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Shakespeare Sonnet 20: "A woman’s face with Nature’s own hand painted"

The Shakespeare sonnets play an essential rôle in my poetry world. Those 154 classic sonnets masterfully dramatize truth, beauty, and love.

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 20: "A woman’s face with Nature’s own hand painted"

Sonnet 20, from the classic Shakespeare 154-sonnet sequence, belongs to the group of sonnets that scholars have designated as the "young man" poems. However, those scholars and critics have also conceded that their classifications are not ironclad. And as readers experience these sonnets, they come to realize that there is, indeed, no young man nor any person at all in these sonnets. Clearly, sonnets 1–17 can accurately be designated as the "Marriage Sonnets," in which the speaker is urging a young man to marry and produce offspring to ensure his legacy.

However, sonnets 18–126, as these commentaries reveal, do not portray the kind of relationship that some scholars have claimed for them; instead, they reveal a speaker contemplating and musing upon his own ability to create art—his poetry. At times, he addresses his "muse," the inspiration for the content of his art, and other times, he addresses his talent generally. Still other times, he addresses the issue of writer’s block—a phenomenon that all writers face periodically. And often, he speaks directly to his poems, as in the first sonnet of this thematic group, sonnet 18, "Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?," in which the "thee" in the first line and title refer to his sonnet.

In sonnet 20, the speaker is not addressing a person, but again his sonnet, as he often does in this thematic group of sonnets 18–126. He is comparing the sonnet to the qualities of a woman, for whom he claims sonnets were first created. As in sonnet 18, he finds the sonnet’s qualities to be more genuine, less fickle, and to hold more love.

Sonnet 20: "A woman’s face with Nature’s own hand painted"

A woman’s face with Nature’s own hand painted
Hast thou, the master-mistress of my passion;
A woman’s gentle heart, but not acquainted
With shifting change, as is false women’s fashion:
An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling,
Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;
A man in hue all hues in his controlling,
Which steals men’s eyes and women’s souls amazeth.
And for a woman wert thou first created;
Till Nature, as she wrought thee, fell a-doting,
And by addition me of thee defeated,
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
But since she prick’d thee out for women’s pleasure,
Mine be thy love, and thy love’s use their treasure.

Reading of Sonnet 20

Commentary

In sonnet 20, the speaker is again addressing his poem, likening it to a woman’s charms, but finding it less fickle and more capable of consistently shielding love.

First Quatrain: Grace Without Fickleness

A woman’s face with Nature’s own hand painted
Hast thou, the master-mistress of my passion;
A woman’s gentle heart, but not acquainted
With shifting change, as is false women’s fashion:

In the first quatrain, the speaker tells the sonnet that it has the grace of a woman’s countenance without the fickleness. The sonnet is the "master-mistress" of the poet’s "passion." Thus, the speaker likens the poem to a woman companion, but he finds the poem an even more satisfying companion because the poem’s face is naturally painted with nature and not cosmetics as a human woman often is.

Also, the sonnet will remain steadfast because it will retain its same thoughts, its same little drama, not changing with the seasons or with any fickle passion that may cross the human female mind. The speaker holds the sonnet to have more charm because of its temperate qualities, unlike those of women whose passions may run hot and cold from time to time.

Fortunately, the poem does possess through metaphoric personification a "woman’s gentle heart"—the positive, permanent qualities of the so-called gentler sex also are featured in the sonnet. That the poem will retain those qualities in their original beauty pleases the speaker.

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Second Quatrain: Bright and Brighter

An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling,
Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;
A man in hue all hues in his controlling,
Which steals men’s eyes and women’s souls amazeth.

In the second quatrain, the speaker continues to compare the attributes of the poem to those of a woman. He finds a woman to have bright eyes, but the poem’s eyes are even brighter and "less false in rolling." And what the poem gazes upon becomes gilded: it saves for future generations the subject that is placed into it. And like a painter who controls the colors that he uses with his brushes, the poem "steals men’s eyes and women’s souls" because of the poet's amazing skill at capturing the momentous drama as it occurs.

As the speaker compliments the poem’s pleasant qualities, he is also by implication praising his own ability to create such pleasing, true works. The speaker remains confident in his ability to infuse his poems with truth, beauty, and enduring features that future generations will visit and appreciate. In their lack of fickleness, his poems will be able to present all thoughts, feelings, and issues in a clever, clear, but honest little drama.

Third Quatrain: Origin of the Sonnet

And for a woman wert thou first created;
Till Nature, as she wrought thee, fell a-doting,
And by addition me of thee defeated,
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.

The speaker says that the poem was first created for a woman; he is, no doubt, alluding to the origin of the Petrarchan sonnets that were designed to place women on pedestals, to celebrate the love of romantic partners, as the man who was idealizing the woman so often does in these earlier works. But then along comes this particular speaker by the grace of nature who realizes that such unreality causes the art form to fall; its "doting" became too fantastic to be useful.

The speaker with his new understanding of realism is defeating that outmoded purpose. The old way of mere idolization is not the present speaker’s purpose. This speaker/poet wants to make rime that truly represents the nature of the subject he chooses to immortalize. And he praises the sonnet as such a practical and useful vehicle.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

The Couplet: To Make a Useful Form

But since she prick’d thee out for women’s pleasure,
Mine be thy love, and thy love’s use their treasure.

Still the speaker recognizes the feminine attraction to poetry and has no wish to change that fact. The speaker however will devote his talent, his skill, and his love of his art to make the sonnets a useful form that will hold love as "their treasure."

The speaker is convinced that his sonnet will serve as a repository for his important musings, featuring useful and pleasing qualities that afford humankind with a solid foundation for growth and prosperity—especially in cultural issues. His complete confidence in his ability to create treasures of art prompts him to continue to strive and achieve.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Linda Sue Grimes

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