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.
This sonnet (14 lines) is written in iambic pentameter with an ABABCDCDEFEFGG rhyme scheme.
Substantively, this Sonnet is a love poem – but it is one that mocks the Elizabethan / Petrarchan tradition of comparing someone’s physical traits to something else one might find in nature. The mockery starts immediately in line 1 and does not relent until the final couplet.
A complete list of what the Speaker’s, um, parts… are not PLUS one unfavorable comparison of what they are.
- Eyes are not like the sun
- Lips are not as red as coral
- Breasts are not white, they are dun
- Hairs ARE wires (not a compliment)
- No roses in her cheeks
- Breath reeks instead of smelling like perfume
- Music is more pleasing than hearing her speak
- Treads on the ground rather than moves like a goddess
I wonder if the final couplet is enough to save a relationship wherein one publishes a poem about how his mistress’s breath reeks. Do we think he slept on the couch at least for that one?
Inasmuch as this is a love poem, it is also – and primarily – a clever ribbings of a literary tradition. Once the comparisons are pointed out, they seem silly and absurd. Shakespeare here merely points the comparisons out. I suspect that even in his own time, if these words caused some pearl clutching, he might have directed his readers to outdated nature comparisons found in the Song of Solomon.
I liken you, my darling, to a mare among Pharaoh’s chariot horses.
Your teeth are like a flock of sheep coming up from the washing. Each has its twin, not one of them is missing.
Your waist is a mound of wheat encircled by lilies.
Not everyone understood initially that this sonnet was intended as satire. From wiki:
According to Carl Atkins, many early editors took the sonnet at face value and believed that it was simply a disparagement of the writer’s mistress. However, William Flesch believes that the poem is actually quite the opposite, and acts as a compliment. He points out that many poems of the day seem to compliment the object of the poem for qualities that they really don’t have, such as snow white skin or golden hair. He states that people really don’t want to be complimented on a quality they don’t have, e.g. an old person doesn’t want to be told they are physically young, they want to be told they are youthful, in behavior or in looks. Flesch notes that while what Shakespeare writes of can seem derisive, he is in reality complimenting qualities the mistress truly exhibits, and he ends the poem with his confession of love.
It is endlessly funny to me that early editors thought he was denigrating his mistress with this Sonnet. I wonder if those same editors literally interpreted the other sonnets in their day. I suspect the literal women as described in them might be quite terrifying.
If I ever embrace Petrarchan comparison in my own poetry, I think I will go Biblical. I will report back if I find a couch to sleep on as my penance.