Explain and extract the use of imagery in Sonnet 130.

Shakespeare uses imagery in "Sonnet 130" to parody conventional Petrarchan love language. For example, he notes that his lover's eyes are not like the "sun," her lips are not "coral," her cheeks are not "roses," and her breath is not always like "perfumes." Nevertheless, he still loves her dearly.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Imagery is description using any of the five senses of sight, sound, taste, touch, or smell.

The imagery in Shakespeare's "Sonnet 130" pokes fun at or parodies the conventionalized love imagery typical of a Petrarchan sonnet. In this sonnet, Shakespeare tries to get beyond the stale love language he had read so many times.

For example, he notes that his beloved's eyes are not, as is conventionally expressed, like the "sun." Her lips are paler than the "coral" color that is normally assigned to a beloved's mouth. He states that while a lover's skin is expected to be white like snow, her skin tone is more like "dun," a grayish-tan color. Likewise, her cheeks are not the vivid red color of "damasked" roses he has seen.

Shakespeare's speaker moves past sight imagery to scent images: his beloved's breath is not like "perfumes" but sometimes "reeks." He uses sound imagery as well: her voice is not like music, and she does not float on air but "treads on the ground."

For all this, the final couplet, in which the "turn" in this sonnet occurs, attests to the speaker's love, which is not dependent on an artificial notion of his beloved's beauty. He does not have to see her as a sex object to love her: his love is more than skin deep, and he accepts and loves her for what really she is.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team


An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The use of imagery in this poem is a subversion of the way in which nature imagery is generally used in romantic and courtly poetry from the Elizabethan era. The natural images Shakespeare uses are presented in opposition to the reality of what his mistress really looks, sounds, and smells like: the speaker alludes to "the sun" only to state that her eyes are "nothing like" it, and observes that "if snow be white," his mistress has breasts that are closer to "dun," or earth, in color. The effect of this is to criticize the tendency of poets to draw hyperbolic comparisons which, ultimately, tell us nothing about the people they describe.

The speaker has "seen roses damask'd, red and white," and it is exactly because he knows what roses look like that he does not compare "her cheeks" to them. His mistress's hair is like "black wires," and "coral is far more red than her lips' red." However, notably, what the speaker is expressing is that his love for his mistress is more earnest precisely because he "love[s] to hear her speak," while knowing all the time "that music hath a far more pleasing sound." Rather than idolizing his mistress and imagining her as a "goddess," the speaker is fully aware that his beloved "treads on the ground." He knows that she is human, and it is because he acknowledges these human qualities that their love is "rare," rather than being viewed through a lens of "false compare." Those who imagine their mistresses to be goddesses, the poem seems to suggest, do not love them for the people...

This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

they truly are.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Sonnet 130 by Shakespeare is a parody of traditional love poetry.  The speaker is making fun of love poems that use hyperbole or excessive exaggeration by comparing the objects of their desires to natural wonders like the sun and moon and roses.  The poem uses imagery to express what his lover is not.  He does not mean this as a negative comment about his lover. The poem suggests that no one compares to natural wonders.  That's the point: it's silly to compare a woman to all of the wonders that he mentions in the poem, like so many poets do.

Nature, as well as his lover, are revealed in the poem by the use of imagery.  Some of the images follow:

  • her eyes are nothing like the sun
  • coral is far more red than her lips' red
  • snow is white/breasts are dun
  • hairs=wires/black wires grow out of her head
  • roses mingling red and white/no roses in her cheeks
  • delightful perfumes/her breath reeks
  • her speaking/music more pleasing
  • goddess walking/she treads on the ground

 The speaker uses imagery to bring love poetry back to reality, so to speak.  A lover doesn't have to be like the sun and coral and snow and roses, etc., to be loved. 

By showing what his lover is not with imagery, but also stating that he loves her as any poet has ever loved, the speaker brings realism to love poetry.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

It was typical to compare a mistress's physical/personal characteristics with elements in nature. In sonnet 130, the speaker does the opposite, saying these elements in nature are far greater than is mistress's qualities. Her eyes do not compare to the splendor of the sun, her lips are not as red as coral, her hair is black wires, her breath reeks, and her voice certainly doesn't sound as good as music. This natural imagery is meant to show how only a goddess is comparable to these things: sun, coral, music, perfume, roses, and so on. The poem ends with the speaker underscoring the idea that his mistress, like every other mortal/poet's mistress is mortal and flawed. And that this mistress, from the speaker's perspective, is as rare as anyone else's mistress is to them. So, the imagery is meant to show how no one's mistress is a goddess comparable to the beauty of nature. But each is beautiful relative to the beholder because of her individuality (rarity).

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team