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

Updated on January 30, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

The real "Shakespeare"
The real "Shakespeare" | Source

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 127

Scholars and critics have created three thematic categories of the 154 Shakespeare sonnets: 1-17 are labeled "the marriage sonnets," 18-126 are called "the young man sonnets," and 127-154 are the "dark lady sonnets." These categories are not ironclad and indisputable, and it can be argued that certain sonnets may be transposed from one category to another.

The "young man sonnets" are especially problematic because there is no actual imagery of a "young man" in the poems, which, in fact, reflect the speaker’s spiritual 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
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

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.

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.

A Brief Overview of the 154-Sonnet Sequence

Marriage Sonnets 1-17

The speaker in the Shakespeare “Marriage Sonnets” pursues a single goal: to persuade a young man to marry and produce beautiful offspring. It is likely that the young man is Henry Wriothesley, the third earl of Southampton, who is being urged to marry Elizabeth de Vere, the oldest daughter of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.

Many scholars and critics now argue persuasively that Edward de Vere is the writer of the works attributed to the nom de plume, "William Shakespeare."

For more information regarding Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, as the real writer of the Shakespearean canon, please visit The De Vere Society, an organization that is "dedicated to the proposition that the works of Shakespeare were written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford."

Muse Sonnets 18-126 (Erroneously "Fair Youth")

The speaker in this section of sonnets is exploring his talent, his dedication to his art, and his own soul power. In some sonnets, the speaker addresses his muse, in others he addresses himself, and in others he even addresses the poem itself.

Even though many scholars and critics have traditionally categorized this group of sonnets as the "Fair Youth Sonnets," there is no "fair youth," that is "young man," in these sonnets. There is no person at all in this sequence, with exception of the two problematic sonnets, 108 and 126.

Dark Lady Sonnets 127-154

The final sequence targets an adulterous romance with a woman of questionable character; the term “dark” likely modifies the woman’s character flaws, not her skin tone.

Two Problematic Sonnets: 108 and 126

Sonnet 108 and 126 present a problem in categorization. While most of the sonnets in the "Muse Sonnets" do focus on the poet's musings about his writing talent and do not focus on a human being, sonnets 108 and 126 are speaking to a young man, respectively calling him "sweet boy" and "lovely boy."

Sonnet 126 presents an additional problem: it is not technically a "sonnet," because it features six couplets, instead of the traditional three quatrains and a couplet.

The themes of sonnets 108 and 126 would better categorize with the "Marriage Sonnets" because they do address a "young man." It is likely that sonnets 108 and 126 are at least partially responsible for the erroneous labeling of the "Muse Sonnets" as the "Fair Youth Sonnets" along with the claim that those sonnets address a young man.

While most scholars and critics tend to categorize the sonnets into the three-themed schema, others combine the "Marriage Sonnets" and the "Fair Youth Sonnets" into one group of "Young Man Sonnets." This categorization strategy would be accurate if the "Muse Sonnets" actually addressed a young man, as only the "Marriage Sonnets" do.

Questions & Answers

    © 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

    Comments

    Submit a Comment

    • Maya Shedd Temple profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Sue Grimes 

      9 months ago from U.S.A.

      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.!

    • Coffeequeeen profile image

      Louise Powles 

      9 months ago from Norfolk, England

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

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