William Shakespeare’s Sonnets is a collection of 154 sonnets published in the early 17th century towards the end of the Renaissance period. It was addressed to two distinct audiences in mind. The first 126 sonnets are written to a young man while Sonnets 127 to 154 are addressed to a “dark lady”. Emotional conflicts are covered in depth as a main theme in these sonnets and this essay will examine Sonnet 130, a parody of courtly love in light of the context in which it was based.
The sonnet form evolved during the high Italian Middle Ages, most famously in the vernacular lyrics of Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) and Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374). The form of a book sized collection of sonnets was a familiar lyric genre at the end of the Renaissance (late 16th century). French and Italian poets favored the “Italian” sonnet form – two groups of four lines, or quatrains (always rhymed a-b-b-a a-b-b-a), followed by two groups of three lines, or tercets (variously rhymed c-c-d e-e-d or c-c-d e-d-e).
This condensed five rhyme palette (a-e) creates a sonorous music in the vowel rich Romance languages. However, in English, the scheme can sound contrived and monotonous, particularly in a series of sonnets on the same theme.
Thus, Shakespeare followed the more idiomatic rhyme scheme which interlaces a rhyming pair of couplets to make a quatrain. Overall, it is presented as three differently rhymed quatrains and a concluding couplet. This is can be seen in Figure 1:
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 will 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.
Figure1 : Sonnet 130, Shake-speare’s Sonnets, A.D1607
The Shakespearean sonnet affords two additional rhyme endings (a-g, 7 in all) so that each rhyme is heard only once. This enlarges the range of rhyme sounds and words the poet can use and allows the poet to combine the sonnet lines in rhetorically more complex ways.
Sonnet 130 is the only Shakespearean sonnet which models a form of poetry called the blazon, popular in the 16th century used to describe heraldry. It presents a detailed summary of all of the main features and colors of an illustration. A typical blazon of a person would start with the hair and work downward, focusing on eyes, ears, lips, neck, bosom and so on.
Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 130” is interesting because it works by inverting the traditions of the blazon form and the conventions of Petrarchan love poetry which idealized the description of the female body. All the twelve lines do not praise or idealize the beauty of the physical features of his lover, but on the contrary, criticize her physical features by revealing the shortcomings in them by contrasting her physical features with their respective idealised poetic versions.
The emphasis on criticism is strengthened with the use of iambic pentameter. For example, “my MIS/tress EYES/ are NO/thing LIKE/ the SUN/” highlights the key words that Shakespeare would like to stress when read with this beat and word stress. This provides the reader with an auditory tempo that draws out the essence of the embedded message, which seeks to convey that “miss eyes no like sun” in a concise form.
A close reading of the sonnet reveals Shakespeare’s skill in crafting a precise sonnet within structural confines of an octet, a sestet and a pair of rhyming couplets.
The first eight lines, the octet, are written in a way that a cursory glance at the words would give the reader a misreading of the intended meaning. The choice of words employed by Shakespeare are that which are common in the lexical field of words used for Partrachan love poetry that glorify a lover’s external appearances to a level of almost goddess-like beauty. Words like “eyes”, “sun”, “red”, “lips”, “roses”, “cheeks” and “delight” are chosen by Shakespeare to describe the “dark lady”. This witty choice of words may be misread by the reader who is flippant in the reading of the text, without noting how such words are used for contrast rather than description. It shows the possibility that at first glance, a woman may be perceived as possessing such beautiful traits. Similarly, love is deceptive at first but is revealed over time to be humanely imperfect, unlike its initial goddess-like image. This theme is carried on in the sonnet, embedded in the play of words to emphasize how human love is flawed but still very much beautiful.
A key element in Sonnet 130 that appeals to me as a reader is the historical information gleaned from a close reading. In the tropical waters in Asia, coral vary in colour and texture. However, the coral referenced in line two, “Coral is far more red, than her lips red” place this poem in a specific geographical region of the Red Sea and Mediterranean, providing the reader a cultural context in which it is read and enhancing the element of verisimilitude. In a modern context, this species of Red Coral is common. However it was rare in Shakespeare’s time and prized as a precious stone, being used as a decorative item in homes.
Shakespeare effectively uses sarcasm and contrast to parody how a Partrarchan sonnet was usually written. Line three’s “If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun (grayish-brown)” is a countermand to extravagant claims by other poets of “white, snowy skin” when they describe women’s bosoms. The imagery of breasts being dark-coloured is a deliberate portrayal to provoke the readers into contrasting their mental image of how an idealized lover should look like since breasts were often compared to pearl or ivory in Elizabethan poetry depicting fair-skinned western women.
In line four, an example of misreading can be extracted. “If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head” should be read in the context of a renaissance setting. Then, metal wires had not been invented and the “wires” cited refer to the ribbons, jewelry and embroidery woven into women’s hair as adornment. Wire does not refer to an industrial object but a sign of beauty. Hence, the purpose of this last line in the first quartrain is to symbolize the distinction of “black” as a colour and as a symbol of darkness. This is supported in sonnet 127, where “black” and “beauty” is paired in several lines to hint to the reader that this lady he is writing to may be a dark-skinned woman or that their relationship is “dark” and complicated.
It was part of the courtly tradition of love to declare that the goddess whom one adored had virtually no human qualities. “But no such roses see I in her cheeks” gives an illustration of a beauty literally portrayed according to the extravagant conceits of the time. “And in some perfumes is there more delight” provides an insight into the traditional world of sonnets where the beloved’s breath smelled sweeter than all perfumes. All her qualities were divine. This can be seen in Cymbeline, one of Shakespeare’s later plays (A.D 1609-10), where Iachimo describes Imogen, whom he hopes to seduce. “How dearly they do’t! ‘Tis her breathing that perfumes the chamber thus”.
In line eight, “than in the breath that from my mistress reeks”, “reeks” stems from the original meaning of “to emit smoke”. This is common in the Scottish expression “long may your lang (chimney) reek”. Shakespeare’s choice of words is precise in juxtaposing “breath” and “reeks”, eliciting a sharp response from the reader to shun this person for her seemingly bad breath. This expression is effective in depicting a contrasting imagery between the idealized mistress and this woman whom Shakespeare paints as a antithesis to the Partrarchan ideals of “beauty”.
However, the mood of the poem shifts, and the poet expresses a revelation or epiphany at the beginning of the third quatrain. This marks the volta (“turn”), in which Shakespeare salvages the reader’s perception of this lady by putting it into context of his commitment to love her despite her seemingly abundant physical flaws.
“I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound”
The introduction of this declaration underscores Shakespeare’s commitment in listening to his lover’s voice despite the knowledge that music might sound better. Such a juxtaposition of sounds provide the reader an understanding that in reality, the notion of a lover’s voice being melodious and soothing is all in the perception of the hearer. It does not affect the commitment expressed in a relationship grounded in honesty and qualities that transcend superficial lust and physical attraction.
The next line, “I grant I never saw a goddess go” is positioned as a response to the common description of lovers being non-mortal such that even their walk is different from mortals. This can be cross-referenced to Shakespeare’s poem on Venus and Adonis, during Aeneas’ encounter with Venus in Virgil’s Aeneid – “vera incessu patuit dea” (by her gait she was revealed as a true goddess). Here, Shakespeare presents to the reader a woman who defies romanticized, literary conventions of “beauty” as he boldly declares that
“My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground
My beloved is human, a goddess with earthly feet”
Here, he asserts that divine comparisons are not relevant, for his beloved is beautiful without being a goddess. This concept of ascribing earthly features to one’s lover was a radical move by Shakespeare that served to construct a humane quality instead of superficially elevating her to the unrealistic level of “goddess” or what we know today as “supermodels”.
Shakespeare invests the ending couplet with special significance. It characterizes the musings of the three quatrains in a sardonic, detached or aphoristic voice, standing in some way aloof from the more turbulent and heartfelt outpouring of the quatrains.
“And yet by heaven, I think my love as rare,
As any she belied with false compare.”
The couplet provides an evaluation of how he judges the standard of his love. “Rare” is used by Shakespeare to ascribe superb and precious quality. It is used in later plays by Shakespeare, as in the famous description of Cleopatra floating on her barge, which is put in the mouth of Domitius, Agrippa exclaims,
“To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool,
And what they undid did.
AGRIPPA O, rare for Antony!”
The phrase “belied with false compare” reinforces the point that he has taken measures to extol her honestly and not accede to the use of superficial descriptions. Despite not being a goddess his beloved may be as rare to him as if she were Cleopatra. This sums up the feelings of the poet toward his lover of great admiration and the high esteem in which he holds her. A pun on the word “compeer” is also expressed in “false compare”. “Compeer” hints that she is comparable to him, equal in status and regard. This equality in their relationship reveals how Shakespeare esteems her to be his equal, someone whom he can confide in and relate to.
In conclusion, study of the syntax, choice of words and allusions to contemporary events in Shakespeare’s sonnets suggests that the sonnets addressed to the sensual woman (the “dark lady” sonnets) echo passages in Love’s Labour’s Lost, written in 1594 and revised in 1597. Overall, the emotional conflicts the sonnets describe seem to date from throughout the 1590’s, when Shakespeare was in his 30’s. Because all the poems were likely revised right up to the time of the quarto’s publication in the summer of 1609, the completed cycle stands as the evolving testimony, perfected in Shakespeare’s maturity in defining beauty.