Shakespeare Sonnet 130: "My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun "

Updated on January 29, 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 130

The Petrarchan tradition of writing poems to women included exaggeration in order to praise her features; for example the lover would say something like, "My mistress' eyes are like the sun." But the speaker in Shakespeare sonnet 130 shows that he will not be comparing his love's feature to natural things and saying she outshines them.

This speaker, instead, will be saying quite straightforwardly that even though his lover does not always compare well with the beauties that appear in nature, he loves her just the same. He is attempting to establish and maintain her humanity above all.

Sonnet 130

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.

Reading of Sonnet 130

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.

Commentary

First Quatrain: Her Features are Not Like Sun, Coral, Snow, or Silk

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.

The speaker begins by describing his lady friend's eyes. They are not at all "like the sun." That is all he has to say about those orbs, even though much exaggeration in earlier poetry has taken place in describing the eyes of the beloved. But this speaker quickly moves on to her lips, which are again described in the negative: while those lips are red, they are not as red as "coral."

Moving on to the woman's bustline, he finds her competing in the negative against "snow." While snow may actually be white, this lady's breasts are a shade of brown, as most human skin comes in varying shades from light to dark brown. The lady's hair suffers the worst comparison. Lovers like to attribute hair as strands of silk, but this speaker has to admit that her hair is just like "black wires," and he offers the humorous image of black wires growing out off her scalp.

Second Quatrain: Her Cheeks Have no Roses, Her Breath not Like Perfume

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.

The speaker next focuses on his lady's cheeks and breath. Her cheeks are not like any rose he has experienced, especially the "red and white," or damasked rose. He has seen those kinds of roses, and he does not see them in her cheeks.

The speaker has delighted in the smells of "some perfumes." He finds no such delightful perfume smell exhaling with the breath of his lover. He employs the term "reek," which may likely be misconstrued by contemporary readers because the term "reek" in the Shakespearean era merely meant "to exhale" or "to exude." Currently, the term describes an odor that is decidedly unpleasant.

Th speaker, however, does not claim that his mistress' breath stinks; he is merely stating that her breath is not as sweet smelling as perfume. Again, the speaker is merely stating honest, human facts about this woman for whom maintains affection. He is bucking the notion that exaggerating the beauty of a woman somehow offers her a tribute. This speaker prefers truth over the fiction of hyperbole.

Third Quatrain: No Music in Her Voice and She Walks on the Ground

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:

In the final quatrain, the speaker does what he has failed to do in the first and second quatrains. He admits that he loves to hear his lady friend talk, but he also has to admit that even though he enjoys hearing her voice, he remains aware that her voice lacks the more “pleasing sound” of music. Still, he seems to be making a more positive comparison than with the earlier natural phenomena he employed.

While she sun, coral, snow, silk, roses, and perfume all seemed to shine more brilliantly than the lady's features, in her voice he has found something about which to state flat out that he "loves." Then again, he keeps his mistress treading on the earth, that is, she does not walk about like some "goddess." And even though he cannot attest that a goddess would walk any other way, he can say that his mistress "treads on the ground." And with that assertion, the speaker summarizes his notion of keeping his tribute to his lady down to earth, truthful in all aspects.

The Couplet: Truthful, Human Terms

And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.

The couplet finds the speaker swearing that his love for his mistress is as "rare" as the love possessed by those who exaggerate their mistresses' beauty. He accuses those speakers of lying when they compare the beauty of their ladies to natural phenomena and claim that the lady's features outshine the sun, or that she has lips redder than coral, or outrageously white body parts.

This speaker is convinced that such hyperbolic rhetoric in attempting to place the loved one a pedestal simply remains at odds with the true comparisons, and ultimately distracts from the focus on her true qualities. He likely would have preferred to be addressing the positive features of the lady, but he found it necessary to refute the notion of hyperbole before addressing other, more important issues.

The speaker is implying that he looks deeper for beauty. His affection for his friend is based on her individuality as a human being. By describing his lady friend's qualities in human terms, keeping his rhetoric down to earth, the speaker can still assert the rare quality of genuine affection that he feels for her.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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    • Maya Shedd Temple profile image
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      Linda Sue Grimes 2 months ago from Spring Hill, TN

      Thanks, Louise. It is an interesting sonnet. The "Dark Lady" sequence remains mysterious in many ways. I need to do some research to see if I can find out who that "dark lady" might have been in the life of the Earl, if it is known.

      Hope you're having a Merry Christmas, Louise. Always love hearing from you. Have a blessed day!

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      Louise Powles 2 months ago from Norfolk, England

      This is a lovely sonnet. I've a better understanding of it after reading your article.

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