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Sonnet 130 by William Shakespeare is one of the most known sonnets published in 1609. It contrasts the conventional idea of a sonnet that displays the beauty and magic of love. Shakespeare composed this sonnet as if to mock his lover’s beauty to unveil the realism of love.
About the Poet
William Shakespeare, one of the most acclaimed poets and dramatists, is considered as the greatest writer in the English Language. He is mostly known for his sonnets and dramas. As a poet, Shakespeare composed 154 sonnets which incorporated themes of love, beauty, jealousy, infidelity, passage of time, and mortality.
Sonnet 130 by William Shakespeare is composed in Shakespearean’s own form of sonnet that includes three quatrains and one couplet. The metre of the poem is identified as iambic pentameter.
Summary and Analysis
My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
The speaker talks about his mistress’ eyes and compares them to the sun to find a contrast. Her eyes are nothing like the sun.
The speaker begins the poem by mentioning his mistress. In Shakespeare’s time, Mistress ment lover or wife. Here, the speaker describes how the eyes of his lover are nothing like the sun.
Usually, in the Elizabethan Era, love poems were popularised that were composed by poets for their lovers. These poems often described their lovers’ beauty and the intense feelings they shared.
Sonnet 130 is often considered as an anti-love poem as the poet describes how his lover’s beauty does not match the beauty of nature. It rather mocks the mistress’s beauty and contrasts the cliched comparisons.
Here, Shakespeare describes how his mistress’s eyes are nothing like the sun. They are not as sparkly or captivating as the sun is. This is a direct comparison with nature that most poets exploit in their poems.
Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
Corals are invertebrates that are found in deep waters which are often pinkish red in colour. The poet compares the shade of his mistress’ lips to the colour of Coral. And yet again he seems disappointed that they don’t match the shade.
The speaker continues to compare his mistress’s beauty to nature. In the next line he describes how Coral is much more pigmented in colour than his mistress’ lips. Women are stereotypically presumed to be beautiful and kind. Their physical appearance is supposed to be attractive with features like red lips and hypnotic eyes, etc.
The poet describes how his lover’s eyes and lips do not match the traditional beauty standards. Her lips are not of the same shade of Coral. Pinkish lips also signify innocence and femininity. The poet is therefore comparing his mistress’ femininity with re-used notions of it.
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If snow can be as fair and white as it is, then why are the poet’s mistress’ breasts not as fair as now and rather “dun” in colour. They are not appealing according to the poet.
The speaker now compares the breasts of his mistress to snow and mocks it for not being as fair as snow and rather dull in colour. “Dun“ is a brownish grey colour. This is similar to insulting a woman’s physique.
While in the earlier lines, the poet mocks her beauty which can be taken in as an attempt to break the traditional norms of love poems. But in this line, the poet directly calls her breasts dun, which feels more of a personal rage and disrespect towards his mistress.
Women’s breasts have often been sexualised in many poems and literary works. The poet here tells how his lover’s breasts aren’t attractive or appealing as they should be. He compares it with snow, the complexation of her breasts is far off-putting according to the poet. This description is poles apart from how breasts are conceived, they are often described as fruits or cotton that is tender in nature.
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
Her hair is like wires, rough and sturdy. These black wires grow on her head which might poke the poet’s eye.
The hair of his mistress is like wires according to the poet. Black wires that twirl up on her head. It appears that the poet is in fact describing his mistress’s ugliness rather than her beauty.
A lady’s hair is presumed to be soft, long and fragrant. The description in the line is not even close to these standards. Her hair is like black wires, rough, frizzy, and dense black in colour. Most people of that time might be amused by blondes. If her hair is like wire, then the poet must be careful not to get himself pierced.
Line Five and Six
I have seen roses damasked, 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.
Roses come in different colours, the poet says he has seen red and white roses, decorated beautifully before. But even these roses do not match the colour of her cheeks.
The speaker proclaims how he has observed decorated roses, red and white in colour. But her cheeks do not match these red and white roses. This again compares the traditional beauty standards and how a woman’s cheeks are supposed to be puffy, soft and reddish pink as a rose.
Often dolls are dressed up to these standards, a doll matches all the descriptions that the poet compares his mistress to. Red lips and cheeks, a blush of red on the cheeks is considered as beautiful. Not everyone is born with red lips and cheeks, one can be beautiful regardless.
Line Seven and Eight
And in some perfumes is there more delight Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
Some perfumes smell better than the poet’s mistress as her breath reeks. She has bad breath and the poet expresses his disgust.
Her breath reeks so much that he’d rather prefer perfumes as they are more delightful. At this point in the sonnet, the reader might wonder what he loves about his mistress if minor things like the scent of her breath bothers him.
This again goes up to the standard beliefs that a lady must have a clean breath, she must eat less but healthy, must wear clean and fancy clothes, and most importantly, must smell good all the time.
Line Nine and Ten
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
The poet loves to listen to his mistress speak. He loves when she talks to him but he knows that music has a far more pleasing sound than her voice.
At last, there is something the poet likes about his mistress. He loves to hear her speak but still he thinks music is far more pleasing than the sound of her voice. Again he insults his lover right after complimenting and appreciating something about her.
Here, the poet is stating that he does love it when she speaks, but he is aware that her voice is not that pleasing. A lady must have a pleasing and soothing voice, which is again one of the traditional notions of femininity. Her voice is not calming, yet he loves when she talks. The sentence appears much nicer with a change of voice. It seems the poet deliberately chose to write it in an insulting manner.
Line Eleven and Twelve
I grant I never saw a goddess go; My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground.
The poet assures that he has never seen a Goddess walk by, but it must be hypnotic. But he has seen his mistress walk by, which is like someone trading on the ground.
In these lines, the speaker says how he has never seen a goddess move. This sounds like a start of some compliment or comparison of his lover to Goddess. But that’s not the case. In the next line he completes his thought by saying his mistress walks like a normal person on the ground. Claiming that his mistress is no Goddess, she is a normal human being.
This is honesty. Some poets describe their love as great and dreamy. Here, the poet is describing how “human” his lover is with all her flaws and imperfections. He is in fact appreciating his lover’s flaws as a human and yet still accepting her as his mistress. This makes more of an impact as it is not falsifying any unrealistic descriptions of love.
A lady must walk like a ‘lady’. The walk of a lady is given much more importance, it must be elegant, graceful, hypnotic, mesmerising, etc. It must captivate everyone, like a Goddess. Therefore, the poet does not compare his lover to a Goddess and rather described her walk as treading on the ground.
Line Thirteen and Fourteen
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare As any she belied with false compare.
And yet the poet thinks his love is rare and unique as she failed the poet by not giving him this false beauty to compare it with nature and be satisfied with the outcome, that is when the match comes true.
In the last lines, the poet reveals that this is indeed a love poem. He says how despite all the things he has mentioned before, he still thinks his love is rare and he loves her for being “her” instead of loving her for comparing her beauty with nature.
In a much deeper sense, he might have stated the exact reasons why he thinks his love is rare: it’s because of the imperfections. People have high standards when it comes to love, they want their lover to be perfect with no faults, with a giving nature. And these things are hardwired into our brains through movies and in the Elizabethan Era, it was done by love poems.
The way these poets described their lover seemed unrealistic and might have made some people question if they ever have experienced real love. Shakespeare, through this sonnet describes what real love is: its acceptance. Therefore, accepting someone with all their defects and short-comings is what makes it ‘real’. And Shakespeare therefore loves his mistress for being real, for being there with all her defects. For being human.