As we celebrate Valentine’s Day, let us eschew the cheap jingles typically found in Hallmark cards, and savor instead one of Shakespeare’s 150-plus love sonnets. On February 14, you might choose to read to your significant other Sonnet 18, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” or 75, “So are you to my thoughts as food to life,” or 116, “Let me not to the marriage of true minds/ Admit impediments….” But personally, I would recommend Sonnet 130, which is the most unique of Shakespeare’s sonnets because its tone is tongue-in-cheek. “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun” is nothing short of a twelve-line joke, capped off by a couplet that contains the true, deeply romantic import of the poem.
Sonnet 130 may be understood as an ironic version, or parody, of courtly love poems. French blasons, for example—a term from heraldry which was later applied to a genre of poetry, aka blasons anatomiques du corps féminin––praised a woman by systematically describing different parts of her body in terms of extravagant metaphors such as roses, snow, jewels, and goddesses. These poems usually proceeded from the top of the woman’s body—hair, eyes, cheeks, etc.—downward to her feet. Another target of Shakespeare’s lampoon is the Italian poet and scholar Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374), whose discovery of Cicero’s letters ushered in the Italian Renaissance. Petrarch wrote more than 300 passionate sonnets to his beloved Laura, which were translated into English by Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey in the 16th century, and set the standard for lyric poetry. They became all the rage during the English Renaissance period in which Shakespeare lived and wrote.
In “My mistress’ eyes,” Shakespeare turns this kind of popular love poem on its head. Following the fashion, the poet enumerates his beloved’s charms through a series of similes and metaphors, but he openly defies convention by abjuring the usual superlatives and instead using original, earthly comparisons firmly grounded in reality. He deliberately replaces the usual sickeningly sweet hyperbole typical of this genre with everyday items and low diction bordering on insult, poking holes in such clichéd metaphors as “the music of her voice” and “her snow white breast.”
The poet starts at the top, as is customary, with his “mistress’” eyes—a designation that confirms her power over him—freely admitting that his lady’s eyes are do not blaze like the sun, or “like sapphires shining bright” as in Edmund Spenser’s Epithalamion (1594); nor do they emit “lovely rays/… given by God’s pure grace, and not by art” as in Petrarch’s Canzoniere (c. 1340). He confesses that her skin is beige (“dun”), unlike Spenser’s lady’s “forehead ivory white.” Her lips may be attractive, but let’s face facts, neither they nor her cheeks are as bright red as coral, roses, or cherries—as in Thomas Campion’s “There is a garden in her face/ Where roses and white lilies grow…./ There cherries grow which none may buy,/ Till ‘cherry ripe’ themselves do cry.” “Damasked” at that time meant streaked; only later was it associated with a method of weaving fabric.
Her hair, in contrast to Petrarch’s Laura’s “radiant tresses,” which the breeze lifts “deliciously, and scatterest that fine gold,” is dark rather than the much admired blond, and might even be described as “black wires.” This lady is not malodorous, but one cannot, in all honesty, compare her breath to perfume. And her voice, though pleasing to the poet—the first hint of admiration beyond calling her his mistress—is not “clear-voiced, pure, angelic and divine,” like Petrarch’s Laura. Whereas Petrarch notes “the soft lightning of the angelic smile/ That changed this earth to some celestial isle,” Shakespeare admits “I never saw a goddess go”—who has?—and follows with the punchline of the poem: unlike an idealized being, “when she walks,” his flesh-and blood woman “treads on the ground.” Here the poet uses a spondee—with a stress on every word— for emphasis as well as to mimic her perhaps plodding footstep. In one deft image, he replaces exaggerated illusion with candid realism. Is Shakespeare’s mistress ugly? Not at all. Is she a normal mortal woman with endearing imperfections? You betcha.
The final twist, or volta, occurs in the concluding couplet. The poet now abandons his ‘wink, wink, nudge, nudge’ parody and establishes in its place a new, more sincere model of romance. With a subtle reference to the debunked comparison of his beloved to a goddess, the poet swears “by heaven” that to him, she is as beautiful and as rare as any other “she” (that is, woman) who is falsely compared to an idealized model. The word “rare” suggests that his lady is unique, not conventionally attractive. “Belied” means betrayed by lies that have been told about her. In other words, this woman possesses a down-to-earth beauty more precious than any imaginary Barbie doll. To me, this represents a relatively modern, even proto-feminist stance. Wouldn’t you rather have an admirer who sees and loves you for who you are—with all your flaws—than one who puts you on the proverbial pedestal and worships you for an imagined perfection that you can’t possibly live up to? As far as I’m concerned, the object of this poet’s affection is a lucky lady.
A sonnet is defined as 14 lines of iambic pentameter (five “feet” of one unstressed and one stressed syllable each). The classic Petrarchan sonnet typically consists of an eight-line octet with the rhyme scheme abba/abba, followed by a six-line sestet, rhyming cdcdcd (or cdeede). This rhyme scheme reinforces the structure by weaving the rhymed lines together into a conceptual unit. Between these two stanzas comes the “volta,” or turn of thought—often heralded by the word “but” or “yet.” The Petrarchan form was widely imitated by poets such as John Milton (1608-1674) and John Donne (1572-1631). Shakespeare set himself apart from tradition by redefining this form. The Shakespearean sonnet is structured with three quatrains followed by a rhyming couplet—a form reinforced by the rhyme scheme abab/cdcd/efef/gg. Shakespeare usually placed his volta, as in this example, just before the final couplet. Later English poets, such as Robert Herrick (1591-1674), followed Shakespeare’s model.
In addition to being a playful, but still earnest, tribute to his beloved, Shakespeare here makes a profound comment on the language of love poetry itself. Exaggerated, flowery metaphors and poetic hyperbole, he suggests, border on the ridiculous. In this sonnet he brilliantly combines laughter with criticism, and upends standard contemporary practice to compliment his lady with genuine, sincere devotion. Good poetry should reflect real life and convey the truth—as his many dramatic masterpieces, which mix blank verse with their prose, artfully demonstrate.
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.