impossibilities has begun. The speaker then questions other lovers’ notions of the color of the human skin or the fanciful comparison of hair to the fine filigree work of the goldsmiths of Florence. These two lines are framed as quizzical premises that the speaker regards as absurd:
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hair be wires, black wires grow on her head.
Having dismissed four of the usual poetic comparisons in the Petrarchan conceit, the speaker as expert arguer finally makes a concession: he has at least seen red and white roses gathered together.
I have seen roses damask’d, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks....
Perhaps the roses suggested to the speaker of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 the sorts of perfume he had in mind to compare with the breath his mistress exhaled (reeks does not have its modern pejorative sense here). The “and” of line seven suggests a connection between the perfumes of the next line and the roses of the preceding line.
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
Having dismissed the likelihood of a Nature-to-nature comparison, the speaker finds his mistress’s speaking voice pleasing, but not quite up to a comparison with fine music—Nature being compared with Art:
I love to hear her speak; yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound....
Continuing in his skeptical, dialectic mood, the lover confesses he has no firsthand experience with goddesses. In the Knight’s Tale, Arcite claims right away that he has a superior claim to Emelye because he knew immediately that she was a woman, not a goddess! Shakespeare’s verb “go” is used here in the old sense it is in Chaucer—“ryde or go”—ride on a horse or walk.
I grant I never saw a goddess go:
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the
The minor oath, “by heaven,” that follows is logically connected to the discussion of the goddess in the previous two lines. In a sense, the lover may even be thanking the powers of heaven that, in this latter day of truth and real women who are neither as white as snow, as fair as roses and coral, as bright as the sun, nor perfumed goddesses who walk a little above the ground, he has such a mistress:
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.
By overthrowing the Petrarchan conceit that was beginning to be worn from overuse, Shakespeare’s speaker in Sonnet 130 has also overthrown the usual expectation of the topos we call the World Upsidedown. This sonnet praises the modern woman, warts and all, and does not hark back to the florebat olim medieval ideal. In his dialectic game, Shakespeare has clothed the Petrarchan ideal in flesh in his Sonnet 130.
Source: Paul R. Thomas “Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 and the History of Two Ideas: The Effictio and the Topos of the World Upsidedown” in Encyclia, Vol. 66, 1989 pp. 70–78.
Booth, Stephen. “Sonnet 130.” Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Yale University Press, 1977, pp. 452-455.
Martin, Philip. Shakespeare’s Sonnets: Self, Love, and Art, Cambridge University Press, 1972, pp. 77-80.
Stapleton, M.L. “My False Eyes: The Dark Lady and Self-Knowledge.” Studies in Philology, Spring 1993, pp. 213-230.
A wide-ranging discussion by an acclaimed poet, touching on several issues related to the sonnets, including their style, themes, and form.
Muir, Kenneth. Shakespeare’s Sonnets. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1979.
A concise overview of major issues in criticism of Shakespeare’s sonnets, including their style, the dates of their composition and publication, the ordering of the poems, and their relation to other works by the poet.
Ransom, John Crowe. “Shakespeare at Sonnets.” The Southern Review 3, No. 3 (Winter 1938): 531-53.
An analysis of the style and structure of Shakespeare’s sonnets by a noted poet and critic. Ransom contends that the sonnets are generally poorly constructed.
Wilson, John Dover, ed. The Sonnets by William Shakespeare. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1966.
A scholarly yet accessible edition of the sonnets, with extensive introductory material and notes.