Themes and Style of Sonnet 130 by Shakespeare

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Appearances and Reality

      In "Sonnet 130" Shakespeare explores how we perceive things and (especially) people around us. Specifically, he is interested in the ways love and traditional forms of thinking about or expressing love can color our perceptions. The poem sets up a series of expectations in the reader, based on long-established conventions of love poetry that stretch from the popular blazon form, to the sonnets of Petrarch, and back to medieval love poetry. As Shakespeare uses the images of such things as the sun, coral, snow, and roses, the reader instantly recognizes them as standard materials of love poetry and expects the lover to be compared favorably or even judged superior to these things. This is a love poem, the reader understands, and the object of the poet's love will be shown to be better or more beautiful than anything else in the world. However, Shakespeare overturns the conventions and defies the reader's expectations by showing the lover as inferior to the usual standards. As the poem progresses, the reader begins to think that maybe the woman is ugly and starts to wonder what kind of love poem this is. The reader is thrown into uncertainty. The conventional standards of love poetry don't apply. The reader becomes more and more convinced that the poet doesn't love the woman at all. With the closing couplet, however, Shakespeare seems to reverse himself again by insisting that he thinks his love "as rare / As any She belied with false compare."

      All appearances to the contrary, he does love her after all. Even though the woman doesn't fit the standard model of beauty, even though the poet doesn't sound like a traditional lover, and even though the poem doesn't follow convention, she is truly beautiful, he does actually love her, and this is in reality a love poem,

Creativity and Imagination

      "Sonnet 130" can also be read as an examination of the nature of the poetic imagination. Throughout the poem, Shakespeare inverts the conventional forms poets have used for centuries to describe the perfect woman. The metaphors and similes comparing the lover's eyes to the sun, her voice to music, and so forth are the tools of the poet's trade, as it were, devices employed to convey what is present in the poet's imagination. But Shakespeare refuses to use these tools; over and over the speaker insists that such comparisons are false. Her lips are not as red as coral, her breasts are not as white as snow, and her breath is not finer than perfume. The climax of this series of repudiations comes in lines 11-12, where the lover is contrasted to a goddess. Goddesses are mythological figures; wholly creations of the imagination, they have no connection to the real world. As such, they have been used by poets to express an absolute ideal, a perfection not possible in real life. In this sonnet, however, when Shakespeare declares that his lover is of this world, that she "treads on the ground," he appears to reject the world of the imagination, preferring the actual world instead.

Topics for Further Study

      In the form of a letter, write a response to this poem from Shakespeare's mistress, expressing whether she is flattered or offended by his statements.

What characteristics of the sonnet are displayed here? Based on the evidence of this poem, what kinds of sentiments are typically expressed in the sonnet form? Give specific examples.

      A similar view is expressed in Shakespeare's play A Midsummer Night's Dream, Theseus, the wisest and highest-ranking person in the play (and so carries a good deal of authority) argues that poets, lovers, and madmen are all similar in their use of imagination:

The lunatic, the lover, and the poet
Are of imagination all compact.
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold;
That is the madman. The lover, all as frantic.
Sees Helen's beauty in a brow of Egypt.
The poet's eye, in a fine frenzy, rolling.
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;

      And as imagination bodies forth The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing A local habitation and a name. Such tricks hath strong imagination. That if it would but apprehend some joy, It comprehends some bringer of that joy; Or in the night, imagining some fear. How easy a bush is supposed to be a bear! Theseus scoffs at the way all three create something out of nothing by means of the imagination. He seems to suggest that using the imagination means blowing things out of proportion, a sentiment that is like the one expressed in Sonnet 130. A similar note is sounded in Hamlet, when the hero warns a troupe of actors not to overdo it when they perform a play he has given them: do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently, for in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say, whirlwind of your passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness. O, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to spleet the ears of the groundlings, who for the most part are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb shows and noise.

      Here the actor's imagination, like that of the poet, exaggerates and distorts. Art, Hamlet goes on to say, should be true to life.

      Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance, that you overstep not the modesty of nature: for anything so overdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as 'twere the mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of (he time his form and pressure.

      Time and time again in his work, Shakespeare criticizes art that is overblown, that is made only of the "aery nothing" of the imagination, and he praises art that is rooted in reality, that holds "the mirror up to nature," "Sonnet 130," with its condemnation of poetic hyperbole as "false compare," is in this respect characteristically Shakespearean.


      The sonnet (from the Italian "sonnetto", or "little song") owes much of its long-standing popularity to the Italian poet, Petrarch. By the mid-sixteenth century, this fixed poetic form was adopted by the English, who borrowed the fourteen-line pattern and many of Petrarch's literary conventions. English writers did, however, alter the rhyme scheme to allow for more variety in rhyming words: while an Italian sonnet might rhyme abba, abba, ede, ded, an English or Shakespearean sonnet rhymes abab, eded, efef, gg.

      In all but three of Shakespeare's 154 sonnets ("Sonnet 99," "Sonnet 126," and "Sonnet 145"), the first three groups of four lines each are known as quatrains and the last two lines are recognized as a couplet. The three breaks between the quatrains and the couplet serve as convenient places where the writer's train of thought may take a different direction. In "Sonnet 130," the quatrain's work support each other in a common way of thinking about the mistress; the couplet, however, is a great surprise, as it seems to contradict the mood and meaning of the lines preceding it.

      "Sonnet 130" is written in iambic pentameter. Iambic meter, the most familiar rhythm in the English language, is simply the succession of alternately stressed syllables: an iamb, a type of poetic foot, is a group of two syllables in which the first is unstressed and the second is stressed. The use of "penta" (meaning "five") before "meter" means that there are five iambs per line. One of Shakespeare's only divergences from the rhythmic flow in "Sonnet 130" is in line 13, when he includes an extra syllable in the poetic foot "by heaven"; this break in the regular meter emphasizes the sincerity behind his oath, and perhaps suggests the height of his emotion for his mistress.

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