If snow is white, then her breasts are a brownish gray;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
If hairs are like wires, hers are black and not golden.
I have seen roses damask'd, red and white,
I have seen damask roses, red and white [streaked],
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
But I do not see such colors in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
And some perfumes give more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
Than the horrid breath of my mistress.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
I love to hear her speak, but I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
That music has a more pleasing sound.
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
I've never seen a goddess walk;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
But I know that my mistress walks only on the ground.
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
And yet I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.
As any woman who has been misrepresented by ridiculous comparisons.
dun (3): i.e., a dull brownish gray.
roses damasked, red and white (5): This line is possibly an allusion to the rose known as the York and Lancaster variety, which the House of Tudor adopted as its symbol after the War of the Roses. The York and Lancaster rose is red and white streaked, symbolic of the union of the Red Rose of Lancaster and the White Rose of York. Compare The Taming of the Shrew: "Such war of white and red within her cheeks!" (4.5.32). Shakespeare mentions the damask rose often in his plays. Compare also Twelfth Night:
She never told her love,
But let concealment, like a worm i' the bud,
Feed on her damask cheek. (2.4.118)
than the breath...reeks (8): i.e., than in the breath that comes out of (reeks from) my mistress.
As the whole sonnet is a parody of the conventional love sonnets written by Shakespeare's contemporaries, one should think of the most common meaning of reeks, i.e., stinks. Shakespeare uses reeks often in his serious work, which illustrates the modern meaning of the word was common. Compare Macbeth:
Except they meant to bathe in reeking wounds
Or memorise another Golgotha,
I cannot tell. (1.2.44)
rare (13): special.
she (14): woman.
belied (14): misrepresented.
with false compare (14): i.e., by unbelievable, ridiculous comparisons.
Sonnet 130 is the poet's pragmatic tribute to his uncomely mistress, commonly referred to as the dark lady because of her dun complexion. The dark lady, who ultimately betrays the poet, appears in sonnets 127 to 154. Sonnet 130 is clearly a parody of the conventional love sonnet, made popular by Petrarch and, in particular, made popular in England by Sidney's use of the Petrarchan form in his epic poem Astrophel and Stella.
If you compare the stanzas of Astrophel and Stella to Sonnet 130, you will see exactly what elements of the conventional love sonnet Shakespeare is light-heartedly mocking. In Sonnet 130, there is no use of grandiose metaphor or allusion; he does not compare his love to Venus, there is no evocation to Morpheus, etc. The ordinary beauty and humanity of his lover are important to Shakespeare in this sonnet, and he deliberately uses typical love poetry metaphors against themselves.
In Sidney's work, for example, the features of the poet's lover are as beautiful and, at times, more beautiful than the finest pearls, diamonds, rubies, and silk. In Sonnet 130, the references to such objects of perfection are indeed present, but they are there to illustrate that his lover is not as beautiful -- a total rejection of Petrarch form and content. Shakespeare utilizes a new structure, through which the straightforward theme of his lover’s simplicity can be developed in the three quatrains and neatly concluded in the final couplet.
Thus, Shakespeare is using all the techniques available, including the sonnet structure itself, to enhance his parody of the traditional Petrarchan sonnet typified by Sidney’s work. But Shakespeare ends the sonnet by proclaiming his love for his mistress despite her lack of adornment, so he does finally embrace the fundamental theme in Petrarch's sonnets: total and consuming love.
One final note: To Elizabethan readers, Shakespeare's comparison of hair to 'wires' would refer to the finely-spun gold threads woven into fancy hair nets. Many poets of the time used this term as a benchmark of beauty, including Spenser:
Some angel she had been,
Her long loose yellow locks like golden wire,
Sprinkled with pearl, and pearling flowers atween,
Do like a golden mantle her attire,
And being crowned with a garland green. (Epithal).
How to cite this article:
Shakespeare, William. Sonnet 130. Ed. Amanda Mabillard. Shakespeare Online. 8 Dec. 2008. < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/sonnets/130detail.html >.
Petrarca, Francesco. Petrarch, the first modern scholar and man of letters. James Harvey Robinson, ed. New York: Haskell House, 1970.
Sidney, Philip, Sir. Selected writings of Sir Philip Sidney. Richard Dutton, ed. Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1987.
Tomlinson, Charles. The sonnet: its origin, structure, and place in poetry. Folcroft: Folcroft Press, 1970.
Did You Know? ... "Of the countless editions of the works of Shakespeare that show a frontispiece likeness of the poet, it is a singular fact that by far the greater number favour the 'Chandos' portrait. The face and features of Shakespeare as 'imaged' in that portrait are those with which his readers are probably most familiar. It is not easy to account for this, since the Chandos Portraitportrait is certainly not the first in point of genuineness, whatever may be its degree of artistic merit. Possibly it satisfies more fully the popular ideal of the likeness of a great creative poet than does the bust or print just referred to. Be that as it may, the 'Chandos ' portrait, for various reasons, more than justifies its being kept in the custody of the nation as a very rare and valuable relic of its greatest dramatist." Alexander Cargill. Read on....