The Shakespearean sonnet affords two additional rhyme endings (a-g, 7 in all) so that each rhyme is heard only once. This enlarges the range of rhyme sounds and words the poet can use and allows the poet to combine the sonnet lines in rhetorically more complex ways.
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Sonnet 130 is the only Shakespearean sonnet which models a form of poetry called the blazon, popular in the 16th century used to describe heraldry. It presents a detailed summary of all of the main features and colors of an illustration. A typical blazon of a person would start with the hair and work downward, focusing on eyes, ears, lips, neck, bosom and so on.
Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 130” is interesting because it works by inverting the traditions of the blazon form and the conventions of Petrarchan love poetry which idealized the description of the female body. All the twelve lines do not praise or idealize the beauty of the physical features of his lover, but on the contrary, criticize her physical features by revealing the shortcomings in them by contrasting her physical features with their respective idealized poetic versions.
The emphasis on criticism is strengthened with the use of iambic pentameter. For example, “my MIS/tress EYES/ are NO/thing LIKE/ the SUN/” highlights the keywords that Shakespeare would like to stress when reading with this beat and word stress. This provides the reader with an auditory tempo that draws out the essence of the embedded message, which seeks to convey that “miss eyes no like the sun” in a concise form.
A close reading of the sonnet reveals Shakespeare’s skill in crafting a precise sonnet within structural confines of an octet, a sestet and a pair of rhyming couplets.
The first eight lines, the octet, are written in a way that a cursory glance at the words would give the reader a misreading of the intended meaning. The choice of words employed by Shakespeare is that which are common in the lexical field of words used for Petrarchan love poetry that glorify a lover’s external appearances to a level of almost goddess-like beauty. Words like “eyes”, “sun”, “red”, “lips”, “roses”, “cheeks” and “delight” are chosen by Shakespeare to describe the “dark lady”. This witty choice of words may be misread by the reader who is flippant in the reading of the text, without noting how such words are used for contrast rather than description. It shows the possibility that at first glance, a woman may be perceived as possessing such beautiful traits. Similarly, love is deceptive at first but is revealed over time to be humanly imperfect, unlike its initial goddess-like image. This theme is carried on in the sonnet, embedded in the play of words to emphasize how human love is flawed but still very much beautiful.
A key element in Sonnet 130 that appeals to me as a reader is the historical information gleaned from a close reading. In the tropical waters in Asia, coral varies in colour and texture. However, the coral referenced in line two, “Coral is far more red, than her lips red” place this poem in a specific geographical region of the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, providing the reader a cultural context in which it is read and enhancing the element of verisimilitude.
It was part of the courtly tradition of love to declare that the goddess whom one adored had virtually no human qualities. “But no such roses see I in her cheeks” gives an illustration of beauty literally portrayed according to the extravagant conceits of the time. “And in some perfumes is there more delight” provides an insight into the traditional world of sonnets where the beloved’s breath smelled sweeter than all perfumes. All her qualities were divine. This can be seen in Cymbeline, one of Shakespeare’s later plays (A.D 1609-10), where Iachimo describes Imogen, whom he hopes to seduce. “How dearly they don’t! ‘Tis her breathing that perfumes the chamber thus”.
In line eight, “than in the breath that from my mistress reeks”, “reeks” stems from the original meaning of “to emit smoke”. This is common in the Scottish expression “long may your lang (chimney) reek”. Shakespeare’s choice of words is precise in juxtaposing “breath” and “reeks”, eliciting a sharp response from the reader to shun this person for her seemingly bad breath. This expression is effective in depicting contrasting imagery between the idealized mistress and this woman whom Shakespeare paints as an antithesis to the Patriarchal ideals of “beauty”.
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However, the mood of the poem shifts and the poet expresses a revelation or epiphany at the beginning of the third quatrain. This marks the volta (“turn”), in which Shakespeare salvages the reader’s perception of this lady by putting it into the context of his commitment to love her despite her seemingly abundant physical flaws.
“I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound”
The introduction of this declaration underscores Shakespeare’s commitment to listening to his lover’s voice despite the knowledge that music might sound better. Such a juxtaposition of sounds provides the reader an understanding that in reality, the notion of a lover’s voice being melodious and soothing is all in the perception of the hearer. It does not affect the commitment expressed in a relationship grounded in honesty and qualities that transcend superficial lust and physical attraction.
The next line, “I grant I never saw a goddess go” is positioned as a response to the common description of lovers being non-mortal such that even their walk is different from mortals. This can be cross-referenced to Shakespeare’s poem on Venus and Adonis, during Aeneas’ encounter with Venus in Virgil’s Aeneid – “vera incessu patuit dea” (by her gait she was revealed as a true goddess). Here, Shakespeare presents to the reader a woman who defies romanticized, literary conventions of “beauty” as he boldly declares that
“My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground
My beloved is human, a goddess with earthly feet”
Here, he asserts that divine comparisons are not relevant, for his beloved is beautiful without being a goddess. This concept of ascribing earthly features to one’s lover was a radical move by Shakespeare that served to construct a humane quality instead of superficially elevating her to the unrealistic level of “goddess” or what we know today as “supermodels”.
Shakespeare invests the ending couplet with special significance. It characterizes the musings of the three quatrains in a sardonic, detached or aphoristic voice, standing in some way aloof from the more turbulent and heartfelt outpouring of the quatrains.
“And yet by heaven, I think my love as rare,
As any, she belied with false compare.”
The couplet provides an evaluation of how he judges the standard of his love. “Rare” is used by Shakespeare to ascribe superb and precious quality. It is used in later plays by Shakespeare, as in the famous description of Cleopatra floating on her barge, which is put in the mouth of Domitius, Agrippa exclaims,
“To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool,
And what they undid did.
AGRIPPA O, rare for Antony!”