In this single poem Shakespeare turns the entire Petrarchan tradition
on its head. Instead of praising an unobtainable beauty in romantic and conventional ways, Shakespeare looks beyond surface appearances to what’s really there in the person he loves. Her eyes are not full of sunlight, neither are her lips the best shade of red; her breasts are brown rather than snowy white, and she has thick, wiry, black hair. She doesn’t have roses in her cheeks and her breath does not smell of perfume; when she speaks he doesn’t hear music; she is not in any way like a goddess. Through this via negativa we are encouraged to imagine the mistress treading simply on the ground – and yet, at the same time, she is above all the other women who poets write about in artificial ways. I wonder what the reaction would be if we turned to the person we loved and spoke honestly about all the attributes they don’t have?
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.
Click on the post below to hear Sonnet 130 read by Richard O’Brien, a poet and student on the Shakespeare and Creativity course at The Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham.
You might like to visit a similar Shakespeare for Advent project led by students at the University of Tubingen by clicking here.