William Shakespeare's Sonnet 130 commonly known by its first line, "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun" is one of the most celebrated sonnets in the English literature. The sonnet is one of those many manifestations of Shakespeare's strong affection for the mysterious mistress often referred by many critics as the Dark Lady. The poem literally conveys the idea that the natural beauty of a beloved is more meaningful as long as they are not dependent on false comparisons. Thus, truth is the main virtue for this poem.
This Shakespearian sonnet has three quatrains and a couplet, as opposed to the earlier form of sonnet called the Petrarchan / Italian sonnet which comprises an octave and a sestet. Shakespeare's sonnet 130 comprises of 14 lines; each line comprises of ten syllables. The meter is that of iambic pentameter, characterized by unstressed-stressed foot. Particularly noticeable in this sonnet is the idea of "a thought per line" - every verse in this sonnet contains a complete thought or idea for these lines are not enjambed.
The poem is about the speaker's description about his beloved through comparing and contrasting some images in nature such as "sun" (line 1), "coral" (line 2), "snow" (line 3), "roses" (line 5) and many more. Through describing a sequence of vivid and mental imageries in contrast to the beloved' physical attributes, the readers will have a clear picture of what the beloved looks like. The conflict of the poem is generally maneuvered by the tone of the speaker - the vulgarity and the mockery in his descriptions of his beloved accounts for the tension that is present in the quatrains.
The first quatrain of the sonnet introduces the mistress' eyes "which are nothing like the sun" (line 1). It is very straightforward and may be viewed as harsh, but one can feel an initial powerful energy supported by the rest of the lines of the quatrain. The readers will see that the contrast of the beautiful images in nature is readily established in the first quatrain. The line "If snow be white, why then her breast are dun" (line 3) signifies that her mistress' breast are not as white as that of a snow. On the same note, the speaker contrasts the redness of her lips as nothing as that of a coral (line 2) and that his mistress has "wires" for hair - all of these may be viewed as a form of a mockery.
The second quatrain follows the same logic as that of the first - the speaker continues to describe the absence of the rose in her cheeks ("But no such roses see I in her cheeks" - line 6) and that "â€¦in some perfume is there more delight | Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks." The tone is provocative, vulgar and somewhat satiric. From this point the poem becomes compelling to the reader mainly because the poet or the speaker, as opposed to the conventional idea of romanticizing his beloved, is detailing the otherwise negative physical attributes of the beloved.
The third quatrain mellows down in terms of the audacity of the speaker and this is because of the line "I love to hear her speakâ€¦" (line 9). In this quatrain one would notice the elements of "music" and "goddess" that is lacking in the mistress through these lines "I love to hear her speak, yet well I know | That music hath a far more pleasing sound" (lines 9-10) and "I grant I never saw a goddess go | My mistress when she walks treads the ground" (line 11-12). This summarizes the frequency of images that highly suggest the beloved's physical imperfections built by the poet in the first three quatrains, thus conditions the readers for the final sharp blow that would occur in the last two lines or the couplet that follows.
Finally the couplet - the last two lines of the sonnet - accounts for the most important, unexpected and sharp conclusion that is necessary for such poem. This is often referred to as volta, literally means the "turn", as this is where the change of mood, tension, and atmosphere occurs giving the poem a surprising and astonishing nature. As what any reader may observe, the poet spent all three quatrains reflecting the beloved in physical terms by contrasting her with the beautiful images of nature. The poet's love for her seems to run against the grain due to the poet's penchant for satirically detailing her imperfections. However, the couplet ensures a sort of redemption for that matter. In these two powerful lines "And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare | As any she belied with false compare" the speaker shows us that he doesn't have to make false comparisons just to express how much he truly loves her mistress by comparing her eyes to the brightness of the sun, her cheeks to roses, or her voice to music. Essentially what he wishes to share with us is that he loves his mistress despite her imperfections which makes her unique and rare individual worthy of his own delight. The couplet is retained in the readers' minds more than ever; the thought encapsulated in it ensures recall and ties the poem into a knot.
The poem is not just a mere parody to the mistress' physical attributes but deeper analysis would suggest that it is Shakespeare parody for the conventional standards of a Petrarchan sonnet. A Petrarchan sonnet usually romanticizes the beloved but here in sonnet 130, Shakespeare has a different way of proclaiming his love to his mistress. In Jem Bloomfield's analysis of the poem, she says that Shakespeare "â€¦is obviously rejecting the overblown conventions of romantic poetry" spearheaded by the conventions of Petrarchan tradition. Christina Nechifor (2007) emphasizes that this sonnet is "an unconventional portrait of the beloved woman, build by rejection of the traditional clichés of the Renaissance sonnet and that of the love poetry..." This is the theme of the sonnet.
In metrical poetry where form is an aesthetic attribute one can find that in this sonnet the rhymes and rhythm are in harmony with its meter. The poem is very easy to read aloud because of the caesuras, enabling the reader to pause naturally for there is no continuation from one line of verse into the next line. One can't find any hint of awkwardness in its readability. Poetry is indeed worthy of discovery in terms of plumbing its meaning - the pleasure in poetry is only achieved when we come to understand the meaning of a poem and feel the "poetic effect" of it.