Critics Overview on Shakespeare Sonnet 130

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Critical Overview

      Shakespearean critics have never formed a consensus as to whether "Sonnet 130" should be viewed as a serious work of art or an amusing trifle. In Shakespeare's Sonnets: Self, Love, and Art, Philip Martin claims that the poem has been wrongfully dismissed as pure satire when in fact it is a passionate defense of all that is "unstereotyped, unpredictable, unique," Alternately, Stephen Booth argues in Shakespeare's Sonnets that the poem "appears to have no target and no aim but to be funny."

      Also divided is critical opinion of the "dark lady," the subject of this poem and all the sonnets from 127 to 154, Though she has often been denounced as a common prostitute or she-devil, she has also been recognized as an earthy woman with a healthy sexual appetite. In an article in Studies in Philology, M.L. Stapleton observes that some of her detractors may have been limited by their own "patriarchal morality" and old-fashioned "sense of propriety,"


Joanne Woolway

      Joanne Woolway is a freelance writer who recently earned her PhD. from Oriel College, Oxford, England, In the following essay, Woolway analyzes how, in "Sonnet 130," Shakespeare "succeeds ... in turning traditional poetic conventions around." She also takes a close look at the ways Shakespeare's versification-his skill patterning of stressed and unstressed syllable-supports the poem's meaning.

      In the sixteenth century, a form of poetry called the blazon was briefly popular. "Blazon" is a technical term usually used to describe heraldry. It always involved a detailed summary of all of the main features and colors of an illustration and also described the position and relation of one picture to another. This method of depiction was translated into poetry and was used to portray the features of the human, usually female, body. A typical blazon would start with the hair and work downward, focusing on eyes, ears, lips, neck, breasts and so on. Sometimes, it would start at the feet and work its way up. (One famous example of the blazon is English poet Edmund Spenser's description of Belphoebe in book two of his poem The Faerie Queene.) This form was well suited to the style of courtly love poetry that was flourishing at this time, as it allowed writers to project an idea of an idealized and distant woman whose features they could admire from afar.

      Shakespeare's "Sonnet 130" is interesting because it works by inverting the traditions of the blazon form. The reader knows what to expect from this type of poetry, and so the dramatic force of the poem comes from his or her expectations being turned upside down. The surprise is greatest in the first four lines, in which the contrary imagery is gradually revealed. While the first line does not sound so different from a conventional love poem or poem of praise, by the time the second line has reached its concluding semicolon, the reader is beginning to wonder what the point of the poem is. Here is a poem that, instead of using the superlatives usually associated with this kind of writing, begins to suggest that this woman is not an epitome of beauty and that more beautiful things exist: coral, we are told, is redder than her lips. While hardly flattering, this is not, however, too extreme a criticism, and so we enter the third line still almost expecting the poem to revert to tradition and begin its praise of the woman's features. But this still does not happen, and indeed a note of criticism — not a harsh one, but a criticism nonetheless is introduced. Her breasts are not white, as they were supposed to be, but "dun," a kind of pale brown color. By this time, the reader's suspicions have been thoroughly awakened, and the effect is continued in the following line, that suggests that the woman's hair looks like black wires. In an age that held up fair hair and skin as ideals of female beauty, this is clearly not only unflattering, but is verging on the insulting.

What Do I Read Next?

Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets in all. The first 126 are addressed to a young man or "Friend" as he is called by the poet. (Sonnets 1-17 form a subgroup dealing with the subject of immortality through procreation.) Sonnets 127-152 are addressed to a mysterious "Dark Lady," the poet's mistress, who may have seduced the Friend. The last two do not fit into either of the two main groupings. Some of the most famous of Shakespeare's other sonnets are Sonnet 18 (Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?), Sonnet 29 (When in disgrace with Fortune and men's eyes), Sonnet 30 (When to the sessions of sweet silent thought), and 116 (Let me not to the marriage of true minds).

The sonnet has been perhaps the most popular form in English verse. Countless poets have employed it. Among Shakespeare's contemporaries, Sir Philip Sidney and Edmund Spenser composed important sonnet sequences (groups of sonnets in which the poems are thematically related), Sidney's Astrophil and Stella was published in 1591, and Spenser's Amoretti, was published in 1595. The fourteenth-century Italian poet Petrarch was a significant innovator of the sonnet form, and his works influenced Shakespeare and other poets. His sonnets are available in a number of English translations, including Rime Disperse (1991), translated by Joseph A. Barber.

Over the centuries the sonnet form has been employed in two general types of verse: love poetry and religious poetry. Shakespeare, Sidney, and Spenser all wrote love sonnets. John Donne's Songs and Sonnets (1633) features some of the best-known religious sonnets in English literature, including "Holy Sonnet 10" (Death be not proud).

      "Shakespeare's insistence through his speaker in Sonnet 130 to have a real, flesh and blood mistress rather than an ideal goddess is typical of his whole cycle."

      Having established a tone of criticism in this first section, Shakespeare is content to expand his thesis with further examples. Ironically, he still uses the stock images of love poetry, such as roses, perfume, and music to describe his love. As before, however, they are used in the most unexpected way and with a dramatic timing that fully draws out their element of surprise. Damasked roses are the stuff of love poetry, but the trope of line 5 is quickly undercut by line 6 which completely negates the praise at which the previous line had hinted. Indeed, it almost makes line 5 pointless: why list beautiful things only to point out that no comparison can be made from them? Again the timing is crucial; the surprise that is generated from the non-comparison is far more effective in eliciting a response to and a sense of engagement with the poem than the usual stock phrases of love poetry could themselves provoke. The subverting of these conventional figures of speech even seems to suggest something of their emptiness. As these images pile up, only to be discarded, we begin to suspect that the poet has something profound to say about the language of love poetry itself. Here Shakespeare is perhaps making a point similar to the one he made in As You Like It, in which a character mockingly describes a "lover, / Sighing like a furnace, with a woeful ballad / Made to his mistress's eyebrow." Taken to extremes, Shakespeare is saying, poetic fashions can become ridiculous.

      You may have noticed that the form of the poem, a sonnet, allows the different sections of Shakespeare's exposition to be carefully arranged so as to deliver his meaning to his readers at a controlled pace. This is particularly apparent in the first four lines, where the reader only gradually becomes aware of what is going on because the lines arc paced through the four separate sentences before reaching a conclusive moment of criticism in the fourth line. The rhyme scheme follows the pattern that Shakespeare used in most of his sonnets, namely cdcd, efef, gg. So the Visit two sets of four follow the pattern of the first four and similarly draw attention to the woman's | aults. The last two lines are different, however, both in the thrust of their argument and in their versification. One of the features of the sonnet form is that it usually features a turn or change of argument or perspective toward the end of its fourteen lines. This is called a volta. In a Shakespearean sonnet, the volta occurs between lines 12 and 13, so in "Sonnet 130" it appears just before the concluding lines. The volta is signaled by the change from alternating rhymes to a rhyming couplet: "rare" and "compare" create a concluding rhyme to set this section apart from the rest of the sonnet. This is, of course, highly appropriate, for it is at this moment that Shakespeare introduces, with perfect dramatic timing, the central and unexpected point of his poem; that although his mistress is not conventionally beautiful, he loves her more than any other woman and will not judge her value by mere appearance.

      The rhythm of certain lines of the sonnet subtly supports the sense of the words. Line 12 is an example of a - particularly clever effect that Shakespeare achieves by making the line different from the others around it. In a sonnet, each line usually consists of ten syllables, which can be divided into five units, or "feet." Each foot consists of an unstressed and a stressed beat. This is called iambic pentameter. Iambic means that the foot has an unstressed and a stressed beat, in that order, and pentameter means that there are five such feet in the line. A typical example of this verification can be found in line II, "I grant I never saw a goddess go." It has ten syllables and can be divided into five feet, with the stress falling on "grant," "ne-," /saw" "god," and "go." Now compare line 12. It too has ten syllables, but the way in which they are emphasized when read aloud is very different. Whereas the stress would fall on "mis-" in a regular line, here it does not; because a comparison is being made with what has gone before, the emphasis has to be put on "My." Similarly in the words between the commas ("when she walks"), the emphasis has to fall on "she" so as to make the sense of the line clear. Already the rhythm has been severely disrupted; instead of the usual unstressed-stressed sequence, we instead have a line that is stressed, unstressed, unstressed, unstressed, stressed, unstressed. This ordering makes sense if we look at the subject matter. Line 11 refers to how a goddess would walk, and is completely regular. Line 12, on the other hand, describes the earthly footsteps of a human who, as we know, is not conventionally graceful or beautiful. In the line that describes her movement, therefore, it is entirely appropriate that the verse should be irregular and even clumsy. The last four words of line 12 make the point particularly clearly: it is impossible to read "treads on the ground" without putting a stress on each of the words. The form matches meaning. This, Shakespeare is hinting, is how his mistress walks, one foot in front of the other, like a normal human being. This is not a goddess gliding, but an earthling plodding.

      We can see, therefore, that it is through a combination of dramatic timing, careful wording, and skillful verification that Shakespeare succeeds in turning traditional poetic conventions around in this sonnet. The poem could be said to flatter through the most unexpected means and to show not only its author's love for his mistress, but also his delight in placing himself above the usual poetic practices of courtly love.

      Source: Joanne Woolway, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1997.

Paul R. Thomas

      This excerpt details the history of the literary ideas that make up the composition of Shakespeare's "Sonnet 130." We all sense that literary ideas, even commonplace ones, often go through a period of development, followed by a time of artistic flourishing, only to be discarded on the dust heap of time out of overuse. The ancient business of the effect, the well-established head-to-toe description we so often see in Chaucer's portraits in the General Prologue and the Canterbury Tales, for example, flourished in the same fourteenth century in Italy in the Laura love lyrics of Petrarch. When the Renaissance poets of England finally caught up with the Petrarchan conceit that idealized development of the medieval effictio that Petrairch employed so lovingly to memorialize his Laura - the ancient topos [literary theme] soon became a familiar face, yielding all its secrets at the hands of the sonneteers, briefly changing its name to blazon, and fading in its beauty through overuse. Over-familiarity had bred contempt.

      Shakespeare's Sonnet 130 shows a deep knowledge of and a begrudging respect for that ancient business of the effictio, the blazon, the Petrarchan conceit. But, Shakespeare invokes the topos of the World Upsidedown to breathe new life into the overused Petrarchan conceit by turning it on its head.

      The notion that something formerly flourished is transferred by Shakespeare into a very imaginative notion of the sort of beauty that cannot endure into his very "modern" day, as depicted in Sonnet 130. In Nigel de Longchamps' writing in the late twelfth century, we see over and over again the idea of the world upside down in the writer's contemporary society. Brunellos the ass travels all over Europe because of his desire to change his short tail and to become wise by studying at the universities of Salerno and Paris. In the end. all the ass has learned is how to hee-haw and how to get his tail cut even shorter - thus the title of this satiric work, the Speculum Stultorum, the Mirror of Fools....

      Could it be said that in Shakespeare's Sonnet 130, the poet transforms the time-worn topos of the World Upsidedown into "modern" youth's criticism of age, wherein age is represented by the now traditional cliche of the Petrarchan conceit?

      Let us now roam in a rather random way ... to establish a reasonably clear notion of Petrarch's usual practice in delineating his idealized Laura, a woman who differs very little from the portraits of Chaucer's fin amor beauties such as Emelye, Criseyde, and Dorigen a little later in the same fourteenth century when Petrarch wrote. All are blondes of incredible slenderness and beauty.

      In Petrarch's third sonnet, there is already an implicit comparison between the sun and Laura's eyes, echoed in Shakespeare's Sonnet 130 by the lover's denial in line one that his "mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun": 

It was the morning of that
Whereon the Sun in pity veiled his glare
For the Lord's agony, that, unaware,
I; fell a captive. Lady, to the sway
Of your swift eyes: that seemed no time to stay
The strokes of Love: ...

      In this sonnet, in which the beloved does not fall victim to the arrows of Cupid, her eyes become the bright Sun as the Sun is dimmed in remembrance of Christ's crucifixion.

      The fairness of Laura's complexion and the golden color of her hair is described idealistically in Sonnet 13, in which the glowing brightness of gold predominates:

      When Love his flaming image on her brow Enthrones in perfect beauty like a star, As far as she outshines the rest, so far:. I feel the blaze of passion surge and grow.

      Yet still, I bless the place, the hour when so Supremely high, at light so singular I dared to look: "O heart, you blessed are To gaze upon that pure, that golden glow," I murmur. "She inspired the splendid thought Which points to heaven and teaches honest eyes All worldly lures and winning to despise: Through her that gentle grace of love is taught. Which by the straight path leads to paradise, And even here hope's holy crown is wrought,"

      Shakespeare's mistress has none of the quality of this goddess who guides the lover to paradise nor does the beloved of Shakespeare's Sonnet 130 possess that golden beauty of the ideal mistress. Instead, the upside-down mistress has black wires on her head and dun-colored breasts. Perhaps an even better version of these ideas and a clearer source for Shakespeare's lines, "I grant I never saw a goddess go: / My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground," occurs in Petrarch's Sonnet 90:

      Golden upon the wind her loose hair streaming, Twisted into a thousand curls was shaken; And from her eyes, which seldom now awaken To answer mine, a fiery light was gleaming; Ah! - was it fancy? - but with wistful seeming, Her lovely face by pity's tint was taken: What marvel that my heart, so long Love's beacon, Should flame out, fueled so by Love's fierce dreaming? She was no mortal in her stately moving, But stepped an angel; and her accents glowing Beyond all human tones passed human heeding, A spirit of Heaven! - a sun alive was proving My power of sight....What matters that sun's going?

      The slackening bow puts no stop to the bleeding. In a very poignant sense, Laura does come from a former age, the age of the idealized courtly lover. Many of the sonnets that describe her perfect beauty were written after her death, Sonnet 267 being one good example.... In Sonnet 279, the poet recollects the beauty of the love he lost to the plague in 1348:

While Love his slow eternal elegy weaves, Then, then I see her whom this blind earth presses! Those eyes like wells of stars, those golden tresses, That voice like tears, that silver breast which heaves....

      In true blazon fashion, Petrarch remembers Laura's eyes, her hair, her voice, and her breast - all features mentioned in less flattering terms in Shakespeare's Sonnet 130. Petrarch's Sonnet 292 features the following parts of Laura's body: the eyes, the face, the limbs, the golden locks, and the angelic smile. Though Shakespeare may not have known Petrarch's sonnets directly, though there is some evidence that Shakespeare did know some Italian sources for his plays, at least he was influenced by the Petrarchan conceit in his sonnets to the point that he could play with it and turn the conceit upside down in praise of the modern woman-perhaps the sort of woman described in Sonnet 144 as a "woman colour'd ill."... Shakespeare's insistence through his speaker in Sonnet 130 to have a real, flesh and blood mistress rather than an ideal goddess is typical of his whole cycle, and the numerous personifications of Cupid or Love in Petrarch only figure in the last two of Shakespeare's sonnets....

      The simple, almost holy tone of Petrarch's Sonnet 245 contrasts with the rational tone of Shakespeare's Sonnet 130 and also raises the image of the rosy cheeks that the speaker of Shake-speare's sonnet questions:

      Two glowing roses, fresh from Paradise, That there, on May-Day morning, leaped in light-Sweet gift sent by a lover wise and white With age to two young loves in equal wise: Whereat, so soft the speech, and to the eyes So excellent his mien (a savage might Have softened), the same luster glimmered brightly In both and on their cheeks burned the swift dyes. "Never had sun looked on a lovelier two." Said he, as with a smile and sigh he spoke, Pressing their ardent palms and turning away. Of words and roses each shared like and true. Even now my worn heart breaks, as once it broke, With bliss, O happy syllables! Holy day! How the tone of such a sonnet contrasts with the "argument" of the speaker in Shakespeare's Sonnet 130. In the opening two lines, he denies usual poetic comparisons declaratively: My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun; Coral is far more red than her lips' red.... The pattern of the string of impossibilities has begun. The speaker then questions other lovers' notions of the color of the human skin or the fanciful comparison of hair to the fine filigree work of the goldsmiths of Florence. These two lines are framed as quizzical premises that the speaker regards as absurd:

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

      If hair is wires, black wires grow on her head. Having dismissed four of the usual poetic comparisons in the Petrarchan conceit, the speaker as expert arguer finally makes a concession: he has at least seen red and white roses gathered together.

I have seen roses damask'd, red and white,

But no such roses see I in her cheeks.... Perhaps the roses suggested to the speaker of Shakespeare's Sonnet 130 the sorts of perfume he had in mind to compare with the breath his mistress exhaled (reeks does not have its modern pejorative sense here). The "and" of line seven suggests a connection between the perfumes of the next line and the roses of the preceding line. And in some perfumes is there more delight Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks, Having dismissed the likelihood of a Nature-to-nature comparison, the speaker finds his mistress's speaking voice pleasing, but not quite up to a comparison with fine music-Nature being compared with Art:

      I love to hear her speak; yet well I know That music hath a far more pleasing sound.... Continuing in his skeptical, dialectic mood, the lover confesses he has no firsthand experience with goddesses. In the Knight's Tale, Arcite claims right away that he has a superior claim to Emelye because he knew immediately that she was a woman, not a goddess! Shakespeare's verb "go" is used here in the old sense it is in Chaucer - "ryde or go" - fride on a horse or walk.

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

      The minor oath, "by heaven," that follows is logically connected to the discussion of the goddess in the previous two lines. In a sense, the lover may even be thanking the powers of heaven that, in this latter day of truth and real women who are neither as white as snow, as fair as roses and coral, as bright as the sun, nor perfumed goddesses who walk a little above the ground, he has such a mistress:

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

      By overthrowing the Petrarchan conceit that was beginning to be worn from overuse, Shakespeare's speaker in Sonnet 130 has also overthrown the usual expectation of the topos we call the World Upsidedown. This sonnet praises the modern woman, warts and all, and does not lark back to the Floreat Olim medieval ideal In his dialectic game, Shakespeare has clothed the Petrarchan ideal in flesh in his Sonnet 130.

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