Sonnet 130 by Shakespeare: The True Meaning of the Sonnet

Sonnet 130 by William Shakespeare

No other playwright or poet has made sonnets so popular as William Shakespeare. All of the 154 sonnets he wrote have impacted the literary world. While most of his sonnets are very clear in their meaning, Sonnet 130 is perhaps Shakespeare’s most confusing sonnet. And this article will analyze it and find the meaning behind this unconventional sonnet. 

While it is unconventional and often confusing, the sonnet is a prime example of Shakespeare’s brilliance in writing. Breaking off the conventional and overused tropes in sonnets, Sonnet 130 shows a new perspective in the expression of love. Let’s take a look at the sonnet and then we’ll explain why it’s such a great sonnet.

Sonnet 130 by William Shakespeare

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 damasked, 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.

Summary and paraphrase of Sonnet 130

My love’s eyes are not like the sun

And her lips are not at all as red as coral

She’s not as fair as snow, and her body is brown 

Her hair is like thin, black wires, nothing spectacular

I have seen roses in decoration, both red and white

But there are none like that in her cheeks

And the scent of some perfumes is far more delightful 

Than the smell of my love’s breath

While I love listening to her speak

Still, that does not make it better than some beautiful music

And I have never seen my love look like a Goddess move

Whenever she walks, she walks like normal humans

And yet, I think the one I love is rare

She’s as rare as I would lie to her with false comparison

Analysis of the sonnet 

From the paraphrase, you might have noticed that Shakespeare, going contrary to his contemporaries, is rejecting the grand and unrealistic comparisons of one’s love. The classical Petrarchan sonnets usually have this theme where the speaker’s love is compared to the breeze of spring in a hill valley or the smell of flower gardens. Shakespeare takes a completely different way of expressing his ideas of beauty. And that’s what makes this sonnet so confusing and so powerful. 

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.

The sonnet starts with an almost confused statement saying that the poet’s lover’s eyes are not at all like the sun and her lips are not as red as a coral. Coral is far more red than her lips. These extravagant comparisons that the poet rejects are the norms when it comes to praising one’s love. And the poet here, with an air of innocence, keeps rejecting it. 

Then the poet says that his love is neither as white as the snow, or her hairs as black as the night. Rather the opposite. Her body is the color of brown and her hairs are like black wires, which is how every human on this earth is. 

I have seen roses damasked, 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.

Then Shakespeare talks about her cheeks, which do not have “the rosy” appearance. There are no signs of roses in her cheeks. And like any human, the smell of his lover’s breath reeks. It is not at all as sweet and delightful as perfumes. The denial of all these hyperbolic comparisons is used to convey the realistic, human form of the woman. This sounds weird but if one thinks about it, Shakespeare is right. Why would a human’s breath smell like perfume or have roses on their cheeks? In many ways, this sonnet is a satire of all the classical, Petrarchan sonnets.

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.

The poet says that he loves the sound of his love’s voice and would love to hear it too. But music has a far more pleasing sound than her voice, so saying that her voice is more pleasant than music would be wrong. 

And then he confesses that he has never seen a Goddess in her as she walks, something that many poets have claimed to see. Again, you can see the air of satire in these lines. But then everything is about to change with the couplets. This is where the whole “confusion” is resolved.

   And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare

   As any she belied with false compare.

This is the volta of the sonnet. For those who don’t know, a volta is the part of a sonnet where the entire theme is changed, or the questions presented in the previous stanzas are solved. The last two lines here resolve the confusion that was created. 

Even though the poet’s love is not as exquisite and extravagant as what people usually compare their loves with, she is rare and she is precious. Using the sonnet’s theme, Shakespeare says that she is just as rare as being belied with a false comparison. And that is the essence of this sonnet. 

Sonnet 130 by William Shakespeare
Sonnet 130 by William Shakespeare

The meaning 

The sonnet tries to establish a reality in love. This sonnet is about showing that the expression of love does not need unrealistic comparisons and grand words. Shakespeare satirizes on these common comparisons. The essence of this sonnet is saying that his love is human with all the features of humans. 

She has breath that reeks, her color is brown and not snow-white. She walks like a human, not a Goddess. Her hair is like black wire and there are no roses on her cheeks. But that does not make it bad. What it does is it does not make it false and unrealistic. 

Shakespeare tells that his love is rare and he will compliment her, but never unrealistic, grand compliments that have no meaning. Compliments that are so utterly out of this world that it almost becomes a mockery. In rejecting those fake compliments, Shakespeare compliments his love in the highest sense.

Literary devices in the sonnet

Rhyming scheme: The sonnet has the typical Shakespearean rhyming scheme, ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. The meter is iambic pentameter and there are ten syllables in each line.

Alliterations: Here are some examples where alliteration is used: 

If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;

If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.

I grant I never saw a goddess go;

Assonance: An examples of assonance in this sonnet:

But no such roses see I in her cheeks

Metaphors: This sonnet has more rejection of a metaphor than the usage of it. In almost all the lines where the poet denies the comparison, a metaphor has been used. Take a look at one stanza of the sonnet and notice that each line has a metaphor. 

“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 damasked, red and white…”

This concludes the article. But why should the reading stop? Here are some analysis of some other Shakespeare’s works. Take a look:

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