sonnetCXXX

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.

With a deftness of touch that takes away any sting that might otherwise arise from implied criticism of other sonneteers, the poet satirises the tradition of comparing one's beloved to all things beautiful under the sun, and to things divine and immortal as well. It is often said that the praise of his mistress is so negative that the reader is left with the impression that she is almost unlovable. On the contrary, although the octet makes many negative comparisons, the sestet contrives to make one believe that the sound of her voice is sweeter than any music, and that she far outdistances any goddess in her merely human beauties and her mortal approachability.

 

A typical sonnet of the time which uses lofty comparisons to praise a beloved idol is given below. There are many others, and the tradition of fulsome praise in this vein stretches back to Petrarch and his sonnets to Laura. E.g.
The way she walked was not the way of mortals
but of angelic forms, and when she spoke
more than an earthly voice it was that sang:

a godly spirit and a living sun
was what I saw, and if she is not now,
my wound still bleeds, although the bow's unbent.

Canzoniere 90, trans. Mark Musa.

FROM FIDESSA

My Lady's hair is threads of beaten gold;
  Her front the purest crystal eye hath seen;
Her eyes the brightest stars the heavens hold;
  Her cheeks, red roses, such as seld have been;
Her pretty lips of red vermilion dye;
  Her hand of ivory the purest white;
Her blush AURORA, or the morning sky.
  Her breast displays two silver fountains bright;
The spheres, her voice; her grace, the Graces three;   
  Her body is the saint that I adore;
Her smiles and favours, sweet as honey be.
  Her feet, fair THETIS praiseth evermore.
    But Ah, the worst and last is yet behind :
    For of a griffon she doth bear the mind!

By Bartholomew Griffin. Published 1596

The 1609 Quarto Version

MY Miſtres eyes are nothing like the Sunne,
Currall is farre more red,then her lips red,
If ſnow be white,why then her breſts are dun:
If haires be wiers,black wiers grow on her head:
I haue ſeene Roſes damaskt,red and white,
But no ſuch Roſes ſee I in her cheekes,
And in ſome perfumes is there more delight,
Then in the breath that from my Miſtres reekes.
I loue to heare her ſpeake,yet well I know,
That Muſicke hath a farre   more pleaſing ſound:
I graunt I neuer ſaw a goddeſſe goe,
My Miſtres when ſhee walkes treads on the groun d.
   And yet by heauen I thinke my loue as rare,
   As any ſhe beli'd with falſe compare.

Commentary

1. My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
A traditional comparison. Shakespeare uses it himself in the sonnets to the youth:
Against that time when thou shalt strangely pass
And scarcely greet me with that sun thine eye,
49
2. Coral is far more red, than her lips red:
Coral - In Shakespeare's day only the red variety would have been generally available. OED.1.a gives the following information: Historically, and in earlier literature and folk-lore, the name belongs to the beautiful red coral, an arborescent species, found in the Red Sea and Mediterranean, prized from times of antiquity for ornamental purposes, and often classed among precious stones. The comparison of lips with coral was commonplace. lips here could be read as singular or plural.
3. If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;

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Skin and breasts were often described as whiter than snow. Breasts were also compared to pearl and ivory. The wittiness of this line is is in the use of the agrestunal word 'dun', which brings the reader down to earth with a bump. OED glosses it as: Of a dull or dingy brown colour; now esp. dull greyish brown, like the hair of the ass and mouse. It was often used in the phrase 'The dun cow', a phrase nowadays sometimes transformed into the name of a pub. Logically, since snow is white, one should accept that her breasts were dun coloured, i.e. somewhat brownish. Whether this confirms or not that his mistress was truly dark seems doubtful, for the most likely cause of the claim here to her darkness is that of being deliberately provocative. Skin is never as white as snow, or as lilies, or as enchanting as Cytherea's, therefore to countermand the extravagant claims of other poets by a simple declaration of something closer to reality might jolt everyone to a truer appraisal of love and the experience of loving.

 

4. If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
If hairs be wires - hair was often compared to golden wires or threads, as in the sonnet by Bartholomew Griffin given above. A Renaissance reader would not have visualised wire as an industrial object. Its main use at the time would have been in jewellery and lavish embroidery. The shock here is not in the wires themselves (a sign of beauty) but in the fact that they are black.
5. I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
White, red and damasked are the first three varieties of rose described in Gerard's Herbal, and it appears that there were only these three colours. (See the commentary to Sonnet 109.) The damask rose was pinkish coloured. This is Gerard's description: 3. The common Damaske Rose in stature, prickely branches, and in other respects is like the white Rose; the especiall difference consists in the colour and smell of the flours: for these are of a pale red colour, of a more pleasant smel, and fitter for meat and medicine.
6. But no such roses see I in her cheeks;

SB, p.453, gives an illustration of a beauty literally portrayed according to the extravagant conceits of the time. Her cheeks have roses growing in them.

7. And in some perfumes is there more delight
In the traditional world of sonneteering the beloved's breath smelled sweeter than all perfumes. It was part of the courtly tradition of love to declare (and believe) that the goddess whom one adored had virtually no human qualities. All her qualities were divine. Compare, for example, the following from Cymbeline, one of Shakespeare's later plays (c. 1609-10), where Iachimo describes Imogen, with whom however he is not in love, although he had hoped to seduce her.
.......................................................Cytherea
How bravely thou becomest thy bed, fresh lily,
And whiter than the sheets! That I might touch!
But kiss; one kiss! Rubies unparagoned,
How dearly they do't! 'Tis her breathing that
Perfumes the chamber thus: the flame o' the taper
Bows toward her, and would under-peep her lids,
To see the enclosed lights, now canopied
Under these windows, white and azure laced
With blue of heaven's own tinct.
Cym.II.2.13-23.

(Cytherea = Venus). Note the similes which equate skin with lilies, lips with rubies, breath with all perfumes, eyes with the lights of heaven, and the whole apparition with Venus.

8. Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
that from my mistress reeks - the use of 'reeks' was probably not quite as harsh and damaging to the concept of beauty as it seems to a modern ear. The word was not as suggestive of foetid exhalations as it is now. However, even from an early date, it tended to be associated with steamy, sweaty and unsavoury smells. The original meaning seems to have been 'to emit smoke', a meaning which is still retained in the Scottish expression 'Long may your lang reek'. There seems to be little doubt that Shakespeare could have used a gentler and more flattering word if he wished to imply that his mistress was a paragon of earthly delights. The expression is on a par with the earlier descriptions of dun breasts and hair made of black wire.
9. I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
See note below.
10. That music hath a far more pleasing sound:
Curiously, these two lines (9-10) almost express the opposite of their exact meaning. One is tempted to read 'I love to hear her speak, for the sound is far more pleasing than music to my ear'. In fact that is almost a stronger meaning than the superficial and more obvious one, because the declaration that he loves to hear her surmounts the obstacle of his prior knowledge that music might be better. However much better it is he still would much prefer to listen to her voice, and his knowledge of the superiority of music is irrelevant. The mere introduction of the term music enlightens the reader's ear to the quality of experience the poet derives from listening to his beloved. Technically the effect is perhaps achieved by the directness of the statement 'I love to hear her speak', which works in the same way as the bold and breathtaking declarations made earlier to the youth - for I love you so, dear my love you know, etc. The whole effect is then consolidated by the pleasing sound of music which follows.
11. I grant I never saw a goddess go,
I admit that I never saw a goddess walking by. to go = to walk, as the next line confirms. In the ancient world encounters with gods and goddesses were often reported, and probably quite widely believed. Literature abounds with incidents of intervention in human affairs by various deities. Odysseus for example is often surprised when Athena disguises herself as a maiden and only reveals herself to him as she leaves. Commentators usually cite the example of Aeneas' encounter with Venus in Virgil's Aeneid - vera incessu patuit dea (by her gait she was revealed as a true goddess) Aen.I.405. Shakespeare had himself described Venus in his poem Venus and Adonis.
There may be a joking reference to sexual intercourse, as in: O let him marry a woman that cannot go, sweet Isis, I beseech thee! AC.I.2.59. The irreverence would be appropriate in a poem which debunks classical references and metaphors, as for example that shown above by Griffin, with its reliance on Aurora, the Graces and Thetis, all goddesses of classical antiquity.
12. My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
'My beloved is human, a goddess with earthly feet'. The poet is asserting that divine comparisons are not relevant, for his beloved is beautiful without being a goddess.
13. And yet by heaven, I think my love as rare,
rare = precious, superb, of fine and unusual quality. The word has more of the sense of something wonderful and rich than in its modern uses. Shakespeare uses it far more frequently in the later plays. To the famous description of Cleopatra floating on her barge, which is put in the mouth of Domitius, Agrippa exclaims 'O rare for Antony!'

..............................For her own person,
It beggar'd all description: she did lie
In her pavilion---cloth-of-gold of tissue--
O'er-picturing that Venus where we see
The fancy outwork nature: on each side her
Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids,
With divers-colour'd fans, whose wind did seem
To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool,
And what they undid did.
A
GRIPPA O, rare for Antony! AC.II.2.

Despite not being a goddess his beloved may be as rare to him as if she were Cleopatra.

14. As any she belied with false compare.

 

As any she belied = as any woman who is belied. Compare:
Lady, you are the cruellest she alive
. TN.I.5.225,
and
the fair, the chaste, the unexpressive she.
AYL.III.2.10.
belied = (who is) falsely portrayed. OED.2 defines belie as 'to tell lies about, to calumniate with false statements', and cites the following: 1581 Wherein you doe unhonestlye slaunder him and belye him, without cause.
false compare
= false and deceptive comparisons, insincerities. compare could also hint at 'compeer', one who is comparable, on an equal footing.