Sonnet 130 | Shakespeare's Sonnets
sonnet 130

Sonnet 130

Written by on | Shakespeare

Now, this sonnet is an interesting one in that it can almost fall into the world of satire. In order to explain what I mean, we need to first understand what a Blazon was/is. A literary blazon (or blason) catalogues the physical attributes of a subject, usually female. The device was made popular by Petrarch and used extensively by Elizabethan poets. What Shakespeare was doing in this sonnet was flipping the Blazon on its head and almost making fun of the poets that wrote them. He spends the majority of the sonnet almost insulting the subject. But in the rhyming couplet, he turns it all around. But does that excuse writing these terrible things about her? Or even the use of her body as a tool in some battle with other poets to prove how clever the Poet is? On the one hand, it’s packed to the brim with insults about someone else’s looks. But on the other, it’s being used in an almost satirical way to knock these poets writing Blazons down a few pegs. It’s an interesting one, and there’s quite a bit to unpack here so let’s take a look.

Read More: Best Shakespeare Sonnets

Sonnet 130 (Original Text)

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;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head;
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some pérfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound.
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground.
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare

 

Verse Breakdown

Bold = Stressed
Unbold = Unstressed
ABCDEFG: Rhyming pattern

First Quatrain
My mistress eyes are nothing like the sun      A
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;      B
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;   A
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head;   B

Second Quatrain
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,       C
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;            D
And in some pérfumes is there more delight     C
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.     D

Third Quatrain; Or, The Turn
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know         E
That music hath a far more pleasing sound.               F
I grant I never saw a goddess go;                E
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground.      F

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

 

Modern Translation

My beloved’s eyes are nothing like the sun
Coral is more red than her lips
If snow is white then her breasts are dark in colour
If hair is like wires then black wires grow out of her head
I’ve seen roses that are white and red but her cheeks don’t have those colours
And some perfumes smell nicer than her breath
I love hearing her talk but I know music is a much more pleasing sound
I’ll admit that I’ve never seen a goddess walk
But my mistress just walks on the ground
    But by god my love is as special as any woman
    Than any that these poets make false comparisons about

Thought Breakdown and Analysis

My mistress eyes are nothing like the sun
My beloved, my lover’s eyes are nothing like the sun.

Pretty straight forward here. We begin with a light insult saying her eyes aren;t as beautiful or radiant as the sun.

Coral is far more red than her lips red
Her lips aren’t as red as coral.

Another insult. Her lips are not bright and beautiful like coral,

If snow be white, why then her breasts are done
If snow is white then her breasts are dark in colour.

Interesting line. We don’t know exactly what was being referred to here. Whether this was in reference to someone’s literal skin complexion or if it was to do with them having quite tanned skin. It’s of import to note here that in 16th and 17th century England, having a sun tan was seen as undesirable as it usually meant you worked outside to make ends meet and were therefore from a lower socio-economic class.

If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head
If hairs are wire, then her hair grows black wires.

Another interesting dig at the other poets. Lots of these blazon writers all spoke about hair being golden wires. Golden hair I guess being more desirable to Elizabethan poets? Here the poet is saying she has the opposite of that. Her hairs are not golden, they’re black wires. 

I have seen roses damasked, red and white
I have seen roses that are red and white in colour.

Not much to note here until we get to the next line, other than the fact that we’re in the second quatrain now and have moved away from single line thoughts and sentences.

But no such roses see I in her cheeks
But I don’t see those colours in her cheeks.

I’ve seen these beautiful reds and whites in roses, but not in the cheeks of my beloved.

And in some perfumes is there more delight
And there is more delight in some perfumes.

Wait for it…

Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks
Than the breath that comes out of my mistress.

Another two line thought. He’s saying I’ve smelt perfumes that are more delightful than my mistress breath. Also note the word ‘reeks’ here is not necessarily being used in the way we would today. Reeks to Elizabethan english speakers would more closely means something like ‘come forth’ or ‘rise’. So I guess it’s not as badly worded of an insult than we would think? Still pretty mean though.

I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
I love hearing her speak but I know…

Another two-line thought. We’ll get to that. But we should note that this is now the third quatrain and thus, it’s the turn in the argument being laid down. And right on queue we have our first statement that isn’t necessarily a flat out insult. But just wait for it.

That music hath a far more pleasing sound
Music is more pleasant than her voice.

And we’re back. Another insult. However as I said before, we’re in the third quatrain and so we’re moving away from the flat out insults and starting to hear what the poets likes about his beloved. He likes her voice, but he likes music more.

I grant I never saw a goddess go
I admit to you I’ve never seen a goddess walk before.

He’s not seen gods walking around but… you guessed it.

My mistress when she walks treads on the ground
My beloved only walks on the ground. A mere mortal.

He’s saying his beloved is only human and walks among the mere mortals of the earth. Just like the rest of us. This is a nice transitional line as we’re about to go into the rhyming couplet and hear what all of this was about. We’ll hear the final argument and point of the sonnet.

And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
But by heaven I think my beloved is just as special.

Our first relatively kind thing! The rhyming couplet here is another enjambed line, meaning continuing without a pause. There’s thought that are two lines long but that doesn’t necessarily mark enjambment. Go back and see if you can find the others.

As any she belied with false compare
As any my love/any person who is falsely compared to these things by other poets.

That’s the argument the poet is making. He thinks his love is just as special, just as rare as any of these women spoken about in blazons. And the poet is arguing against the writing of blazons in its entirety because of the false and unrealistic comparisons they make for people. He’s said all of these unfavourable downright mean things about his beloved, but in the end says that even if those are true, that she is just as special as anyone written about in these poems.

Unfamiliar Language

Dun (adj.) grey-brown
Damasked (adj.) having the hue of the damask rose, adorned with colours
Reek (v.) steam, smoke, give off vapour
Belie (v.) slander, tell lies about
Compare (n.) comparison, simile, analogy
False (adj.)defective, weak, inadequate
She (n.) lady, woman, girl

About the Author

Jake Fryer-Hornsby

Jake Fryer-Hornsby is an actor, writer, and educator based in Sydney, and originally hailing from regional Western Australia. Jake graduated from WAAPA in 2017 and since then has gone on to work on and off stages around the country. You can find Jake taking shelter from the sun in any number of outdoor areas and/or on the hunt for his next caffeine fix.

About the Author

Jake Fryer-Hornsby

Jake Fryer-Hornsby is an actor, writer, and educator based in Sydney, and originally hailing from regional Western Australia. Jake graduated from WAAPA in 2017 and since then has gone on to work on and off stages around the country. You can find Jake taking shelter from the sun in any number of outdoor areas and/or on the hunt for his next caffeine fix.

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