Comparison of Shakespeare's and Lord Byron's Approach of Courtly Love in Their Sonnets

Updated on July 19, 2016

Sonnet 130 by Shakespeare

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.

She Walks in Beauty by Lord Byron

She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that's best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes:
Thus mellow'd to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.

One shade the more, one ray the less,
Had half impaired the nameless grace
Which waves in every raven tress,
Or softly lightens o'er her face;
Where thoughts serenely sweet express
How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.

And on that cheek, and o'er that brow,
So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,
The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
But tell of days in goodness spent,
A mind at peace with all below,
A heart whose love is innocent!

Courtly Love and Sonnets

Courtly Love was a thematic theme in poetry during medieval times in Europe. In “She walks a Beauty” Lord Byron expressing his love for a lady met during a ball he attended one night. He followed the Petrarchan style of poetry to describe her beauty and his admiration for her. Likewise, Shakespeare also wrote “My mistress's eyes are nothing like the sun” in Petrarchan style as well. But unlike Lord Byron, who follows traditions set from medieval times, Shakespeare takes a new twist in this traditions. Both compare their mistress's beauty to the nature, but only Shakespeare's poem expresses true love in the end.

Courtly love came to exist during medieval times in Europe where the man would chivalrously express his love and admiration to a lady who had gained his affection. It existed as a secret between the members of nobility and it was not typically practiced between husband and wife. Marriages during this time were arranged to gain either power or wealth. Courtly love was a way for nobles to express their love due to the fact that they were in a marriage without love. But the word“lover” did not have the same connotation as it does today. “Lover” referred to an emotional love that did not involve any sexual relations. It might escalate mentally, but it did not evolve to a physical relationship.

As courtly love progressed, poets began to use it conventions within their poetry. For example, poets began to use these conventions in Petrarchan sonnets and Lyric poetry. Within these poems the poet would praise his mistress, the object of his love, by describing her “unparalleled” beauty by using metaphors and imagery to compare her to natural beauty. For example, a poet could say his mistress had golden hair like the sun. In addition the poet would use contradictory phrases and images along with discrediting his own talent for writing. In other words, his mistress is the the only reason why his poem is good. She is his “inspiration.” The poet would also most likely promise to protect the youth of his mistress and his love against time. Many poets during this time were influenced by Petrarch, who was seen as the founder of the Petrarchan style, many poets began to imitate his style of work as he became a popular model for lyrical poetry.

One of these poets who imitated this style was Lord Byron in “She walks in Beauty.” This poem is said to be written after he met his cousin by marriage for the first time at a ball. She wore a dark black dress with bangles because she was in mourning. The poem is written in Lyrical form which was originally set to be played alongside music. He uses imagery of natural beauty to compare the beauty of a woman. In the first stanza, he uses three natural elements to compare her beauty.

She walks in beauty,like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies,
And all that's best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes;
Thus mellowed to the tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies

He first begins by comparing her beauty to the night, which is set to describe how she looked with the black dress she wore to the ball. But not only does her beauty compare to the boundless sky, she shines as the “starry skies” at night. Her beauty transcends and shines beyond what she's just wearing. Even her eyes transcend natural beauty, they have the “best of dark and bright” which soften in light. Moreover, they're beauty is to a point that even “heaven to gaudy day denies.” In the first stanza, we see that Lord Byron follows the Petrarchan style of poetry as he compares the woman to the beauty of nature. Her perfection coming to a point that even heaven may come to denial. In the second stanza Lord Byron uses more imagery of light and dark to continue praising her beauty.

Furthermore, he goes on to say that even if she were to have a little too much or a little less of something, her beauty would not be destroyed but only impaired; he states “One shade the more, one ray the less, had half impaired the nameless grace”. But he does not only end with her outer beauty. Byron moves on to also praise her inner beauty and strengths.

Where thoughts serenely sweet express
How pure, how dear their dwelling place. And on that cheek and o'er that brow
So soft, so calm yet eloquent

In these lines, Byron states that her though are pure and dear, which adds to her beauty. Combines with her beauty and pure nature, the woman being described is being presented as someones almost perfect. Moreover, her cheek and brow are not only soft and calm, but also eloquent because her beauty has expression by itself. This oxymoron further emphasizes the perfect balance that is reflected in her beauty. Overall, Byron uses love as the theme of his poem. And not just any love, he uses courtly love. His poem follows the traditions of courtly love, never mentioning any sexual connotations, he merely expresses how profound and beautiful this woman is, how her beauty is beyond admiration. This is further emphasized with the last line “A mind at peace with all below, A heart whose love is innocent”. Byron is trying to tell the reader that she is at peace with everyone, she is full of innocence and love. Her physical beauty only reflects her inner beauty.

Conversely, we also have Shakespeare's sonnet “My mistress's eyes are nothing like the sun” written in Petrarchan style. But unlike other poets, he has taken a new twist to the notion of courtly love. Lightly mocking the way poet's compare their lover's “unparalleled” beauty to nature. In Shakespeare's times, comparing a woman's “perfection” to nature or a goddess was normally accepted in poetry, even if they had become cliche's by Shakespeare's time. His poem is addressed to man, rather to a woman as normally done. He speaks of his mistress's beauty but not in a way one would expect of a sonnet. He begins with :

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;

He begins by stating that his mistress is nothing like the sun, she does not shine brightly in the presence of others as Byron had described his mistress to shine in the night. He than moves on to more contradictions between his mistress and nature's natural beauty. Her lips are not as red as coral her breasts are not as white as snow, and her hair are like black wires. Even the mostly commonly used cliché, is bashed by Shakespeare. Her cheeks are not red like the rose. Yet at the same time, he is not insulting his mistress, he is merely stating that her beauty is not beyond all these things. She is not perfect, but human. He uses a “matter of fact” tone that satirizes that Petrarchan style. He uses the beauty of nature to show his mistress's true beauty, an earthly one, not one of a goddess or an exaggeration full of idolization and admiration. Yet the poem, does start taking a new turn halfway through the poem.

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.

He begins to mention the qualities his mistress does have. He begins by mentioning how he loves to hear her speak even though she doesn't have a beautiful voice that sounds like music. He then goes on to mention the fact that he never saw a goddess in his life, but he know his mistress doesn't walk like one. She walks on the ground like everyone else. This is another attack on the Petrarchan style where poets would compare their lady to a goddess, because a goddess' beauty is beyond anything. But the final couplet does the final justice, as he proclaims his true love for his mistress. He states that his love is rare “as any she belied with false compare.” Meaning that his love and courtship with his mistress doesn't need all these exaggerated forms of admiration and idolization, she is beautiful in his own eyes the way she is. She is not perfect, but he still loves her. His love is not diminished because he avoids these traditions, it's just as rare and valuable.

Overall, Shakespeare's love for his mistress shines above that of Lord Byron's. He does not need to follow any old traditions or compare his mistress to any natural beauty. To Shakespeare's she is the way she is, full of flaws but still his the object of his love. Both poems differ in the way they present their love, even in tone. Shakespeare uses a frank tone while Byron uses a reverent one. Byron shows the utmost respect for the woman who is object of his love and admiration, while Shakespeare is straightforward with his thoughts. Furthermore, even when using the elements of light and dark, they both differ. Byron uses it to positively express the beauty of the woman. But Shakespeare only uses it to describe the flaws of his mistress. Her breasts are not as white as snow, and her hair is compared to “black wires.” A sharp contradiction to Byron's comparison who's mistress has eyes which have the “best of dark and bright.”

When set side by side,Lord Byron's love almost becomes superficial when compared to Shakespeare's sonnet. Byron's sonnet only focuses on the beauty of his lady and her innocence and purity which only reflects her beauty more. His poem does not go any deeper than that. But Shakespeare's swears to the heavens that his mistress is just as great and valuable as any woman who has been described with false comparisons.


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    • Glenis Rix profile image

      Glen Rix 

      2 years ago from UK

      To me, Byron's lyrical poem is one of his most beautiful. I think that what he most admired about Anne Wilmott was her purity and air of innocence, which he felt enhanced her beauty. But his admiration probably didn't extend as far as falling in love with her. Despite his numerous affairs, Byron was not prone to falling in love. When he wrote the poem, in 1813, he was trying to disentangle himself from a scandalous affair with the brazen Lady Caroline Lamb, had probably already embarked on his affair with the serial adultress Lady Oxford, and was pursuing Annabella Millbank with a view to marriage.


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