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Shakespeare Sonnet 127: "In the old age black was not counted fair"

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 127: "In the old age black was not counted fair"

Scholars and critics have created three thematic categories of the classic Shakespeare 154-sonnet sequence:

The Marriage Sonnets: 1–17
The Fair Youth Sonnets: 18–126
The Dark Lady Sonnets: 127–154

While the "Marriage Sonnets" deserve their label, as the speaker contrives to persuade a young handsome man to marry and produce beautiful offspring, the "Fair Youth Sonnets" remain problematic because there is no actual imagery of a "faith youth" or a "young man" in the poems. Sonnets 18–126, the bulk of the 154, actually reflect the speaker’s spiritual exploration and examination of his dedication to his creativity and writing.

The "dark lady" sonnet sequence begins with sonnet 127 and continues through to the final sonnet 154. These sonnets, while clearly containing imagery of an actual dark-haired, dark-skinned woman, may also be read as "dark mood" sonnets.

Sonnet 127: "In the old age black was not counted fair"

In the old age black was not counted fair
Or if it were, it bore not beauty’s name;
But now is black beauty’s successive heir,
And beauty slander’d with a bastard’s shame:
For since each hand hath put on Nature’s power,
Fairing the foul with Art’s false borrow’d face,
Sweet beauty hath no name, no holy bower,
But is profan’d, if not lives in disgrace.
Therefore my mistress’ brows are raven black,
Her eyes so suited, and they mourners seem
At such who, not born fair, no beauty lack,
Sland’ring creation with a false esteem:
Yet so they mourn, becoming of their woe,
That every tongue says beauty should look so.

Reading of Sonnet 127

Commentary

The speaker begins his musings on his relationship with a woman, whom he will come to disdain, as he examines his own motives and urges. In fact, these poems remain the dark lot of the bunch of sonnets, and likely the designation, "dark," refers to moods, attitudes, and personalities rather than skin tone.

First Quatrain: Standards in the Idealization of Women

In the old age black was not counted fair
Or if it were, it bore not beauty’s name;
But now is black beauty’s successive heir,
And beauty slander’d with a bastard’s shame:

The speaker begins sonnet 127 by claiming that in earlier times "black" was not appreciated as "fair." The statement presents a paradox, because "black" as a color is not fair or light; it is dark, and it would have been dark even "in the old age" or earlier times. But upon reflection and awareness that the term "fair" also means pleasant, attractive, honest, or favorable, the reader understands that the speaker is referring to one or all of those qualities.

The speaker refers to the notion that light-skinned, blonde women were held in higher esteem than dark-skinned, raven-haired women. This fact, of course, simply reflects the part of the world where the speaker resides—in a zone where less sun would encourage less melanin production in human skin and hair.

The object of Petrarchan sonnets, "Laura," is described as "fair-haired," and some of the "dark lady" sonnets protest against the idealization of women found in these and earlier highly romanticized poems. The speaker thus asserts that although black used to be denigrated, now it is "beauty’s successive heir." But also "beauty [is] slandered with a bastard’s shame."

Second Quatrain: True Beauty Must Come in an Honest Package

For since each hand hath put on Nature’s power,
Fairing the foul with Art’s false borrow’d face,
Sweet beauty hath no name, no holy bower,
But is profan’d, if not lives in disgrace.

The standard for "beauty" has lost its naturalness, probably because of the use of wigs and hair dye, rouges, lipsticks, and mascara. A woman using these cosmetics can change her true hair color, and that falseness makes a "bastard" of true beauty, leaving it degraded because of its lack of honesty.

The speaker has shown repeatedly in his earlier sonnet sequence that he is dedicated to truth. Thus it will come as no surprise that he will rail again dishonest beauty tricks.

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The speaker decries anything artificial, as the reader has encountered in those earlier sonnets, particularly the "Muse Sonnets" 18–126; thus, he now wishes to advocate for what is natural and demand that beauty be based on reality not cosmetics.

Third Quatrain: Fake Cannot Reflect Beauty

Therefore my mistress’ brows are raven black,
Her eyes so suited, and they mourners seem
At such who, not born fair, no beauty lack,
Sland’ring creation with a false esteem:

The speaker then introduces his lady friend as a raven-haired beauty with dark eyes, and insists that her naturalness is dark, and yet she does not lack beauty. Her beauty represents honesty. Her beauty demolishes that notion that the fake blonde is more beautiful than the natural brunette.

The speaker believes that nature is slandered when attempts are made to crush naturalness into a false concept of beauty. He disdains such actions and will condemn them at every opportunity.

The Couplet: Natural and Untouched Beauty

Yet so they mourn, becoming of their woe,
That every tongue says beauty should look so.

The dark-haired, dark-skinned beauties do not mourn to be light-haired and light-skinned because they are able to demonstrate true, natural beauty that makes people realize that all beauty should be natural and untouched. The speaker then asserts that natural beauty is the standard and everybody knows it.

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.

Questions & Answers

Question: What kind of sonnet is Sonnet 127 by Shakespeare?

Answer: It is an English sonnet, also known as Shakespearean or Elizabethan sonnet.

Question: What are some of the poetic devices used in this sonnet?

Answer: These "dark lady" sonnets clearly contain imagery of a dark-haired, dark-skinned woman, but they may also be read as "dark mood" sonnets; therefore the "dark lady" may be interpreted as a symbol.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on December 13, 2017:

Thank you, Louise! Yes, I love them too. The Shakespeare sonnets are wonderful pieces of drama. And we are so fortunate that youtube features several resources for their reading. I especially like the one I'm using now that offers the original text along with the reading. So informative to see the originals!

Have a blessed day, Louise! Always love hearing from you.!

Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on December 13, 2017:

I love Shakespeare's sonnets. Reading your articles always helps me understand them better.

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