Background of the Poem
William Shakespeare is probably the most renowned writer in the history of English literature. He wrote more than thirty plays and more than 150 sonnets. His sonnets were published in a collection in 1609. Among these sonnets, sonnet 18, sonnet 29, sonnet 116, and sonnet 130 are the most famous ones.
Shakespeare’s sonnet collection is usually divided into two parts. This division is made on the basis of the different people these sonnets address. The first part consists of 126 sonnets. These sonnets are addressed to a young guy. The speaker in these sonnets tells him about the mortality of life and the ways he can escape its clutches. These sonnets also stress the role of poetry in immortalizing its subjects. The second part consists of the remaining twenty-eight sonnets. The sonnets of this part are addressed to a female. This character is usually called “dark lady.” The speaker seems to have a troublesome relationship with her and speaks to her in a manner that is not typical of lovers. Sonnet 130 falls in this portion of the sonnet collection and is, therefore, considered to address this lady.
In the fourteenth century, the Italian poet Petrarch introduced the genre of sonnets. The conventions of this genre were to follow a strict guideline of form and subject-matter. In form, the sonnet was required to be written in fourteen and that its meter should be iambic pentameter. In subject matter, the convention was to praise the beauty of a god-like beloved and narrate the events of the unsuccessful quests of winning her love. The description used to involve many clichéd comparisons where the speaker would compare his beloved with heavenly and worldly symbols of beauty.
Shakespeare, when he wrote his sonnets, followed the conventions of form but deviated in the subject matter. First of all, many of his sonnets did not address a female beloved. They were addressed to a young male. Secondly, the description of the beloved’s beauty is also not the same as the convention. When he addresses the black lady in his last twenty sonnets, he does not alleviate her to the status of gods. He considers her as much imperfect as other humans are.
Sonnet 130 is another example of Shakespeare’s treatment of the conventions of a sonnet. He follows the conventional form and writes it in fourteen lines. He also uses the conventional iambic pentameter and the division of sonnet into three quatrains and a couplet. However, he chooses a subject matter, which is exactly opposite to the traditional themes. He describes the flaws in his mistress’s beauty and stresses that his mistress is human and prone to imperfections. He says that he will not exaggerate his mistress’s beauty to express his love. Instead, he will accept her for what she is, and that is the real and rare love.
Shakespeare maintains that his mistress is not a goddess but a human, and he is content with it. His mistress does not need to be as red as roses and as white as snow. Her grayish breasts and brownish cheeks are enough for him to love her. In this way, he mocks the conventional analogies by proving that they are mere talks and have no substance.
Sonnet 130 Summary (My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun)
The speaker opens the poem with the description of his mistress. He says that his mistress’s eyes are in no way comparable to the sun. He says that the sun is far more bright and beautiful than the ordinary eyes of his mistress. He goes on to describe another aspect of his mistress’s beauty by comparing her lips and cheeks to corals. However, this comparison does not go in his beloved’s favor as well. He says that the redness of corals is far more than the redness of his mistress’s cheeks and lips.
In the third line, the speaker compares the whiteness of his mistress’s breast with the whiteness of snow. He says that if snow stands as the standard for whiteness, his mistress’s breast does not qualify for such whiteness. Instead, they are brownish in comparison to snow. He furthers this description by employing another analogy. He says that his mistress’s hair is not something extraordinary. He says that if it is allowed to label one’s hair as wires, it will be right to say that his mistress’s head is covered with wires.
In the second quatrain, the speaker describes the different aspects of his mistress’s beauty by comparing her to roses and perfume. He says that he has seen many different variants of roses. Some of those roses were red, some were white, and some were grayish pink. However, connecting roses with his mistress’s cheek seems irrational to him. He says that he has never seen such roses in the cheeks of his mistress.
In the third line of the quatrain, the speaker starts talking about perfumes. He says that there is a great deal of pleasure in the smell of perfumes. At the same time, the breath of his mistress is also pleasurable. However, the pleasure in his mistress’s breath is of lesser degree in comparison to the pleasure of perfumes. He uses the word “reek,” which shows that the breath of his mistress is unpleasant at times.
In the third quatrain, the speaker continues his mockery of comparisons of his mistress and the ideal symbols of beauty. He says that it brings a great deal of joy to hear to the voice of his mistress. The moments, when his mistress talks to him, are a source of delight for him. However, he says, there is another sound that is sweeter than his mistress’s voice. This sound is the sound of music, which has a far more pleasing effect on him.
Furthermore, the speaker mocks the comparison of beloveds to goddesses. He says that he has never seen a goddess in his life. Therefore, he has no knowledge of how the goddesses walk. However, he says that he is sure about one thing. He knows that his mistress walks on earth. Therefore, he knows that his mistress cannot be compared to a goddess.
In the couplet, the speaker says that despite all the shortcomings of his mistress that he has described in the earlier line, he is in deep love with her. He considers his love rare because he is in love with an imperfect lady. He says that his love is as rare as anyone in the world. Similarly, his mistress is as beautiful as other women about whom people lie in their poetry.
Themes in Sonnet 130
Escape from Idealism
The major focus of the poem is to free poetry from the ideal form of description. All of the sonneteers of that time used elaborated analogies to describe how ideal and beautiful their beloveds are. Almost all of these descriptions used to be exaggerated and were no way near reality. In this poem, the speaker mocks this attitude. He does so by describing the features of his own mistress. He employs some of the most common comparisons that were used by the sonneteers and points out the fact that it is not humanly possible to reach that level.
How can someone’s breath be more delightful than the smell of perfumes? How can someone’s breast be as white as snow? How can someone’s lips and cheeks be as read as the coral? How can someone’s hair be like golden wires? How can someone’s voice be sweeter than music? How can someone’s walk match the walk of goddesses? The speaker questions the conventional depiction of beauty by asking these questions and negating them by saying that his mistress’s beauty is not of this level. Furthermore, he declares that all those people that describe their beloveds’ beauty are liars.
This satire not only points out the idealism in poetry but also in all the fields of life. It shows that ideal wishes can never be fulfilled in this world, and the people dealing with such ideal forms are nothing but liars. Humans should ready themselves to accept the world as it is with all its imperfections.
The poem addresses the problem of stereotyping the beauty of females by setting unreachable standards for it. It shows how males have set such out of the world expectations for the beauty of their female partners. We have created a fixed definition of beauty for all of the humans of the world when they are very diverse. Every person is different from another, and such stereotyping of beauty can never work. Rather, it will make the females inferior for not achieving the ideal standards of beauty.
The speaker stresses the point that poets have gone a step further by taking their standards of beauty above the level of goddesses. Such idealism questions the very essence of love. If we are not ready to accept the imperfections of humans, how can we love them? Therefore, the speaker says that his mistress is full of imperfections and that he still loves her as much as others can.
One of the major themes of the poem is love. The speaker is expressing his love for his beloved. In order to do so, he describes and defines his values of love. He says that his love is not based on the physical beauty of his beloved. His beloved is neither as white as snow, nor is her lips red like the coral. Still, he loves her with all his heart.
The speaker appears to have some kind of emotional bond with his mistress. He does not need any perfect physical beauty. Rather, his love is based on true emotions and feelings.
Sonnet 130 Analysis
The poem is a satire on the conventions of idealizing one’s beloved. It uses different devices like hyperbole, metaphor, and simile, to emphasize the absurdity of idealism in love.
In the first quatrain, the speaker questions the idea of comparing humans to sun and corals. He says that his mistress’s eyes are not like sun and that her cheeks are not red like roses. He also mocks the tradition of comparing one’s breast to snow and hair with golden wires. In order to stress his point, he starts with an alliterative sound pattern in the first line. Similarly, there is consonance in this line which reflects his urgency in attacking the absurd analogies. He also goes on to use hyperbole by exaggeratedly claiming that his mistress’s hair is like black wires.
In the second quatrain, the speaker points out two more absurd comparisons. He maintains that comparing someone’s cheeks to roses is absurd as he has never seen roses in his mistress’s cheeks. Furthermore, he negates the idea of comparing someone’s breath to perfume. He uses hyperbole and claims that his mistress’s breath reeks to highlight the difference between human breath and perfumes.
In the third quatrain, the speaker continues the same pattern of satire and mocks further traditional analogies. He says that he can neither claim that his mistress’s voice is more delightful nor can he say that she walks like goddesses. In the last line of this quatrain, the speaker employs exaggerated alliteration to express his annoyance with these absurd notions.
In the couplet, the flow of the sonnet takes a turn as the speaker brings volta. He claims that despite all the flaws, he is pure love in his heart for his mistress.
The tone of the poem is thoroughly satirical. The speaker satirizes all the set traditions of elaborated comparisons between one’s beloved and the symbols of beauty. Every line of the poem attacks the said conventions except for the last two lines. In those lines, the speaker takes time to elaborate on his love for his mistress. However, in doing so, he again claims that other lie when they unduly praise their beloveds.
The speaker of this poem is a realist lover. He describes his beloved features that are not so attractive. However, he has a strong belief in his love and says that his love is as rare as anyone in the world.
The rhyme scheme of this sonnet is traditional ababcdcdefefgg. The first twelve lines make three quatrains with an alternate sound pattern, and the last two lines make a rhyming couplet.
Literary Devices in Sonnet 130
Alliteration is the repetition of the same starting consonant sound in a line. The very first line of the poem starts with an alliterative sound pattern where the speaker utters the word “My mistress’.” This type of start suggests the urgency in the speaker’s tone and shows that he is desperately trying to say convince the readers.
In the third line, the speaker compares the whiteness of his beloved’s breast to the whiteness of snow. There the words “white, why” make another alliterative sound pattern. This device emphasizes the difference between the whiteness of the two.
In the fourth line, the speaker compares his beloved’s hair to wires. In this line, there are two alliterative sound patterns. The first pattern is made by the words “be” and “black,” while the second is made by the words “hair,” “her,” and “head.” This type of repetitive sounds at the start of the words exhibits the disagreement of the speaker with this type of comparison.
In the eleventh line, there is another exaggerated alliteration.
“I grant I never saw a goddess go;”
Here the /g/ sound is repeated three times in the line. Through this device, the speaker conveys his annoyance with the comparison of humans and gods.
Hyperbole is an exaggerated overstatement or understatement in a literary piece. In the sonnet, the speaker exaggerates the flaws of his beloved to prove his point. He wants to prove that the convention of describing human beauty through false comparisons is wrong. In the fourth line, the speaker exaggeratedly says that his beloved’s head is covered with black wires. Similarly, in the eighth line, the speaker says that his beloved’s breath reeks, which is an exaggeration. The purpose of this exaggeration is to highlight the absurdity of the conventional comparisons of humans’ breath with perfumes.
Consonance is the repetition of the same consonant sound in a line. In the first line of the poem, the sound /s/ is repeated three times. In the second line, the sound /r/ is repeated four times. Similarly, /r/ sound is repeated twice in the third line. This clustering of similar sounds makes the poem appealing by giving it a rhyming effect.
Assonance is the repetition of the same vowel sound in a line. The sound /i/ is repeated in the first and second lines of the poem. Similarly, the /u/ sound is repeated twice in the sixth line. This device makes the poem appealing by giving it a rhyming effect.
A metaphor is an implicit comparison between two different things based on some similar quality. In this poem, the speaker compares his beloved’s hair to the wire by saying,
“black wires grow on her head.”
This metaphor serves the purpose of creating an image in the mind of the reader.
A simile is an explicit comparison between two different things based on some similar quality with the help of words like “as” or “like.”
In the poem, the speaker compares his mistress’s eyes to the sun in the first line.
Anaphora is the repetition of the same word at the start of consecutive lines. The third and fourth lines of the poem start with the word “if.” This device gives the poem a rhyming effect.