Sonnet 130 (Shakespeare)
by W. Shakespeare
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 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
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.
Shakespeare is satirizing the tradition of poet’s comparing their loved ones to all things beautiful under the sun, and to things that are divine and immortal as well. These are trite, clichéd, over-used comparisons that are very much commonplace. Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 seems to put down “his mistress” so much that readers are left wondering whether or not the sonnet is supposed to be complimentary to this woman. In the sestet, however, Shakespeare twists the meaning of the poem, by stating his very great love for his mistress, despite all her human deficiencies. This has honest appeal that Petrachan love sonnets, for example, lack.
1. A traditional comparison. Shakespeare uses it himself in the sonnets to the youth: Against that time when thou shalt strangely pass And scarcely greet me with that sun thine eye, 49
2. Coral - In Shakespeare's day only the red variety would have been generally available. OED.1.a gives the following information: Historically, and in earlier literature and folk-lore, the name belongs to the beautiful red coral, an arborescent species, found in the Red Sea and Mediterranean, prized from times of antiquity for ornamental purposes, and often classed among precious stones. The comparison of lips with coral was commonplace. lips here could be read as singular or plural
3. Skin and breasts were often described as whiter than snow. Breasts were also compared to pearl and ivory. The wittiness of this line is is in the use of the agrestunal word 'dun', which brings the reader down to earth with a bump. OED glosses it as: Of a dull or dingy brown colour; now esp. dull greyish brown, like the hair of the ass and mouse. It was often used in the phrase 'The dun cow', a phrase nowadays sometimes transformed into the name of a pub. Logically, since snow is white, one should accept that her breasts were dun coloured, i.e. somewhat brownish. Whether this confirms or not that his mistress was truly dark seems doubtful, for the most likely cause of the claim here to her darkness is that of being deliberately provocative. Skin is never as white as snow, or as lilies, or as enchanting as Cytherea's, therefore to countermand the extravagant claims of other poets by a simple declaration of something closer to reality might jolt everyone to a truer appraisal of love and the experience of loving.
4. If hairs be wires - hair was often compared to golden wires or threads, as in the sonnet by Bartholomew Griffin given above. A Renaissance reader would not have visualised wire as an industrial object. Its main use at the time would have been in jewellery and lavish embroidery. The shock here is not in the wires themselves (a sign of beauty) but in the fact that they are black
5. White, red and damasked are the first three varieties of rose described in Gerard's Herbal, and it appears that there were only these three colours. (See the commentary to Sonnet 109.) The damask rose was pinkish coloured. This is Gerard's description: 3. The common Damaske Rose in stature, prickely branches, and in other respects is like the white Rose; the especiall difference consists in the colour and smell of the flours: for these are of a pale red colour, of a more pleasant smel, and fitter for meat and medicine.
6. SB, p.453, gives an illustration of a beauty literally portrayed according to the extravagant conceits of the time. Her cheeks have roses growing in them. See also the illustration above of summer, made up of fruits and vegetables
7. In the traditional world of sonneteering the beloved's breath smelled sweeter than all perfumes. It was part of the courtly tradition of love to declare (and believe) that the goddess whom one adored had virtually no human qualities. All her qualities were divine
8. that from my mistress reeks - the use of 'reeks' was probably not quite as harsh and damaging to the concept of beauty as it seems to a modern ear. The word was not as suggestive of foetid exhalations as it is now. However, even from an early date, it tended to be associated with steamy, sweaty and unsavoury smells. The original meaning seems to have been 'to emit smoke', a meaning which is still retained in the Scottish expression 'Lang may your reek', 'Long may your chimney smoke'. There seems to be little doubt that Shakespeare could have used a gentler and more flattering word if he wished to imply that his mistress was a paragon of earthly delights. The expression is on a par with the earlier descriptions of dun breasts and hair made of black wire.
9 & 10. Curiously, these two lines (9-10) almost express the opposite of their exact meaning. One is tempted to read 'I love to hear her speak, for the sound is far more pleasing than music to my ear'. In fact that is almost a stronger meaning than the superficial and more obvious one, because the declaration that he loves to hear her surmounts the obstacle of his prior knowledge that music might be better. However much better it is he still would much prefer to listen to her voice, and his knowledge of the superiority of music is irrelevant. The mere introduction of the term music enlightens the reader's ear to the quality of experience the poet derives from listening to his beloved. Technically the effect is perhaps achieved by the directness of the statement 'I love to hear her speak', which works in the same way as the bold and breathtaking declarations made earlier to the youth - for I love you so, dear my love you know, etc. The whole effect is then consolidated by the pleasing sound of music which follows.
11. I admit that I never saw a goddess walking by. to go = to walk, as the next line confirms. In the ancient world encounters with gods and goddesses were often reported, and probably quite widely believed. Literature abounds with incidents of intervention in human affairs by various deities. Odysseus for example is often surprised when Athena disguises herself as a maiden and only reveals herself to him as she leaves. Commentators usually cite the example of Aeneas' encounter with Venus in Virgil's Aeneid - vera incessu patuit dea (by her gait she was revealed as a true goddess) Aen.I.405. Shakespeare had himself described Venus in his poem Venus and Adonis. There may be a joking reference to sexual intercourse, as in: O let him marry a woman that cannot go, sweet Isis, I beseech thee! AC.I.2.59. The irreverence would be appropriate in a poem which debunks classical references and metaphors, as for example that shown above by Griffin, with its reliance on Aurora, the Graces and Thetis, all goddesses of classical antiquity.
12. 'My beloved is human, a goddess with earthly feet'. The poet is asserting that divine comparisons are not relevant, for his beloved is beautiful without being a godde
13. rare = precious, superb, of fine and unusual quality. The word has more of the sense of something wonderful and rich than in its modern uses Despite not being a goddess his beloved may be as rare to him as if she were Cleopatra.
14. As any she belied = as any woman who is belied. Compare: Lady, you are the cruellest she alive. TN.I.5.225, and the fair, the chaste, the unexpressive she. AYL.III.2.10.belied = (who is) falsely portrayed. OED.2 defines belie as 'to tell lies about, to calumniate with false statements', and cites the following: 1581 Wherein you doe unhonestlye slaunder him and belye him, without cause. false compare = false and deceptive comparisons, insincerities. compare could also hint at 'compeer', one who is comparable, on an equal footing.
Put the poem into your own words by paraphrasing it carefully.
Summary/In my own words:
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
The color of coral is far redder than her lips:
If snow is white, then her breasts are brownish-yellow;
If hairs are wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses a color the mixture of red and white,
But no such colors do I see in her cheeks;
There are some perfumes that smell more delightful
Than my mistress’ reeking breath
I love to hear her speak, yet I know
That music has a far more pleasing sound.
I admit that I have never seen a goddess stroll;
When my mistress walks, her walk is not very elegant.
And yet, by heaven, I think my mistress is as rare/special
As any woman that have been described with false comparisons.
What kind of person do you think the author’s mistress is?
The speaker’s mistress is a real person who has not been gifted with extraordinary grace or beauty, and he is honest while describing her. The speaker says she isn’t perfect, in the way some poets describe certain women, because that’s how they see them. Nor is her beauty extremely exaggerated, like we see sometimes in poetry. She walks on the ground, her eyes do not shine like the sun, music sounds better than her voice, and her breath smells sometimes. Yet, she is special to him. The way she is described, she seems to have an Asian influence: her skin tone is golden, her lips aren’t overly red, she has black hair, and her lips aren’t pinkish, like some roses. If she’s not dark-skinned, then she might just be older, so her skin has lost its luster and that pink tone that comes with youth.
Compare sonnet 130 with the following excerpt from the work of the great Italian author Petrarch:
The way she walked was not the way of mortals
but of angelic forms, and when she spoke
more than an earthly voice it was that sang:
a godly spirit and a living sun
was what I saw, and if she is not now,
my wound still bleeds, although the bow's unbent.
What sort of an attitude does Shakespeare take to the tradition of making highly elaborate comparisons in describing a woman that is beloved?
Petrarch’s lines in his poem are completely the opposite of what Shakespeare is trying to say in this poem. While Shakespeare is honest and sees the beauty in his mistress’ humanity, Petrarch compares his mistress to angels: she walks like an angel, her voice comes out in songs, she has a godly spirit and glows like the sun. Petrarch’s inspiration is looked at as human, but something more, something better. Shakespeare sees the good in his mistress despite her flaws; perhaps they are what make her special or different from everybody else. He believes that his mistress is as special as anybody else, heavenly or not, and describing people with false comparisons does them no justice. The readers of Petrarch’s poem, the woman that the poem is written for, and even Petrarch himself, knows that his comparisons are false. Nobody floats like an angel or has a regular voice that comes out in song, nor glows like the sun, and Shakespeare is poking fun at poems like this one by saying that these false comparisons are not as beautiful as human beauty, even in its faults. I felt, when reading Petrarch’s words, like flipping through the glossy pages of today’s magazines and feeling ugly when comparing myself with the women I see, all perfectly photoshoped. I think Petrarch’s woman is a photoshoped version of reality and, the rest of us, the regular women, feel like there is no chance that someone would ever write poems like that about us. By contrast, Shakespeare’s woman is someone who I can relate to and I’m glad to know that there is a chance someone might love me dearly one day, regardless of my flaws.
In spite of what the author indicated throughout most of the poem, he does seem to love this lady. Considering this sonnet, how does Shakespeare view love? How does the author’s idea of love, as expressed in this sonnet, vary with the description he offers in sonnet 116?
Shakespeare’s views on love seem to say that love is not perfection. There is no such thing as perfection at all. In fact, Shakespeare may find that the little imperfections in his lover make the woman all the more special and perfect for him. Women don’t need to shine bright like the sun or look like flowers, in order to be beautiful. Shakespeare’s views on love seem to be consistent in this poem with Sonnet 116: he believes love priceless in that poem, and he believes that love is eternal even if beauty is passing. It’s similar in thought to Sonnet 130, where his love sees through the imperfections of the woman he is speaking about.