22 February, 2011

A Few Observations on Shakespeare's Sonnet 130

My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask'd, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.

Like many of his sonnets, Shakespeare's Sonnet 130 takes a conventional, even clichéd, observation about love and gives it a fresh rhetorical presentation, thus gaining the double advantage of a universal context in which the poem can be understood, and the ability to preserve the individual voice. Key to the fresh presentation of this poem is the way it draws attention to the clichéd quality of the images it uses, using them for the purpose of contrast rather than assenting to them. “My Mistres eyes are nothing like the sunne,” the speaker declares. Devoting two quatrains to discussing her appearance (the first from a more distant perspective, the second focusing on the way her “cheekes” and “breath” appear from close up) and a third to the grace of her actions, the speaker follows his initial negative comparison with seven more. He is obliged to admit that his “Mistres” is neither white as snow nor has she cheeks like roses, nor can any of the idealizing similes of conventional love poetry apply properly to her.

These denials are startling. We are so accustomed to poets putting their beloved on a pedestal that for this speaker not to do so seems unusual, even cruel. Yet objectively, from the syllogistic structure of “if haires be wiers, black wiers grow on her head,” to the speaker's invocation of sensory evidence (he has “seene Roses. . ./But no such Roses” does he see “in her cheekes”), he is only being rational. It would be absurd to claim seriously that a lover's eyes emitted waves of solar radiation or that skin—assuming we are not discussing the skin of a corpse—could even approach the whiteness of snow.

Such hyperbolic descriptions are admittedly universalizing in the sense that whereas they are never true of any particular woman, they convey the idea that the lover ought to consider his beloved as surpassing any other thing in beauty. However, by denying these images, the sonnet gets a double return out of entering into conversation with them. As already observed, such comparisons have the disadvantage of being rather predictable. The speaker, by contrast, is anything but banal: through his syllogisms, appeals to sensory evidence, contrasts between what he “well. . .know[s]” and what he feels, we are presented with a vivid picture of a particular man: rational, wary of hyperbole, and suspicious of the unreasonableness of convention. By contrasting conventional image with reality, the speaker is able to remind us of the context of his sentiments while, by denying them, he is able to preserve his idiosyncratic voice.

This pattern continues—with a shift in emphasis—in the final couplet. Here the speaker proves himself fully capable of feeling despite the reservations of the quatrains. Though used to convey the speaker's individual disposition, all of the objections to considering his love the most beautiful of women are themselves another form of universalizing: he has been appealing to the unemotional, rationally-based response of the general public not in love with her, and to which, we assume, he would belong were he not in love himself.

Despite the fact that logic finds her lips less red than coral, or her movements less graceful than those of a goddess, to one in love, these similes are “false comparisons” both in the sense that they are untrue, and in the sense that they are misleading. The beloved is a woman, not a jigsaw puzzle of coral, snow, and so forth. Incline to the rational as he may, this lover is willing to acknowledge the illogicality of the conventional view while maintaining that “[his] love [is] as rare, / As any she beli'd with false compare.”

No comments: