What's he saying?
"My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun; / Coral is far more red than her lips' red;"
My mistress's eyes look nothing like the sun; coral is far more red than her lips are.
"If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun; / If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head."
If snow is white, then her breasts are a dull brown (in comparison); if hairs are wires, then black wires grow on her head.
"I have seen roses damask'd, red and white / But no such roses see I in her cheeks;"
I have seen roses of pink, red, and white, but her cheeks are none of these colors;
"And in some perfumes is there more delight / Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks."
And some perfumes smell more delightful than the malodorous breath of my mistress.
"I love to hear her speak, yet well I know / That music hath a far more pleasing sound;"
I love to hear her speak, even though I know well that music has a far more pleasing sound;
"I grant I never saw a goddess go; / My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:"
I admit I have never seen a goddess walk, but my mistress, when she walks, steps (humanly) on the ground:
"And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare / As any she belied with false compare."
And yet, I swear before heaven, I think she is just as extraordinary as any woman that may be described with false comparisons.
Why is he saying it?
Sonnet 130 is a pleasure to read for its simplicity and frankness of expression. It is also one of the few of Shakespeare's sonnets with a distinctly humorous tone. Its message is simple: the dark lady's beauty cannot be compared to the beauty of a goddess or to that found in nature, for she is but a mortal human being.
The sonnet is generally considered a humorous parody of the typical love sonnet. Petrarch, for example, addressed many of his most famous sonnets to an idealized woman named Laura, whose beauty he often likened to that of a goddess. In stark contrast Shakespeare makes no attempt at deification of the dark lady; in fact he shuns it outright, as we see in lines 11-12: "I grant I never saw a goddess go; / My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground." Here the poet explicitly states that his mistress is not a goddess.
She is also not as beautiful as things found in nature, another typical source of inspiration for the average sonneteer: "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun; / Coral is far more red than her lips' red." Yet the narrator loves her nonetheless, and in the closing couplet says that in fact she is just as extraordinary ("rare") as any woman described with such exaggerated or false comparisons. It is indeed this blunt but charming sincerity that has made sonnet 130 one of the most famous in the sequence.
However, while the narrator's honesty in sonnet 130 may seem commendable, we must not forget that Shakespeare himself was a master of the compliment and frequently made use of the very same sorts of exaggerated comparisons satirized here. We even find them elsewhere in the sonnets, and in great abundance, too; note that while his "mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun," his fair lord's indeed are, as in sonnet 49: "And scarcely greet me with that sun, thine eye."
This may lead one to wonder, is it really pure honesty that the poet is showing in sonnet 130, or is there also some ulterior sentiment, perhaps that the dark lady is not deserving of the narrator's fine words? Or perhaps she is deserving but such words are not necessary, as though the narrator feels comfortable enough with the dark lady that he is able to show such honesty (which his insecurity regarding the fair lord prevents him from doing)? There are many ways to interpret how the poet's psychological state may have influenced stylistic choices in his writing, but these sonnets do not provide definitive proof.
Sonnet 130 Appreciation Essay
Techniques and meaning of Shakespeare's 130th sonnet; my mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun.
Shakespeare’s Sonnets, a collection of over one hundred poems, are widely considered to be some of the most insightful and powerful poems of all time. His one hundred and thirtieth sonnet – ‘My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun’ is no exception. Shakespeare, who was one of the first developers of the English Sonnet, used the highly rigid form and structure of the poem to create meaning and emphasize the arguments he wanted to make. His use of structure, unique language as well as rhyme and rhythm and numerous other effects all contributed towards developing the meaning, form and content of the poem.
‘My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun’ is a poem in which Shakespeare forms an argument against conventions to flatter one’s lover with praise of her beauty as well as make comments about the way that love between two people can be expressed and interpreted. He uses the example of a woman who is not physically perfect to emphasise that love is deeper and more important than these superficial comparisons. While his mistress may not have had silky hair and sweet breath, he is still completely captivated by her and considers his love to be as rare as any other.
The structure of the sonnet is in the form of a eight-line octet followed by a six-line sestet. In the octet, Shakespeare presents the opposing argument and dabbles with comparing his mistress to the usual objects. In each case, a picture of a perfect woman is presented and then quickly taken away and replaced by one which is less attractive. For example, the line ‘If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun’ instantly presents us with a picture of a beautiful, snow-white woman - probably because we are so accustomed to love poems describing exactly that - but then that picture suddenly vanishes, leaving us with a woman with dull, dark breasts. Using this technique, we develop quickly a picture of a woman whose physical appearance leaves much to be desired. It seems in the octet as if Shakespeare is undermining love – that it is only something frivolous, until in the heroic couplet when he offers a completely different view on love, one in which superficialities are meaningless. Keeping in mind the images and ideas presented to us initially and vaguely in the octet, the sestet puts into words the argument that Shakespeare had silently been developing up till now. Of particular interest in the sestet is the section that compares his mistress with a goddess – ‘I grant I never saw a goddess go; My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground.’ This suggests to us that his mistress is completely human, and hints at the idea that some of the normal comparisons are unrealistic. The heroic couplet, the last two lines of the sestet, clinch the entire poem’s argument. He declares that the love for his mistress is ‘as rare’ as any other woman whose beauty has been exaggerated with ‘false compare’. The use of the octet – to present the opposing argument; the sestet – to present the author’s argument; and the heroic couplet – to clinch the final argument all contribute towards developing the meaning of Sonnet 130.
There are a variety of language techniques employed by Shakespeare to emphasise his argument. The most obvious of these is the interesting choice of words. For example, the use of ‘roses’ in the comparison between roses and his mistress’ cheeks. Rose petals are soft, almost silky to the touch, pleasant to look at and have perfect shades of colour. Shakespeare uses the word to conjure up several different images and create several different effects. Just from the use of one word, he says that his mistress’ cheeks are not soft, nor do they own the colour of roses – just like all of her other features, they are plain and not worth noting. By using the example of a ‘goddess’ in comparison to his mistress, the author again heightens the effect of the poem. When we think of a goddess, we think of superhuman perfection and beauty. The way that Shakespeare reluctantly brings this up ‘I grant I never…’ also suggests to us that like his mistress, there may be more to goddesses than physical beauty – he almost points out that some of the less-obvious qualities of his mistress may be like those of goddesses! The repetition of certain words such as ‘My Mistress’, ‘Roses’ and ‘Red’ is another technique used to make the poem and argument more effective. It brings out the monotony in talking about love and makes it seem as though the superficial comparisons themselves are repetitive. The use of heightened language gives a more formal, important tone which perfectly expresses the serious nature of the poem. Using common words would detract from the overall impression while heightened language compliments it.
Rhyme and rhythm is important to any piece of sonnet poetry. The basic rhyming scheme of ‘My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun’ is a-b-a-b-c-d-c-d-e-f-e-f-g-g. The ongoing rhyming in the format of a-b-a-b contributes to the continuity of the entire poem, making it seem fluent and flowing. Having a poem rhyme makes it seem structured and developed. The most important contribution of rhyme towards the content of the poem, however, is the textual effect that rhyming has. The fact that the heroic couplet has a different rhyme scheme – a-a, creates the distinction that it is different from the rest of the poem – it is important that the reader knows that the last two lines are unique because they finalize the entire poem’s argument. As in most Sonnets, emphasis is placed on every second syllable in the poem and there are normally five sets of these per line – this is known as ‘iambic pentameters’. For example, in the line ‘That music hath a far more pleasing sound’, there are a total of ten syllables and the stronger note is always placed on every second syllable. This adds a regular atmosphere to the poem, making it sound less lyrical-like and more imposing. It adds a flavour of grandeur to the poem and makes it seem less lighthearted than other poetry types.
There are a number of other effects Shakespeare employs in ‘My mistress is nothing like the sun’. The poem is written from a first-person viewpoint. This has two major effects. Firstly, it makes the argument of the poem seem universal, not specific to one person as it would have been if Shakespeare would have said “Mr. Smith’s mistress is….”. Secondly, it makes it seem more emotional and sincere – if he were speaking about it in third person, he would not be talking about his own experience and the people and events would seem distant. By the constantly referring to the first person “I…” and “My…” it makes the author seem as though he is hypnotized by love – in a trance full of repetition. The long length of sentences compliments the complex ideas that are being expressed and allows one idea to be developed more completely in one sentence. The use of punctuation is also something of note. Only two full stops are used – once to separate the sestet and the octet and again at the end of the poem. The colon just prior to the heroic couplet shows it’s complete relation to the rest of the poem, and it’s indentation highlights it’s importance. The use of semicolons at the end of the lines instead of full stops adds to the flow. Another interesting point is that in this Sonnet (unlike many others) Shakespeare does not speak to his mistress directly – almost as if he were musing to himself or talking to friends.
‘My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun’ is an excellent example of the use of poetic structure, language and format to develop meaning within a poem. Shakespeare managed to develop both of these sides of poetry and build meaningful arguments around the topic of love.
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