Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130: An unromantic love poem

Sonnet 130

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 ground:
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.

Shakespeare’s sonnets explore many aspects of human love and beauty.

He begins Sonnet 18

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate

It’s a typical romantic and metaphoric comparison. You can find similar examples in these two posts.

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18: The transient and immortal nature of beauty

How poetry works: Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73

Sonnet 130 is in a completely different mould.

The first two lines set the tone.

Instead of comparing his mistress’ eyes to the blazing light of the sun, Shakespeare says her eyes are exactly the opposite. He leaves the reader to fill in the rest but clearly they’re not bright and dazzling.

The rest of the poem goes on to turn the traditional metaphors of beauty on their heads.

Her lips are not red and beautiful as coral, nor her breasts as white as snow. They are “dun” meaning brown. This, and the next line, which refers to ” black wires grow on her head” has fuelled speculation among scholars that the woman referred to may be one of the women who have become known as the “Dark Lady of the Sonnets”. (127 – 150).

One (of a number) of the contenders is:

A Clerkenwell brothel-owner known as “Black Luce” or Lucy Negro who had participated in the 1601–1602 Christmas revels at Gray’s Inn. But it’s pretty tenuous

Nor has the poet seen roses in his mistress’ cheeks:

Aline Florio was another contender for the title of Dark Lady
And Emilia Lanier’s breath “reeks”

Elizabeth Vernon is given probably my most favourite lines from the sonnets.

I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:

In the second line of this couplet, Shakespeare flattens the rhythm completely so that you can almost feel the leaden nature of the footfall. Pure genius.

Then, in manner so frequent in the sonnets, the final two lines turn the whole poem upside down again.

Having spent the first 12 lines saying that the traditional ideas of beauty do not apply to this mistress, the poet says he doesn’t care, and that the comparisons of beauty of other love poems have simply been “false compare” and his love is “as rare” as any other.

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