The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Download Sonnet 130 Study Guide

Subscribe Now

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.

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.

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.

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,...

(The entire section is 504 words.)