My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;/Coral is far more red then her lips’ red…’

William Shakespeare

Sonnet #130

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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.

SONNET 130

PARAPHRASE  

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;

My mistress’s eyes are nothing like the sun;

Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;

Coral is far more red than her lips;

If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;

If snow is white, then her breasts are a brownish gray;

If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.

If hairs are like wires, hers are black and not golden.

I have seen roses damask’d, red and white,

I have seen damask roses, red and white [streaked],

But no such roses see I in her cheeks;

But I do not see such colors in her cheeks;

And in some perfumes is there more delight

And some perfumes give more delight

Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.

Than the horrid breath of my mistress.

I love to hear her speak, yet well I know

I love to hear her speak, but I know

That music hath a far more pleasing sound;

That music has a more pleasing sound.

I grant I never saw a goddess go;

I’ve never seen a goddess walk;

My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:

But I know that my mistress walks only on the ground.

And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare

And yet I think my love as rare

As any she belied with false compare.

As any woman who has been misrepresented by ridiculous comparisons.

 

ANALYSIS

dun (3): i.e., a dull brownish gray.

roses damasked, red and white (5): This line is possibly an allusion to the rose known as the York and Lancaster variety, which the House of Tudor adopted as its symbol after the War of the Roses. The York and Lancaster rose is red and white streaked, symbolic of the union of the Red Rose of Lancaster and the White Rose of York. Compare The Taming of the Shrew: “Such war of white and red within her cheeks!” (4.5.32). Shakespeare mentions the damask rose often in his plays. Compare also Twelfth Night:

She never told her love,
But let concealment, like a worm i’ the bud,
Feed on her damask cheek. (2.4.118)

than the breath…reeks (8): i.e., than in the breath that comes out of (reeks from) my mistress.
As the whole sonnet is a parody of the conventional love sonnets written by Shakespeare’s contemporaries, one should think of the most common meaning of reeks, i.e., stinks. Shakespeare uses reeks often in his serious work, which illustrates the modern meaning of the word was common. Compare Macbeth:

Except they meant to bathe in reeking wounds
Or memorise another Golgotha,
I cannot tell. (1.2.44)

rare (13): special.

she (14): woman.

belied (14): misrepresented.

with false compare (14): i.e., by unbelievable, ridiculous comparisons.

__________

Sonnet 130 is the poet’s pragmatic tribute to his uncomely mistress, commonly referred to as the dark lady because of her dun complexion. The dark lady, who ultimately betrays the poet, appears in sonnets 127 to 154. Sonnet 130 is clearly a parody of the conventional love sonnet, made popular by Petrarch and, in particular, made popular in England by Sidney’s use of the Petrarchan form in his epic poem Astrophel and Stella.

If you compare the stanzas of Astrophel and Stella to Sonnet 130, you will see exactly what elements of the conventional love sonnet Shakespeare is light-heartedly mocking. In Sonnet 130, there is no use of grandiose metaphor or allusion; he does not compare his love to Venus, there is no evocation to Morpheus, etc. The ordinary beauty and humanity of his lover are important to Shakespeare in this sonnet, and he deliberately uses typical love poetry metaphors against themselves.

In Sidney’s work, for example, the features of the poet’s lover are as beautiful and, at times, more beautiful than the finest pearls, diamonds, rubies, and silk. In Sonnet 130, the references to such objects of perfection are indeed present, but they are there to illustrate that his lover is not as beautiful — a total rejection of Petrarch form and content. Shakespeare utilizes a new structure, through which the straightforward theme of his lover’s simplicity can be developed in the three quatrains and neatly concluded in the final couplet.

Thus, Shakespeare is using all the techniques available, including the sonnet structure itself, to enhance his parody of the traditional Petrarchan sonnet typified by Sidney’s work. But Shakespeare ends the sonnet by proclaiming his love for his mistress despite her lack of adornment, so he does finally embrace the fundamental theme in Petrarch’s sonnets: total and consuming love.

One final note: To Elizabethan readers, Shakespeare’s comparison of hair to ‘wires’ would refer to the finely-spun gold threads woven into fancy hair nets. Many poets of the time used this term as a benchmark of beauty, including Spenser:

Some angel she had been,
Her long loose yellow locks like golden wire,
Sprinkled with pearl, and pearling flowers atween,
Do like a golden mantle her attire,
And being crowned with a garland green.
(Epithal).

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.

With a deftness of touch that takes away any sting that might otherwise arise from implied criticism of other sonneteers, the poet satirises the tradition of comparing one’s beloved to all things beautiful under the sun, and to things divine and immortal as well. It is often said that the praise of his mistress is so negative that the reader is left with the impression that she is almost unlovable. On the contrary, although the octet makes many negative comparisons, the sestet contrives to make one believe that the sound of her voice is sweeter than any music, and that she far outdistances any goddess in her merely human beauties and her mortal approachability.

A typical sonnet of the time which uses lofty comparisons to praise a beloved idol is given below. There are many others, and the tradition of fulsome praise in this vein stretches back to Petrarch and his sonnets to Laura. E.g.
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.

Canzoniere 90, trans. Mark Musa.

FROM FIDESSA

My Lady’s hair is threads of beaten gold;
  Her front the purest crystal eye hath seen;
Her eyes the brightest stars the heavens hold;
  Her cheeks, red roses, such as seld have been;
Her pretty lips of red vermilion dye;
  Her hand of ivory the purest white;
Her blush AURORA, or the morning sky.
  Her breast displays two silver fountains bright;
The spheres, her voice; her grace, the Graces three;   
Her body is the saint that I adore;
Her smiles and favours, sweet as honey be.
  Her feet, fair THETIS praiseth evermore.
    But Ah, the worst and last is yet behind :
    For of a griffon she doth bear the mind!

By Bartholomew Griffin. Published 1596

The 1609 Quarto Version

MY Miſtres eyes are nothing like the Sunne,
Currall is farre more red,then her lips red,
If ſnow be white,why then her breſts are dun:
If haires be wiers,black wiers grow on her head:
I haue ſeene Roſes damaskt,red and white,
But no ſuch Roſes ſee I in her cheekes,
And in ſome perfumes is there more delight,
Then in the breath that from my Miſtres reekes.
I loue to heare her ſpeake,yet well I know,
That Muſicke hath a farre   more pleaſing ſound:
I graunt I neuer ſaw a goddeſſe goe,
My Miſtres when ſhee walkes treads on the groun d.
And yet by heauen I thinke my loue as rare,
As any ſhe beli’d with falſe compare.

Commentary

1. My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;

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 is far more red, than her lips red:

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. If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;

JPG” naturalsizeflag=”3″ align=”bottom” height=”346″ width=”250″>

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, black wires grow on her head.

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. I have seen roses damasked, red and white,

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. But no such roses see I in her cheeks;

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.

7. And in some perfumes is there more delight

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. Compare, for example, the following from Cymbeline, one of Shakespeare’s later plays (c. 1609-10), where Iachimo describes Imogen, with whom however he is not in love, although he had hoped to seduce her.
……………………………………………….Cytherea
How bravely thou becomest thy bed, fresh lily,
And whiter than the sheets! That I might touch!
But kiss; one kiss! Rubies unparagoned,
How dearly they do’t! ‘Tis her breathing that
Perfumes the chamber thus: the flame o’ the taper
Bows toward her, and would under-peep her lids,
To see the enclosed lights, now canopied
Under these windows, white and azure laced
With blue of heaven’s own tinct.
Cym.II.2.13-23.

(Cytherea = Venus). Note the similes which equate skin with lilies, lips with rubies, breath with all perfumes, eyes with the lights of heaven, and the whole apparition with Venus.

8. Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.

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 ‘Long may your lang reek’. 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. I love to hear her speak, yet well I know

See note below.

10. That music hath a far more pleasing sound:

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 grant I never saw a goddess go,

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 mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:

‘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 goddess.

13. And yet by heaven, I think my love as rare,

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. Shakespeare uses it far more frequently in the later plays. To the famous description of Cleopatra floating on her barge, which is put in the mouth of Domitius, Agrippa exclaims ‘O rare for Antony!’

…………………………For her own person,
It beggar’d all description: she did lie
In her pavilion—cloth-of-gold of tissue–
O’er-picturing that Venus where we see
The fancy outwork nature: on each side her
Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids,
With divers-colour’d fans, whose wind did seem
To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool,
And what they undid did.
AGRIPPA O, rare for Antony!
AC.II.2.

Despite not being a goddess his beloved may be as rare to him as if she were Cleopatra.

14. As any she belied with false compare.

 

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.

Or…

Synopsis

Sonnet 130 satirizes the concept of ideal beauty that was a convention of literature and art in general during the Elizabethan era. Influences originating with the poetry of ancient Greece and Rome had established a tradition of this, which continued in Europe’s customs of courtly love and in courtly poetry, and the work of poets such as Petrarch. It was customary to praise the beauty of the object of one’s affections with comparisons to beautiful things found in nature and heaven, such as stars in the night sky, the golden light of the rising sun, or red roses. The images conjured by Shakespeare were common ones that would have been well-recognized by a reader or listener of this sonnet.

Shakespeare satirizes the hyperbole of the allusions used by conventional poets, which even by the Elizabethan era, had become cliché, predictable, and uninspiring. This sonnet compares the Poet’s mistress to a number of natural beauties; each time making a point of his mistress’ obvious inadequacy in such comparisons; she cannot hope to stand up to the beauties of the natural world. The first five couplets compare the speaker’s mistress to aspects of nature, such as snow or coral; each comparison ending unflatteringly for the mistress. In the final couplet, the speaker proclaims his love for his mistress by declaring that he makes no false comparisons, the implication being that other poets do precisely that. Shakespeare’s sonnet aims to do the opposite, by indicating that his mistress is the ideal object of his affections because of her genuine qualities, and that she is more worthy of his love than the paramours of other poets who are more fanciful.

Poetic form

The poetic form uses standard Shakespearean iambic pentameter, following the AB-AB/CD-CD/EF-EF/GG Rhyme Scheme.

Analysis

Sonnet 130 as a Satire

“This sonnet plays with poetic conventions in which, for example, the mistress’s eyes are compared with the sun, her lips with coral, and her cheeks with roses. His mistress, says the poet, is nothing like this conventional image, but is as lovely as any woman”. Here Barbara Mowat offers her opinion of the meaning behind Sonnet 130; this work simply breaks down the mold in which Sonnets had come to conform to. Shakespeare composed a sonnet which seems to parody a great many sonnets of the time. Poets like Thomas Watson, Michael Drayton, and Barnabe Barnes were all part of this sonnet craze and each wrote sonnets proclaiming love for an almost unimaginable figure; Patrick Crutwell posits that Sonnet 130 could actually be a satire of the Thomas Watson poem “Passionate Century of Love”, pointing out that the Watson poem contains all but one of the platitudes that Shakespeare is making fun of in Sonnet 130. However, E.G. Rogers points out the similarities between Watson’s “Passionate Century of Love,” Sonnet 130, and Richard Linche’s Poem collection entitled “Diella.”[ There is a great deal of similarity between sections of the Diella poem collection and Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 130”, for example in “130” we see, “If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head,” where in “Diella” we see “Her hayre exceeds fold forced in the smallest wire.”  Each work uses a comparison of hairs to wires; while in modern sense this may seem unflattering one could argue that Linche’s work draws upon the beauty of weaving gold and that Shakespeare mocks this with harsh comparison. This along with other similarities in textual content lead, as E.G. Rodgers points out, the critic to believe that Diella may have been the source of inspiration for both homage, by Watson’s “Passionate Century of Love,” and satire by Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 130.” The idea of Satire is further enforced by final couplet of “130” in which the speaker delivers his most expositional line: “And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare, as any she belied with false compare.” This line projects the message behind this work; demeaning the false comparisons made by many Poets of the time.

Sonnet 130: Complimentary/Derisive Nature

According to Carl Atkins, many early editors took the sonnet at face value and believed that it was simply a disparagement of the writer’s mistress. However, William Flesch believes that the poem is actually quite the opposite, and acts as a compliment. He points out that many poems of the day seem to compliment the object of the poem for qualities that they really don’t have, such as snow white skin or golden hair. He states that people really don’t want to be complimented on a quality they don’t have, e.g. an old person doesn’t want to be told they are physically young, they want to be told they are youthful, in behavior or in looks. Flesch notes that while what Shakespeare writes of can seem derisive, he is in reality complimenting qualities the mistress truly exhibits, and he ends the poem with his confession of love.

Possible influences

Petrarch

Shakespeare and other great writers would reference each other and each other’s works in their own writing. According to Felicia Jean Steele, Shakespeare uses Petrarchan imagery while actually undermining it at the same time. Stephen Booth would agree that Shakespeare references Petrarchan works however, Booth says that Shakespeare “gently mocks the thoughtless mechanical application of the standard Petrarchan metaphors.” Felicia Steele and Stephen Booth agree that there is some referencing going on, they vary slightly in the degree of Shakespeare’s mockery. Steele feels much stronger about the degree in which Shakespeare is discounting Petrarchan ideas by observing that in 14 lines of Sonnet 130, “Shakespeare seems to undo, discount, or invalidate nearly every Petrarchan conceit about feminine beauty employed by his fellow sonneteers.” The final couplet is designed to undo the damage Shakespeare has done to his reader’s faith that he indeed loves his “dusky mistress.” Steele’s article offers Stephen Booth’s paraphrasing of the couplet: “I think that my love is as rare as any woman belied by false compare.” Helen Vendler, who is also referenced in Steele’s article states that the final couplet would read; “In all, by heaven, I think my love as rare/ As any she conceived for compare.” All three of these authors; Steele, Booth, and Vendler believe that in this couplet, Shakespeare is responding to Petrarchan imagery because other sonneteers actively misrepresent, or “belie” their mistress‘ beauty.

http://www.openculture.com/2012/07/shakespeares_satirical_sonnet_130_as_read_by_stephen_fry.html

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My next regular post:  January 3rd, although I might do a couple of “light” introductory posts for Hamlet between now and then.

But just in case, I’d like to wish all of a very Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and a joyous holiday season to all of you and yours.  Without you all, this blog would be nothing.

See you next year!

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6 Responses to My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;/Coral is far more red then her lips’ red…’

  1. peajayar says:

    Seasons greetings, Dennis.

    I’ve not been chatty on here lately, so just to let you know that my Shakespeare-reading friend, Sylvia, and I are still reading along and enjoying ourselves. We meet every 1-2weeks , alternating at each others’ houses, usually in the morning, with coffee and snacks (which do tend to include chocolate) and read 1, 2, or 3 acts of the current play out loud together. We take turns, as in one speech each, so both read all characters. Stopping to talk about, or look up, meanings and/or check characters is common. We kind of follow along with your posts, Dennis, sometimes a bit behind, sometimes a bit ahead.

    So thanks. We wouldn’t be doing it without you.

  2. Eddie Chism says:

    I just thought I’d point out that Sting “borrowed” the first line of this sonnet for a song and used part of it as the title of his second solo album, “Nothing LIke the Sun.”

  3. My mistress’s eyes are nothing like the sun is by far one of shakespear’s best poem. The poet criticized other poets for their impossible comparisons which logically makes sense; but most importantly, he introduces a different expression of love. Loving his lady does not necessary require her to be perfect or a goddess, he loves are inspites of all the qualities she lacks.

  4. HIRUNIKA says:

    In this sonnet shakespeare conveys his eternal love which is not depending on appearance and also he says how human she is .

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