Sonnet 130 Summary
Sonnet 130 describes the characteristics of the speaker's beloved in contrast to the natural phenomena that were frequently used as metaphors in the love poetry of the time.
- First, the speaker lists what his mistress's features are not like; for example, her eyes do not shine like the sun and her breath is not as pleasant as perfume.
- Still, the speaker loves her: despite knowing that music is more pleasing to hear, the speaker nonetheless loves listening to his mistress's voice.
- While the speaker can't honestly call his mistress “a goddess,” she is just as unique and wonderful as any woman who is described using exaggerated poetic language.
Last Updated September 6, 2023.
To properly understand Shakespeare's "Sonnet 130," readers must be acquainted with the conventions of love poetry that dominated Shakespeare's day. Poets made grandiose claims about their beloved ladies, comparing them to the best of the natural world (they were always brighter and more beautiful) and even to supernatural beings (they were just as good if not better).
Shakespeare knew about all this, of course, and while he sometimes did the same thing, he spends this sonnet poking fun at such elaborate poetic love letters. In fact, he shows how silly they are. He intends to write a different kind of poem, a satire of his contemporaries' work (and even of his own work).
So he begins with a shocking claim: "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun" (line 1). This is different from what readers expect of a sonnet. They anticipate the opposite, an impressive claim that the mistress' eyes are brighter than the sun, or at least as bright. But the speaker suggests that his mistress' eyes are not nearly so bright.
What is more, the mistress' lips are not as red as coral (line 2). Her breasts are dun compared to the white snow (line 3). This sounds far more like insults than praise, yet readers may be struck by how accurate these claims are. Most women do not have bright red lips or pure white breasts. The speaker is sticking to the facts.
In line 4, the speaker offers a twist. "If hairs be wires," he says, "black wires grow on her head." In other words, his mistress' hair is coarse and somewhat stringy or wiry. This is hardly complimentary. Readers might hope the speaker's mistress has a lively sense of humor.
The speaker has seen beautiful roses that blend red and white into appealing patterns but are not in his mistress's cheeks (lines 5-6). Perfume is much more delightful and fragrant than his mistress' breath, which "reeks" (lines 7-8). While Shakespeare may mean that the lady's breath comes out of her, the word "reeks" carries negative connotations of a nasty smell.
In lines 9-10, the speaker admits that he loves to hear his mistress talk, yet he knows that music "hath a far more pleasing sound." His mistress' voice just does not match up. Moreover, this lady does not drift through the air like a goddess. She walks firmly on the ground (lines 11-12).
In all these lines, the speaker has broken every love poem convention in the Renaissance poetic playbook. His mistress, he implies, is a fully human woman who is far from perfect. She has many flaws. The speaker is open and honest about them.
Yet, the last two lines of the sonnet reveal that those imperfections do not matter to the speaker. He swears "by heaven" that he loves her anyway, with love so strong and rare that false comparisons are unnecessary. The truth serves better to honor his love, he implies.
Many modern readers might wonder how Shakespeare's "Sonnet 130" applies to them. "Sonnet 130" is a timeless poem that applies to anyone who has ever loved, loves now, or will love another person. It is easy to flatter the beloved, but true love must learn how to cope with all the beloved's flaws.
An unrealistic expectation about a person only leads to disappointment. Real love must be founded on truth, and that is the message Shakespeare is sending to his readers, both of his time and through the ages to the modern day, in "Sonnet 130."