Sonnet 130 My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun

Sonnet 130: My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun

by William Shakespeare

Sonnet 130 (My mistress’ eyes) Summary & Analysis

In Short

  • In Sonnet 130, Shakespeare depicts his mistress as a dark lady who is deficient in beauty as per society’s standard.
  • She does not have eyes as bright as the sun, rosy cheeks, snow-white breasts etc. She is just like an ordinary human being.
  • But the poet-lover finds her as beautiful as any woman and loves her for who she is.

Sonnet 130: My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun – Explanation

Lines 1–2

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;

William Shakespeare’s sonnet 130 opens with the speaker talking about his mistress’ eyes. But it doesn’t seem to be a lover’s usual attempt to glorify in verse the beauty of the woman he loves. Rather we see the exact opposite. The speaker here negates the comparison between his mistress’ eyes and the brilliance of the sun. Here, the lady’s eyes are not as bright as the sun.

Generally, we consider that a woman of ideal beauty should have eyes that are as bright as the sun. But according to the lover here, the eyes of his mistress are so dull that they can hardly come near the sun in brightness.

In the next line the comparison changes, but the motif is the same. Now it is about her lips. The speaker says that his beloved’s lips are not as red as the beautiful red corals formed under the sea.

These beginning lines of the poem sets the tone of the entire poem. The speaker here attempts to show his beloved’s beauty in true and honest way as she actually looks, without resorting to artificial exaggeration. Thus, what we see in Sonnet 130 is unique and in sharp contrast to what the Renaissance readers were accustomed to read in other poets’ verses.

Lines 3–4

If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.

The lover continues similar comparisons making his lady look an ordinary human being. Now he comes to describe her breasts. A woman of ideal beauty is thought to have snow-white breasts. English women’s breasts are generally white in colour. But the breasts of the speaker’s mistress are ‘dun’ or dull grayish-brown in colour when compared to white snow.

The hair is the next element that comes to our speaker’s mind. A man would generally compare his lover’s hair to something soft and smooth, shiny and silky, and it would ideally be golden in colour. But here the speaker identifies his lady’s hairs with nothing but black wires. So, the lady has frizzy black hair which is uncommon for English women.

Lines 5–6

I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;

The next element of beauty the speaker talks about is his lady’s cheeks. The speaker has seen beautiful roses with red and white hues woven together (damasked). But he finds nothing like those roses in his mistress’ cheeks.

The perfectly beautiful women possess a reddish rosy blush on their white cheeks. But the lady in Shakespeare’s sonnet is not that beautiful in the stereotypical sense, as her skin is dark in complexion. When the speaker goes to measure the beauty of his beloved in the standard sense, he seemingly finds her to be hopelessly deficient in it.

Lines 7–8

And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.

Poets praise the sweet breath of their mistress as if it surpasses some sweet-smelling perfumes. But our speaker is honest while describing her lady’s breath. It doesn’t give out any delightful fragrance. It rather produces a strong and offensive smell (reeks). He acknowledges that some perfumes are certainly far more pleasing than her breath which instead of a sweet smell gives out a foul odour.

Till line 6, it was all about the lady’s look – her eyes, lips, breasts, hairs and cheeks. But now it has come down to her breath, how it smells. Let’s see what comes next.

Lines 9–10

I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;

Now it’s about the mistress’ voice. The speaker seems to be getting a bit nicer to say that he loves to hear her speak. But the ‘yet’ in the middle takes us back to the same negative comparison again. He admits that music can be ‘far more pleasing’ than her voice. Though her voice sounds nice to him, it is not as good as music the way most lovers claim their beloved’s voice to be.

Lines 11–12

I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress when she walks treads on the ground.

The speaker now admits that he has never seen how a goddess moves. And so, he won’t compare his beloved’s moves to that of a goddess as done by most lovers and especially poets in their poems. He is being frank here to admit that his mistress walks on the ground just like a normal human being, and not like a goddess, an angel or a fairy. She doesn’t fly or do anything superfluous of that sort.

Lines 13–14

And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.

These final lines of the sonnet, the concluding couplet, holds the speaker’s main point and the poem’s essence. He swears (by heaven) that with all the ordinary features of his mistress, he still finds his beloved (my love) to be as lovely (rare) as any other woman (any she) who are misrepresented (belied) by inflated comparisons (false compare).

Unlike other poets he doesn’t need fanciful exaggerated comparisons. He still finds his lady beautiful and loves her with all her flaws. Great! isn’t it?

Sonnet 130: My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun – Into Details

Publication

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 is a part of all 154 sonnets which were published in 1609 in a quarto titled “Shake-speare’s Sonnets”. All these sonnets were written between 1594 and 1602. While the first 126 sonnets in the collection were addressed to a Fair Youth named Mr. W.H., the remaining sonnets (127-154) were addressed to a Dark Lady. The present sonnet belongs to the second part.

Background/Context

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 is about the Dark Lady who was deficient in beauty but full of sex appeal. The poet and his friend were involved in an eternal love triangle with this Dark Lady. The poet passionately loves this woman, but she tries to seduce his young and innocent friend. She betrays the poet and rejects his love. This results in his having a love-hate relationship with her. From this resentment the poet describes her in such a disgraceful way in his poem.

Though most early editors and critics took the sonnet at its face value and observed it to be simply a demeaning of the lady, currently it is seen as exactly opposite. The sonnet is now believed to be a compliment for the lady in an honest way and a satire on poetic conventions in which poets tend to make false comparisons with their mistress’ beauty.

Setting

Sonnet 130 does not have a specific setting as such. Shakespeare’s sonnets were mostly written in the 1590s and came out in the beginning of the 17th century. This sonnet questions the poetic traditions and feminine ideals of the 15th and 16th century English society. It also reflects the language used at that time and represents the standard of female beauty in the then society.

The sonnet actually goes beyond any particular location or time-frame in its universal approach to the concept of love and feminine beauty.

Title

Shakespeare did not give titles to his sonnets and so they are referred by numbers. This sonnet comes at 130th position in his collection. In most cases the first line of the sonnet is used as a title in many anthologies.

Here the first line “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun” serves a very good title. It is apt in the sense that it sets the tone of the entire sonnet right at the start. From the title alone, we can guess that the speaker is going to comment negatively on his mistress’ beauty and it is most probably in a satirical note.

Form and Language

The poem “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun” is a sonnet. A sonnet is a 14-lines poem usually written in iambic pentameter. Most of the Elizabethan love poetry was written in the traditional Petrarchan form in which a sonnet was divided into two parts – an octave and a sestet.

But Shakespeare broke this convention. He invented a new structure. Now this is called Shakespearean sonnet. The Shakespearean sonnet consists of three quatrains and a couplet.

The language used is simple and eloquent. Different kinds of imageries including visual and olfactory imagery are used to highlight how a perfectly beautiful woman was perceived to be in the society of his time. The overall tone is satirical here to take on the poetic conventions regarding the same. The music of the verse is created with the help of rhyme.

Meter and Rhyme

Like all other Shakespearean sonnets, Sonnet 130 consists of three quatrains and a couplet with the rhyme scheme being ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. The first twelve lines rhyme in alternating pairs developing the main idea of the poem. The rhyming couplet sums it up well.

The meter used here is iambic pentameter. This is almost a norm for sonnets though. An iambic meter is a disyllabic meter where a stressed syllable comes after an unstressed one. Pentameter means five feet in a line. There are a few exceptions in the poem’s meter. For example, the first foot of the second line is a trochee.

My mis– | tress’ eyes | are no– | thing like | the sun;
Co– ral | is far | more red | than her | lips’ red;

Sonnet 130: My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun – Themes

Beauty and Love

William Shakespeare in his Sonnet 130 redefines the idea of beauty and love and how they are related. His contemporary poets used to present their beloveds as perfectly beautiful and that was why they were so much in love with those ladies.

But Shakespeare shatters that stereotype here. The poet-lover states in the concluding couplet of the sonnet that he finds his mistress similarly rare as any other woman and loves her even knowing that she is deficient in terms of beauty in society’s defined terms. A person’s inner beauty and real appearance matters more than the inflated image of beauty by false comparisons or artificial make-up.

Real vs Superficial

The poet is tired with other poets’ exaggerated depiction of beauty of their ladylove. He knows that nothing is perfect in this world. The superficially inflated descriptions and false comparisons make him sick of their concept of beauty and love. He thus hits back to the then poetic conventions in a satiric way in Sonnet 130 by representing his mistress as she is. The poet loves to be honest and show the realness of things.

Sonnet 130: My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun – Symbols

Sun

The speaker compares (negatively though) his mistress’ eyes to the sun. The sun is generally used in literature and art as a symbol of light, life and brightness. It can bring sparkle to life. The speaker finds nothing of that sort in his mistress eyes. He depicts his beloved here as a simple and common person using the sun as a symbol.

Whiteness

In line 3, the speaker states that his mistress’ breasts are deplorably ‘dun’ in appearance when compared to the white colour of snow. White generally symbolizes purity and innocence. So, what does the lady’s less white skin indicate? Maybe she is not so pure.

Moreover, in the Renaissance period, whiteness of skin was a standard for perfect feminine beauty. The lovers and the poets all liked to describe their beloved’s complexion as snow-white. By stating that his mistress’ breasts are rather grayish-brown, the poet here goes against the convention. Thus, whiteness here symbolizes the conventions and the stereotypes.

Sonnet 130: My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun – Literary Devices

End-stopped line

An end-stopped line is a line of verse that ends with a punctuation. Most of the lines in Sonnet 130 are end-stopped lines.

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;

Enjambment

In an enjambment a sentence continues to the next line of a verse without pause. For example –

I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;

And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.

Caesura

A caesura in poetry is a pause (with a comma, semicolon etc.) in the middle of a line.

If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;

And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare

Assonance

Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds in nearby words.

But no such roses see I in her cheeks;

I love to hear her speak, yet well I know

Consonance

Consonance is the repetition of consonant sounds in neighbouring words.

Coral is far more red than her lips’ red; (‘r’ sound)

Alliteration

Alliteration is a sub-category of consonance. It is the repetition of consonant sounds in the beginning (or, stressed syllables) of nearby words.

I grant I never saw a goddess go; (‘g’ sound)

Simile

Simile is a direct comparison between two tings using ‘as’ or ‘like’.

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;

In this very first line of Sonnet 130, the poet introduces a simile to make (or rather deny) a comparison between the lady’s eyes and the sun using ‘like’. This is an example of simile.

Metaphor

A metaphor is an indirect or implied comparison where there is a point of similarity.

If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.

When the speaker says “black wires grow on her head”, he makes an implied comparison between his mistress’ hair and wire. This is a metaphor.

But no such roses see I in her cheeks;

In the above line, the speaker compares the reddish hue on women’s cheeks to that of roses in an indirect way here to say that he cannot find roses on his beloved’s cheeks.

Imagery

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 is full of imageries used to make readers perceive things better with the help of five senses.

We find some great visual images (that readers can almost see) in the following lines –

… why then her breasts are dun;

… black wires grow on her head

I have seen roses damasked, red and white,

Again, olfactory imagery (sense of smell) is used in lines 7 and 8 –

And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.

There is auditory imagery (sounds that we hear) in lines 9 and 10 –

I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;

And, there is a kinesthetic imagery (sense of movement) in lines 11 and 12 –

I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground.

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