Sonnet 130 Analysis

Forms and Devices (Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.)