1 My … sun: i.e. her eyes are not bright and shining.
3 dun: dull coloured, or greyish-brown.
4 wires: (gold) wires. Ornamental head-dresses of the period often contained gold wires, so that it was quite normal to compare lush blonde hair with the gold wires in the head-dress above. Blonde was fashionable then, as now. The mistress, however, has black and not blonde hair.
5 damasked: mingled (red and white). Damask roses were a sweet-smelling variety popular at the time.
8 reeks: is exhaled. The word was not used then with our heavily negative sense, but more neutrally.
11 go: walk. You were supposed to be able to recognize a goddess by the way she walked.
13 rare: admirable, extraordinary.
14 she: woman.
This is the 130th sonnet in Shakespeare’s sonnet sequence of 154 sonnets, published in 1609. Most of Shakespeare’s sonnets are addressed to a young man, but towards the end of the sequence there emerges the so-called “Dark Lady”, a woman with whom he seems to have had an often difficult and unhappy relationship. Sonnet 130 refers to her, even though we do not know her name.
This is an unconventional love poem. It was very customary, following the conventions set up by the Italian lyric poet Petrarch (1304–74), to write sonnets praising the beauty of the woman you were in love with. This kind of sonnet would form a list of her beautiful features of face and figure, variously praising her eyes, lips, cheeks, teeth, breasts, etc. Of course, the custom was to say how beautiful and marvellous each feature was. Shakespeare turns all these conventions upside down. All these stock or clichéd comparisons of Elizabethan love poetry for praising a woman’s beauty are, he implies, unrealistic and silly. He is not going to exaggerate (or “belie”, 14) the beauty of the woman he loves in this way.
Shakespeare insists that the woman he loves is a flesh-and-blood mortal, and no “goddess” (11) (or super-model as we might now say). Yet he thinks she is really beautiful nonetheless, and his admiration is intended to seem all the more real for being couched in realistic (rather than conventional, exaggerated, or clichéd) terms.
The sonnet, then, presents us with a series of inversions. Shakespeare knows the convention that the woman you love has eyes “brighter or more lovely than the sun”, and he simply denies it in the first line. The following lines each turns upside down a customary complement: the woman’s breasts are dull coloured or greyish (“dun”) not, as was proverbial, “as white as snow” (3–4). Her cheeks are not as beautiful in colouring as damask roses (5–6). Her breath is not particularly sweet-smelling (7–8); her voice is normal and not musical (8–9); her walk normal too, not like that of a supernatural goddess. Nonetheless, the poet admires her beauty, suggesting that she is really beautiful, but adamant that he is not going to be drawn into a game of falsely praising that beauty.
Sonnet 130 is a kind of inverted love poem. It implies that the woman is very beautiful indeed, but suggests that it is important for this poet to view the woman he loves realistically. False or indeed “poetical” metaphors, conventional exaggerations about a woman’s beauty, will not do in this case. The poet wants to view his mistress realistically, and praise her beauty in real terms.
These stock clichés or conventions for praising a woman’s beauty are, on the one hand, a kind of charming game, taking a woman’s features one by one, and then praising their loveliness. Yet, even as a graceful game, Shakespeare seems unhappy with such conventions. The way he debunks, or sends up these exaggerations suggests a kind of realism that has a deeper moral value. His poem is more gracious and genuinely complementary by, on the surface, apparently being more negative. He surpasses the conventional complements by showing up their exaggerated nature, and so implies the real loveliness of his mistress. In fact his mistress is quite as “rare” (admirable, extraordinary) as any woman praised in more conventional terms – he implies that really she is even more beautiful. It’s just that he is not going to play the usual silly poetical game. He’s actually playing an even more exaggerated game: overturning the conventional way of praising beauty in order to imply that his love transcends even that.
The sonnet is in the English (or “Shakespearean”) form, i.e. its rhyme scheme is ababcdcdefefgg. This alternating rhyme scheme marks out the three quatrains and then the ending couplet. (Compare the looser version of the sonnet used by Clare in “Sonnet”.) In this form of the sonnet, the closing couplet, just because it is a couplet, has a clinching or resounding force of statement: “And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare / As any she belied with false compare”. Put that in modern English: “Actually, the woman I love is just as lovely as any of these women who you want to praise with ridiculous complements”.
Suggestions for teaching and appreciation
Our society tends to use conventions of sincerity at the same time as we also sanction extreme or ludicrous exaggeration (as in adverts for example). Rather than our hard artificiality and soft sincerity, Shakespeare’s culture had a much gentler version of artifice while at the same time a sharper notion of “sincerity”. This is often called “wit”, a complex mixture of seriousness and playfulness.
In this sense, this is a witty poem. The poet is perfectly sincere in praising his mistress’s beauty, yet he does so in a way that is playful. He recalls a series of conventional ways of praising beauty only to overturn them and make them seem (gently) ludicrous.
How do you feel about this convention of anatomizing a woman’s beauty, i.e. taking each of her features in turn and saying how wonderful it is by using an exaggerated comparison? “The woman I love has eyes brighter and more lovely than sunshine. She has lips redder and lovelier in colour than coral. She has breasts brighter and whiter than snow” ? Is it sexist? Or playful? Or graceful and elegant? Or a mixture of two or three of these qualities?
And then, how do you feel about the way Shakespeare evokes these conventions and then sets about overturning them? Does Shakespeare avoid sexism by exposing the conventions as silly? Or is he really just trading on their force?
How humorous is the poem? Look at the exaggerated alliteration in the line “I grant I never saw a goddess go” (11). In ancient times, a mortal was supposed to be able to recognize a goddess by her particular manner of walking. How funny, or otherwise, is it when the poet insists that his mistress doesn’t walk like a goddess?
And these jokes about a woman’s beauty – do you think Shakespeare was aiming at a male audience or a female audience?