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Essay: Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130

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  • Shakespeare's Sonnet 130
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And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare; As any she belied with false compare… Shakespeare’s sonnet 130 was firstly published in 1609 and while many consider his 154 known sonnets to be written in a sequence, Barber claims that these were “not, in fact, such a production, indeed not one production at all” (Barber 651). While most of his sonnets were addressed to a young man, sonnets 127-154 describe a “dark-complexioned married woman of loose moral” (Barber 650), known by scholars as the Dark Lady. In many works, the depiction of his dark mistress is actively discussed and opposing opinions on who this lady might be, are being debated not only in academic discourses but also by laypeople on the internet. Shakespeare was born and raised in the early modern period, a tempest-tossed time in which the church of England separated from the Catholic church and was citizen to a Tudor dynasty. He is considered an Elizabethan writer. In this essay, I want to underline my assumption that the Shakespearean sonnet 130 satirically mocks the overidealizing imagery of the 17th century Blazon, while rigorously following the conventions of the English sonnet.

Firstly, the prevailing sonnet types of the Shakespearean period (1564-1616) must be briefly introduced. A sonnet in general consists of 14 lines determined by a distinctive rhyming pattern. While the origin of the sonnet is not quite clear, Holton, indicates that the form “was established at the court of Frederick II. in the 1230s” (Holton 374), however, it was Petrarch who used a slightly altered form to such an extent that the Italian sonnet also goes by the term of the Petrarchan sonnet. It consisted of a closed octave rhyming abbaabba and was followed by a cddece sestet. Holton further claims that “Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey wrote the first sonnets in English” (374). While “Wyatt’s sonnet contains an abbaabba octave, but introduce a final couplet into the sestet” Surrey “developed a sonnet-form made up of three cross-rhymed quatrains followed by a couplet, the form which came to be known as the English or Shakespearean sonnet” (374). Emerson states that “Surrey cut the knot of irregularity by the simple device of using three English quatrains with alternate rime and a couplet, a form which all Englishmen could understand and most English poets of the period were to follow, at least in part” (Emerson 118)

Despite the fact that Surrey was the first to introduce the English sonnet form, most scholars refer to it as the Shakespearean sonnet form. This is since “Shakespeare uses nothing but the Shakespearean form, but for the most part uses it straight.” (Barber 654). The Shakespearean sonnet consists of an octave rhyming ababcdcd and a sestet containing a rhyming couplet efef gg. However, I wish to claim that there is not only a single form of the English sonnet and subjugating every such sonnet under the term Shakespearean might seem parochial since I do agree with Ordemann who states, “that the sonnet as a form “the most rigid,” is actually very flexible” (172). He both rationally and, to me, in a humorous manner points out that “it can be shown that 51,300 possible arrangements are possible without destroying the sonnet as a recognizable form. With such multitude of possible variations, the sonnet form should not prove much of a barrier to any real poet’s expression.” (173). However, on an earlier occasion, he states, “that the total possible arrangements of in what legitimately might be called the Elizabethan sonnet are 55” (172). According to this, there are 55 rhyme schemes with a rhyming couplet and distinctive alternating rhyming patterns to the octave and sestet, the main characteristic of Elizabethan sonnets. Thus, the Shakespearean form is only just one of these. Breaking the sonnet form thus is either a deliberate and perhaps vigorous act or lack of knowledge of the sonnet itself.

In this following paragraph, I want to engage with the understanding of the sonnet form and its implementation in Shakespeare’s sonnet 130. A sonnet, by Oppenheimer, is understood as “a single stanza poem, albeit a stanza with a twist, a sudden turn of thought, an abrupt transformation of theme at the middle, at line nine” (Holton 378). A brief look at the sonnet reveals that it indeed consists of 14 lines and that the rhyming pattern points towards three cross-rhymed quatrains with a rhyming couplet at the end of the sestet. After reading the poem for the first time the reader might come to the conclusion that this sonnet seems to insult the addressee on every occasion. But giving it a more detailed look upon the context it was written in, helps to clear the doubts and “false compare” (Sonnet 130 line 14). A plethora of sonnets of that time had love as their predominant theme – overidealizing representation of loved ones, using rich Petrarchan imagery in hyperbolic ways to captivate their addressees. These sonnets were referred to as Blazons, a device that Petrarch himself made popular and which was carried on in Elizabethan works. Sonnet 130, in fact, is written as a Blazon, however, does ironically describe the Dark Lady using Anti-Petrarchan imagery to point out its overuse.

Analysing the sonnet on its meter showed that it is in iambic pentameter and varies occasionally using an initial reversal in line 2 and mid-line reversals in lines 3, 4 and 12 thereby Shakespeare achieves a change in rhythm and builds up tension to create a faster or slowing movement. He also uses commas to give the reader some guidance and emphasise the depiction of his mistress in line 3 to 4 and more important to create pauses in performance in the rhyming couplet “And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare” (Sonnet 130 line 13). This does not seem to contradict the sonnet form, not even the Shakespearean form. After pointing out the meter of the sonnet I would like to shed some light upon each quatrain and show the overall image that is being created. The typical Blazon to me seems to describe the loved one from head to toe as if the poet was gazing along the loved one’s body. My assumption, to me, is substantiated by the very first line and the appearing movement of the sonnet from her eyes in line 1, that are ‘nothing like the sun’, to her lips that are in no way as red as coral, to her hair (in this context supposedly on her shoulders) in line 3. Following this line 11 and 12 describe her walks on the ground in a treading manner. The first quatrain is written in a negative tone and describes the mistress body in 3rd person narrative. In line 1 he uses assonance that creates a melody with the words my, eyes, and like and implements the negative simile in “nothing like the sun” – a strong anti-Petrarchan image (line 1). Line 2 further plays with the comparisons of that time by comparing her lips red to that of coral, that his mistress apparently does not possess. A parallelism is to be observed in lines 3 and 4, not only at the beginning of the line but their syntactical structure as well. Overall, I perceive a shift in described colour from line 1 “nothing like the sun” followed through in line 2 “her lip’s red” continuing to line 3 “if snow be white, why her breast are dun” into line 4 “black wires” (lines 1-4) to more darker shades that perhaps represent the Dark Lady. Quatrain 2 changes the perspective as the narrator speaks in 1st person. The damasked roses belong to the semantic field of love and are typical Petrarchan imagery as well as the negative comparison of her breath to the delight of perfume. Alliteration is also dominant in line 7 with words like than, the, that, (and enjambed into line 8) there. Quatrain 3 beginning with the Volta, has a subtle shift of tone and perception, since it begins with “I love to hear her speak, yet well I know”, however turns again in line 10 as the narrator states that “music hath a far more pleasing sound”, perhaps stating that he likes the content of her utterances rather than the sound of her voice itself (line 9-10). Line 11 and 12 employ again a Petrarchan image of a divine being of with alliterations on grant, goddess and go that his “mistress, when she walks treads on the ground”, empowering a more realistic description that she is a down-to-earth person, rather than an angelic being (line 11-12). These two lines refer directly to the 3rd sonnet by Petrarch himself, where he states that “Her walk was not that of mortal thing but of some angelic form” (Petrarca 192 line 7-8). Shakespeare actually goes right at Petrarch himself and since the structure Shakespearean sonnet is “argued to be haunted by the Petrarchan sonnet” (Holton 380), Shakespeare takes a new approach to this ‘archaic’ poem form. The rhyming couplet follows by concluding the story and revealing the admiration for his mistress despite all his flaws in the preceding 12 lines. For me, line 13 is the more apparent turn than the Volta and in my humble opinion is like a vow of his love his mistress by stating that “by heaven” his love is as dear to him “as any she belied with false compare” (Sonnet 130 line 13-14). The ‘she’ in line 14 is widely debated in academic publications I came across in my research, while Booth glosses ‘she’ as synonymous the noun ‘woman’ (Shakespeare, Booth 455), Steele contests that assumption (Steele 133), which would change the perception of his mistress. However, this is not to be discussed any further in this paper.

After pointing out the differences of Elizabethan and Italian sonnets, arguing that there are various possibilities to write a sonnet without breaking the standard English sonnet and comparing the sonnet to the typical Blazon I must come to the conclusion that sonnet 130 by Shakespeare does not oppose the sonnet form as it neither can do so if it does possess 14 lines in a distinctive rhyming pattern and contains a rhyming couplet at the end (Ordemann 172) without breaking the blueprint in general, nor does it break the Shakespearean form specifically. It employs traditional Petrarchan imagery in a cunning way (Steele 132-133) while using satire to mock the predominant Blazon and pedantically according to its rules. The reader, after following through the octave and the third quatrain, might think that the damage to this love could not be averted and such an insulting poem is inadequate, however, Shakespeare manages to turn around within the last two lines. As in the words of Rappoport and Boyd, “he will consciously reject while exploiting them, current conventions of rhetoric and poetry” (135). After reading sonnet 130 repeatedly, I must partially agree with Barber, who stated that the sonnets dealing with the Dark Lady were in fact so outrageous poems that “one wonders whether in fact most of them can have been sent to the poor woman” (666), since I find the general images that are depicted in this work “dwell on her imperfections and falsehood and the paradox that nevertheless she inspires physical desire” (660). I find it a far more likely an honest statement of his obdurate emotions towards his mistress and although “in most of the sonnets the couplet is not the emotional climax” (655) I perceive a climax in the last two lines of this sonnet as a concluding oath to her, since it appears as a revelation.


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