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.

The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 504

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.

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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.

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The damasked roses of the fifth line are variegated roses of red and white, and such, the poet continues, cannot be seen in his woman’s face. Perfume, too, is an inaccurate simile for his lover’s breath, since most perfumes are more pleasing. The word “reeks” in line 8 simply means “breathes forth” in Elizabethan English, although our modern sense of the word as denoting an offensive smell certainly emphasizes Shakespeare’s point of contrast.

Homework Help

Latest answer posted November 30, 2021, 2:58 am (UTC)

1 educator answer

At the ninth-line “turn”—the formal point at which sonnets typically introduce an antithesis or redirect their focus—the speaker continues in the same vein, noting how music has a more pleasing sound than his lover’s voice, though he also introduces an important point: None of these contrasts is to suggest that he finds his beloved any less pleasing. He loves her voice, as he does her other characteristics, but honestly he must acknowledge that music is, objectively speaking, more pleasing to the senses.

Lines 11 and 12 dismiss conventional descriptions of women as goddesslike. Who among mortal men has ever witnessed a goddess in order to make such similes in the first place? All this lover knows is what he sees, and his mistress is, like him, quite earthly and earthbound, walking on the ground.

The sonnet’s couplet then explicates the point of the above contrasts. The lover’s objective comparisons of his beloved with nature and human artifacts of perfume and music, however unfavorable to the woman, do not change his subjective perception of her: She is as rare as any of those women whom poets describe with comparisons that exaggerate, and thus belie, human beauty.

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