Analysis

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

The form and content of Shakespeare's "Sonnet 130" work together to create an appealing poem that makes several important points about human life, encouraging readers to think more deeply while also invoking a sense of amusement.

In terms of form, this poem is a classic English sonnet. It consists of fourteen lines, divided into three quatrains of four lines followed by a rhyming couplet. Each of the quatrains presents an ABAB rhyme pattern ("sun" and "dun" and "red" and "head" in the first quatrain, for instance), while the couplet at the end has its own internal rhyme. The full sonnet's rhyme scheme scans as follows: ABABCDCDEFEFGG.

The English sonnet uses iambic pentameter. Pentameter means that each line has five stressed beats (and five corresponding unstressed beats) for five poetic "feet." Iambic means that the unstressed beats come first in each foot, followed by the stressed beats. Line 9 provides an excellent example of iambic pentameter: I love to hear her speak, yet well I know. The words in bold are the stressed syllables.

The English sonnet's form also influences its content. The first twelve lines typically develop the poem's central themes and ideas. Here the speaker "un-flatters" his mistress, showing the silliness of the poetic conventions that praise women to excess and telling the truth about his beloved.

However, the rhyming couplet at the sonnet's end "turns" the sonnet to make a final point. In this case, in lines 13-14, the speaker turns to his love for his mistress. He loves her all the more for her flaws, and his love is "rare," for it does not falsely compare his mistress to what she is not but rather cherishes her for what she is. Herein lies the main point. Love does not need to flatter. It accepts the beloved flaws and all.

Shakespeare is a master of vivid language. He paints word pictures that help readers visualize his imagery. It is easy to picture damasked roses and black, wiry hair. Readers can quickly understand how the speaker's mistress walks, treading on the ground, and get a good idea of how her breath smells. Shakespeare's word choices show rather than merely tell.

In this sonnet, vivid language combines with ironic use of figurative language, especially hyperbolesimile, and metaphor. Normally, similes and metaphors compare two things or people, one that is better known to one that is lesser known, to help readers better understand the nature of the lesser-known element. In this sonnet, however, Shakespeare breaks the similes and metaphors, making them "anti-simile" or "anti-metaphor." His mistress's eyes are not the sun. Her breath is not a delightful perfume. She does not walk like a goddess.

The similes and metaphors Shakespeare breaks in this poem are hyperboles or exaggerations. No woman's eyes are like the sun. No woman walks like a goddess. Few women, if any, have breath that smells like perfume or roses in their cheeks. Most poets use hyperboles like these in their flattery, and this, of course, is what Shakespeare is critiquing. He breaks down the hyperboles along with the figurative images that create them.

Shakespeare's critique of other poets (and even of himself) stands at the heart of this poem. Yet, he offers this criticism in a satirical and even humorous way. Satire points out the flaws of something or someone, but it does so creatively, often with a funny twist. The sonnet presents the conventional praise of a beloved and then turns it upside down. The speaker's mistress is not like that at all. This is funny, and it is meant to draw a laugh out of readers while at the same time exposing the absurdity of poetic flattery.

Readers may wonder what would happen if a lover wrote a poem like this for his beloved. He would undoubtedly have to ensure she had an excellent sense of humor. Yet love is much deeper than appearance and exaggerated compliments, and that is Shakespeare's whole point.

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Themes