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 damask’d, 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.
William Shakespeare (1564-1616) was a playwright, poet and actor from Stratford-upon-Avon, England and is commonly considered to be one of the greatest writers of all time and certainly the greatest dramatist in the English language. One cannot have a proper grasp of English literature without having studied him to some degree. Today, he is most remembered for his plays, which is understandable. However, he was also a great poet and “Sonnet 130”, a poem about his lover Ann is a prime example of his talent in this field.
In this poem he completely overturns the conventions of the sonnet. This is because often in sonnets, when a lover is being depicted, the poet takes beautiful phenomena, such as the sky, and compares them to a certain part of their love’s body, say the eyes. But in Sonnet 130, Shakespeare does something rather different, as can be seen from the very first line, “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”. Instead of drawing a complimentary comparison between the sun and his mistress’s eyes, so as to suggest how attractive he thinks they are, he draws a derogatory contrast, suggesting he does not find her eyes all that visually appealing.
He then continues along this line of scrutiny regarding the appearance of his mistress. On line four, for instance, he says, “If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun”. Here he takes the stunning whiteness of snow and then sets it up as a contrast to the colour of his wife’s chest, which is dun, or a brownish-grey. This is again an uncomplimentary thing to point out, because in the sixteenth and seventeenth century it was considered an attractive trait to have pale skin, since it was a sign of wealth – you didn’t have to work outside under the tanning rays of the sun to feed and shelter yourself and your family. To be dun was therefore considered unattractive, since it meant you did have to do manual labour outside.
Moreover, he doesn’t only insult his mistress looks, about which he illustrates he has no illusions about. He also informs us of the odour which protrudes from her mouth, “in some perfumes is there more delight/ Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.” By the last lines of the poem, Shakespeare has not only insulted her looks, but her breath, her voice and even the clumsy manner of her walk. However, he redeems the seeming distinct lack of passion in the poem so far with the last rhyming couplets, suggesting that the love he has for his mistress is just as rare as all the other relationships in which idealising comparisons are made so as to communicate how much a person loves their other half. Shakespeare thereby pokes fun at other poets who so often do this in their poetry, whilst also expressing a love for his mistress which goes far deeper than outward appearances.
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