The more I read Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130, the more I am struck by its modernity. This is true for me even when the poem is removed from the Elizabethan context of its creation, when most other verses followed traditional, worshipful modes of expression. Sonnet 130 has one thing to say: that the poet’s lover is by no means a great beauty, certainly not as the world views such things, but that this does not matter at all because the love he shares with her transcends such ordinary considerations. The tone of the author is completely matter-of-fact, even as he employs standard items of poetic imagery. These are used, however, only to make his point, and to serve as contrast. Shakespeare’s attitude in this verse is straightforward and somewhat defiant.
In my estimation, Sonnet 130 is a love poem that presents an “uninspired” and pragmatic conception of love. It begins, as so many poetic tributes to women begin, with a discussion of the woman’s eyes, and it virtually stamps on excess and idealization in one stroke here: this woman’s eyes do not remotely invite comparison with the brilliance of the sun. Then, item by item, her ordinariness is laid out, based on an understanding of what composes beauty in the popular mind. The woman’s mouth is not the luscious red others prize. As certainly as snow is white, she is invariably brown, and her hair is nothing but a mass of “black wires”. In a witty fashion, Shakespeare makes it very clear that he is familiar with the hues of roses, and that this expertise informs him of how unlike roses his woman’s cheeks are. There is then the subtle remark that her breath is not attractive and, as he fully admits to loving the sound of it, he also affirms that her voice and music are very different things. Lastly, Shakespeare confesses that he has never actually witnessed a goddess move. All he can know is that the lady of his verse walks like any other mortal, right on the earth. In the closing couplet, Shakespeare sums up his argument in a succinct way that encompasses everything above it. Simply, he knows the woman is as ideal as any glorious goddess, because she herself renders the tributes of such goddesses blatant lies. In this is the hidden declaration that the poet’s love, as must be true of any man’s love, transforms a woman into the goddess each man perceives.
Structure, Style, and Devices
Sonnet 130, in keeping with all of Shakespeare’s sonnets, is in the English form, which has taken on the poet’s own name as well. The rhyme scheme is classic, with the three quatrains composed of alternating rhyming couplets, and an a/a rhyme set in the closing couplet. Within these fourteen lines is a host of techniques and devices, beginning with a kind of “reverse simile”, with the poet denying that the woman’s eyes may be compared to the sun. Coral is then used metaphorically, also to contrast the color of her lips. Lines three and four employ anaphora, in the “If…” beginnings of them, the second of which goes into straightforward metaphor; her hair is not like black wires, but is black wires. Roses, then, are directly used as further “reverse similes”, and in lines five and six carry over the repetitive force of the earlier anaphora. With the dual usage of the roses, the poet again takes up an object against which his woman is sharply contrasted, and music is employed in this fashion as well. Finally, in the closing couplet, the earth is brought in as a powerful symbol, to represent all the very human, plain attributes of the sonnet’s object.
More compelling than any device or set of them, however, is the rhythm of the verse. In some sonnets, Shakespeare makes a casual use of iambic pentameter. Here, it virtually gallops ahead, and in a very musical way. This is abetted by the diction of the words selected in each line; while there is little in the way of assonance or consonance directly, the language never impedes the meter in the reading. Also, it could be argued that Shakespeare’s entire approach in the poem is a conceit, in that he uses various devices to achieve a single, metaphoric reality; all the negative contrasts create for the reader the woman’s opposite, and this is a device constructed of all the lesser techniques employed.
In terms of Shakespeare’s intent, a wide body of critical thought believes that, in Sonnet 130, he is deliberately responding to Elizabethan excesses in poetic verse dedicated to “fair maidens”. This seems like a significantly valid interpretation, particularly in light of the era. After all, the typical sonnet of the day was addressed to a dream of a woman, and one who perfectly met with physical ideals of beauty as held by the culture. Pale, nearly translucent skin was prized, along with high color in the cheeks and lips. Shakespeare’s sonnet, viewed against this tide, is strikingly rebellious; it is as though he is saying, the woman I idolize is real, and far more earth-bound that the generic, fair goddess of the day (Atkins 323). It seems, in fact, that the poet goes out of his way to present his love as ugly to the reader of his day. This relates to another suggestion posed, that the sonnet’s real purpose is, not to describe the author’s “Dark Lady” as being below the standards of beauty of the time, but to assert that all woman are less than poets make them out to be (Callaghan 56). In other words, in so blatantly comparing his reality with effusions, Shakespeare is denouncing all excessive tributes to women, and consequently bringing all women down to the earthly plane his own woman treads.
It seems to me that such an interpretation oversteps the poet’s aim, or takes a more cynical view of love than Shakespeare presents. The sonnet is very direct, but it is anything but cynical. It declares its essence in its very first line: “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.” In terms of style, tone, attitude, and meter, this single, initial line reveals the poet’s state of mind, as it also strongly hints at his real purpose. In a sense, the list-like structure contains two purposes: to refute glorifying tributes, and to validate the worth of his own, plainer love. What Shakespeare is actually doing is a sort of “backwards” tribute, which is a larger reflection of the “reverse similes” he uses. More exactly, by declaring that his love is transcendent in spite of the ordinariness of his lover, he is affirming that only love creates the beauty of the beloved. The sonnet is abnegation as statement; by dismissing standards of female loveliness as inapplicable to his woman, in contrast after contrast, he subtly renders them applicable only to his fellow poets, and the objects of their own passions, when those poets are as in love as he is. It is less a sonnet, in fact, than a lesson, an interpretation easily based upon the directness of the poet’s approach. It is poetry that has little patience for what is considered love poetry, and which seeks to impress upon all the importance of seeing beyond superficial notions of beauty. These things do not matter to Shakespeare because they do not matter when real love is between a man and a woman.
This is the element of the sonnet that may easily be missed, in fact. Straightforward, galloping away, unflattering to its object, Sonnet 130 is nonetheless a poem driven purely by love.
Atkins, C. D. Shakespeare’s Sonnets with Three Hundred Years of Commentary. Cranbury: Associated University Presses, 2007. Print.
Callaghan, D. Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Hoboken: John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 2008. Print.