A commentary on Shakespeare’s 130th sonnet
Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 (‘My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun’) has to be one of the top five most famous poems from the sequence of 154 sonnets, and it divides critical opinion. Is this poem a touching paean to inner beauty (opposed to superficiality) or is it misogynist trash? The jury is still out, as we’ll see. Anyway, before we proceed to our analysis of this divisive poem, here is 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 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.
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.
Okay, the paraphrase first, which will serve as a sort of summary of the poem’s meaning. ‘My mistress’ eyes are nowhere near as bright and dazzling as the sun, and even pale pink coral is redder than her pale lips; her breasts are hardly snow-white, and are more a dull brown colour; and she has black hair on her hair (rather than, say, the fair hair of the traditional paragons of beauty). I’ve seen roses of different colours, pink, red, and white, but my beloved’s cheeks don’t resemble these beautiful roses in any way. Perfumes smell sweeter than the breath that comes out of her mouth. Don’t get me wrong, I love to hear her speak, but I know her voice isn’t exactly musical; and I admit that I’ve never seen a goddess here on earth, but I can say with some certainty that my mistress, when she goes, walks on the ground like a very un-goddess-like woman. And yet, I think she is as rare a woman as any woman who has been falsely compared to these paragons of beauty.’
In other words, Shakespeare is saying in Sonnet 130 that the Dark Lady is not exactly conventionally beautiful in any sense, but he still thinks she is just as fine as any other woman – only the Dark Lady, unlike these other women, isn’t having her beauty ‘talked up’ by excessive and ridiculous comparisons (‘you are rosy-cheeked’, ‘your eyes shine like suns’, ‘your voice is as sweet-sounding as music’, and the like). Here we might begin to see why Sonnet 130 can prove a bone of contention for readers of the Sonnets, who disagree not so much over what the sonnet means – on that everyone pretty much agrees – but on whether it’s a good poem in terms of its message. Don Paterson, in his analysis of Sonnet 130 in his Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets, thinks the Bard leaves it too late to pay the Dark Lady a compliment: having rejected the ‘blazon’ (characterising the physical beauties of the poem’s subject) of traditional love poetry, revealing their similes as over-the-top, Shakespeare fails to say exactly why he does consider his mistress a ‘rare’ woman. What’s special about her, if he doesn’t think she’s much to look at? Or is it that she is just fine to look at – she’s not ugly, to his mind, in the slightest – but he’s just not prepared to make silly comparisons between her and roses and other hackneyed symbols of beauty?
How we respond to these questions will probably come as much from our own convictions on these issues as it will from the poem itself. Do we think that by merely rejecting such hyperbole, Shakespeare is doing down his mistress? ‘Nothing like the sun’ (stolen by Anthony Burgess as the title for one of his novels) may sound rather churlish and strong (‘Oh, don’t be silly, her eyes are nowhere near as marvellous as the sun!’), but then it doesn’t necessarily mean that her eyes are positively hideous to behold. And ‘dun’, given the way the Dark Lady is described elsewhere in the Sonnets, is most likely a simple description of her skin colour (she may well have been ‘dark’ not just because she was elusive and mysterious, but because she was mixed-race), rather than a barbed contrast with the whiteness that was typically associated with feminine beauty. This doesn’t address Paterson’s objection that Shakespeare doesn’t leave room to say what he does like about his mistress, and instead works to negate existing descriptions of female beauty without bothering to put anything in their place. So you may still agree that this poem leaves a ‘bitter taste’.
Still, we should probably view this poem as a continuation of the argument put forward in earlier sonnets in the sequence (such as Sonnet 87), which detailed Shakespeare’s desire to distance himself from his contemporaries, and from the poet who is his rival for the Dark Lady’s affections. This poem is not really about the Dark Lady, at least not primarily, but about repudiating other poets’ methods and styles. They may be able to use such high-flown comparisons with a straight face, but the Bard doesn’t think it does the Dark Lady any favours, just as in Sonnet 87 he argued that the Fair Youth’s beauty spoke for itself and needed no gilding.