The Poem (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
Sonnet 130 is a blazon, a lyric poem cataloging the physical characteristics and virtues of the beloved, in typical English or Shakespearean sonnet form—three quatrains and a couplet in iambic pentameter rhymed abab, cdcd, efef, gg. The first-person voice of the poem should be understood as that of a dramatic persona; even if William Shakespeare means it to represent himself, he nevertheless has to create a distinct personality in the language, and from this distance, the reader has no way of knowing how accurately this might describe the man. The speaker describes his beloved in comparison with, or rather in contrast to, natural phenomena. In the love poem tradition, as it emerged in English poetry in imitation of the sonnets of fourteenth century Italian poet Petrarch, poets often compare their beloveds to the elements of nature. In this sonnet, Shakespeare takes the opposite tack by describing his beloved as “nothing like” the beautiful productions of nature or art.
Her eyes, the poet begins, do not shine like the sun; nor are her lips as red as coral. When compared to the whiteness of snow, his beloved’s breasts seem “dun,” a dull gray. The “wires” of line 4 refer to gold spun into golden thread, and his beloved’s hair, if the metaphoric description of hairs as golden wires is valid, can only be seen as black, or tarnished beyond all recognition.
The damasked roses of the fifth line are...
(The entire section is 504 words.)
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Forms and Devices (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
The effect of the formal division of the Shakespearean sonnet, the four quatrains and closing couplet, is to pile up examples of a single idea—that the beloved’s beauty is really not comparable to the productions of nature and human art—so that by line 12, the reader wonders if there is anything at all about the woman that can be seen objectively as beautiful. The last two lines then provide a memorable explication of that idea: Objectivity and actual beauty are really no concern of the lover. While lines 11 and 12 dismiss comparisons to heavenly beauty as meaningless—mortals have no experience of the metaphysical world on which to base such similes—Shakespeare uses the mild expletive “by heaven” in line 13 to suggest in contrast that the impassioned subjectivity of the lover is itself metaphysical in origin, a kind of grace.
The speaker’s attitude in this poem is strikingly antimetaphoric, and lines 3 and 4 subject two conventional metaphors to examination by deductive logic. Line 3 begins with a premise, “If snow be white,” and concludes that the woman’s breasts are “dun.” In technical terms, the rhetorical device employed here is an “enthymeme,” a syllogism in which one of the terms is left out and must be inferred by the reader. One may reconstruct the full syllogism thus: Snow is white; my lover’s breasts are dull gray; therefore, my lover’s breasts are not like snow. Since snow is in fact white, one can concur with...
(The entire section is 441 words.)