Analysis of Sonnet 130 by William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare and Sonnet 130
Sonnet 130 is an unusual poem because it turns the idea of female beauty on its head and offers the reader an alternative view of what it's like to love a woman, warts and all, despite her shortcomings.
It parodies other sonnets of the Elizabethan era which were heavily into Petrarchan ideals, where the woman is continually praised and seen as beyond reproach. In this sense sonnet 130 is an anomaly, a unique poem that flouts the rules of convention and breaks new ground in the process.
Shakespeare must have known what he was doing when he wrote this sonnet because he ridicules an art form he himself was a master of. Being the 'upstart Crow' that he was, he couldn't help but mock the other writers who were sticking to the Petrarchan model. Writers such as Edmund Spenser in his Epithalamion and Sir Philip Sidney in Astrophil and Stella.
Sonnet 130 carries within it similar themes to those traditional sonnets - Female Beauty, The Anatomy and Love - but it approaches them in a thoroughly realistic way; there is no flowery, idealistic language.
- The mistress's imperfections are praised and by so doing it could be argued that the speaker is being more honest. True love isn't reliant on some illusive notion of perfect beauty.
- The speaker accepts that his lover isn't a paragon of beauty but a real woman with wiry black hair, off-white breasts and a stinking breath.
- There is no poetic falsity on display.
Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets in total, with sonnets 127 - 154 addressed to the mysterious 'Dark Lady', a possible real-life lover of the poet. So sonnet 130 belongs to a subset of poems that delve into this relationship, expressing pain, delight, anguish and playfulness.
It is clear from these 28 sonnets that the speaker was deeply in love with this woman, yet torn emotionally because she lied, was deceitful and cruel. By accepting her faults:
In faith, I do not love thee with mine eyes,
For they in thee a thousand errors note; (from Sonnet 141)
he is able to confess his alternative love. By usurping Petrarchan ideals and highlighting the mistress's 'errors', the speaker arguably succeeds in strengthening the bonds of that love.
Analysis of Sonnet 130
Sonnet 130 stands alone as a unique and startlingly honest love poem, an antithesis to the sweet conventions of Petrarchan ideals which were prominent at the time.
- Shakespeare doesn't hold back in his denial of his mistress's beauty. It's there for all to see in the first line. When Shakespeare was writing this sonnet it was all the rage to compare a lover's eyes to the sun and sunlight - Shakespeare completely negates this, using the phrase 'nothing like' to emphasise the fact that this female's eyes are not bright. They were, according to a line in sonnet 127, raven black.
The second line focuses on the mistress's lips and informs the reader that they are not that red, not as red as coral (the marine corals), again the perfect colour for the perfect female.
These first two lines are caesura-free, there is no natural pause for the reader, and the iambic beat is dominant.
In lines three and four the anatomy of the mistress is further explored in unorthodox fashion. In Shakespeare's time the ideal woman was white, slender, blonde haired, red-lipped, bright-eyed and had silky smooth white skin.
Not so the woman of sonnet 130. Her breasts are a dull grey-brown colour, not snow white. And she has dark hair that stands out like wires. Imagine that, comparing your lover's hair to strands of thin metal.
Note the comma in both lines, a parallel, so the reader has to pause, breaking the rhythm, telling us that this is no ordinary poetic journey.
The first quatrain is all about the appearance of the mistress, what she isn't like.
The second quatrain takes the reader a little deeper and in the paired lines five and six the notion that this mistress is not your ideal female model is reinforced. She doesn't have rosy cheeks, even if the speaker has seen plenty of natural damask roses in the garden.
If the classic, lovely and fragrant English Rose is absent, at least this mistress has no pretence to a sweet smelling breath. Her breath reeks, which may mean stinks or may mean rises. Some say that in Shakespeare's time the word reeks meant to emanate or rise, like smoke. Others claim it did mean smell or stink. Certainly in the context of the previous line - some perfume - the latter meaning seems more likely.
Sonnet 130 becomes more abstract as it progresses. The third quatrain introduces the reader to the mistress's voice and walk and offers up no extraordinary claims. She speaks and walks normally. She hasn't a musical voice; she uses her feet to get around.
This is nitty gritty reality Shakespeare is selling the reader. No airs and graces from his mistress.
- So to the final couplet, a full rhyming affirmation of the speaker's love for the woman, his mistress. Not only is the speaker being blatantly honest in this sonnet, he is being critical of other poets who put forward false claims about woman. He's not prepared to do that, preferring instead to enhance his mistress's beauty, deepen his love for her.
In being brutally open, candid and unconventional, the speaker has ironically given his mistress a heightened beauty, simply because he doesn't dote on her outward appearance.
Sonnet 130 - Metrical Rhythm
Whilst the dominant rhythm is that of the steady iambic pentameter, as seen in line 9 for example:
I LOVE to HEAR her SPEAK, yet WELL I KNOW
Other lines are ambiguous and it is up to the reader to decide where the stresses/beats fall. For example in line 12 there is an alternative to the orthodox:
My MIStress, WHEN she WALKS, treads ON the GROUND.
MY MIStress, when SHE walks, TREADS on the GROUND.
There is a subtle but noticeable difference in rhythm between these two. Preferences?
More Analysis of Sonnet 130
Sonnet 130 is an English or Shakespearean sonnet of 14 lines made up of 3 quatrains and a rhyming couplet, which binds everything together and draws a conclusion to what has gone before.
The rhyme scheme is typical: abab cdcd efef gg and all the end rhymes are full, for example white/delight and rare/compare.
Internal rhymes create resonance and echoes, binding lines and meaning and sounds. For example:
Metre (meter in American English)
The dominant metre is iambic pentameter, five iambic feet per line, non-stressed syllable followed by a stressed in daDUM daDUM fashion. However, there are lines which differ from this steady, plodding beat.
Let's look at the whole sonnet:
My mis / tress' eyes / are noth / ing 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 ro / ses dam / asked, red / and white,
But no / such ro / ses see / I in / her cheeks;
And in / some per / fumes is / there more / delight
Than in / the breath / that from / my mis / tress reeks.
I love / to hear / her speak, / yet well / I know
That mu / sic hath / a far / more plea / sing sound;
I grant / I nev / er saw / a god / dess go;
My mis / tress, when / she walks, / treads on / the ground.
And yet, / by heaven, / I think / my love / as rare
As an / y she / belied / with false / compare.
Iambic pentameter dominates this sonnet and there are a total of 10 purely iambic lines : 1,6,7,8,9,10,11,13 and 14.
Of these, lines 1,6,7,8,10,11 and 14 are unpunctuated, allowing the rhythm to flow.
Line 2 begins with an inverted iambic foot - a trochee - with the stress on the first syllable, which alters the flow somewhat before the iambic beat takes over.
Line 3 is ambiguous. Some scan it as purely iambic, others find an inverted iamb - a trochee - after the comma: If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun.
Line 4 is also not straightforward. There are a possible two trochees after the comma: If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
Line 5 begins with an inverted iamb - a trochee - placing emphasis on the first person I.
Line 12 begins with a strong spondee - two stressed syllables - which reinforces the personal again.
Sonnet 130 - Literary Devices
Sonnet 130 contains several literary devices that enhance the texture of the sound and reinforce certain tropes. For example:
When words beginning with the same consonants are close together in a phrase or line, as in lines:
1 - My mistress
3 - white, why
4 - wires, black wires
5 - roses damasked, red
6 - such roses see
8 - Than in the breath that
9 - hear her
11 - grant....goddess go
12 - My mistress, when she walks
When the same or similar vowels in words are close together in a line or phrase, as in lines:
1 - My/eyes/like
3 - then/breasts
5 - have/damasked
6 - see/cheeks
7 - in/is/delight
8 - Than/that
9 - hear/speak....yet well
10 - That/hath
13 - yet/heaven
Repeating words or phrases strengthens meaning and places special emphasis on them. For example, the word red occurs twice in the second line, as does wires in the fourth.
Because this is a love poem this is of great significance because red lips were supposed to be an exclusive attribute of female beauty, whilst wires refers to the Elizabethan fashion of threading golden wires through blonde hair, to increase appeal and looks.
Note the use of the phrase far more in lines 2 and 10 which underlines the importance of the colour red and sound of music, making them stand out from the crowd. The speaker (the poet) is again implying the ordinariness of his lover's looks and voice.
This sonnet is very much an individual's take on the beauty of their mistress. Written from a first person perspective, I and My occur 11 times.
Sonnet 130 - Language
dun - a dingy brown/grey colour
wires - many females wore golden wires in their hair as a hallmark of beauty
damasked - variegated rose of pinky red and white
reeks - stinks or rising from
go - walk
rare - admirable
she - woman
Sonnet 130 - Anastrophe
In lines 6 and 7 the natural order of the words is inversed, a technique known as anastrophe.
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
When a line of poetry is changed like this there is often a special emphasis placed on the meaning of certain words and phrases.
Shakespeare used this device to upset the normal flow of language and bring attention to the mid-point of the sonnet.
Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005
The Poetry Handbook, John Lennard, OUP, 2005
© 2018 Andrew Spacey