Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Sonnet 130 by William Shakespeare

A lovely sonnet, followed by a video offering two aural interpretations of the poem: one by Daniel Radcliffe, the other by the incomparable Alan Rickman. (I could listen to that man read the phone book. And even his recitation of the phone book would probably require a change of knickers.)

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 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 heav'n, I think my love as rare
  As any she belied with false compare.

Form: Shakespearean sonnet, of course. You probably know the drill by now, but it's a sonnet written in iambic pentameter (five iambs per line, taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM), and using the following rhyme scheme: ABABCDCDEFEFGG. The "turn", or volta, in a Shakespearean sonnet typically occurs in line 9, with a slightly further turning in the closing couplet. In this particular poem, the only true turn is in the final couplet: "And yet, by heav'n, I think my love as rare/As any she belied with false compare."

Discussion: Shakespeare is making a mockery of the overly florid "courtly" sonnets popular in the 1590s. It was de rigeur at the time to compare beauty to flowers and goddesses and the like. The comparison of one's breath to perfume was quite common as well, which had to be a bold-faced lie in most instances, what with the (recent at that time) penchant for sugar and the complete lack of dental hygiene - so bad, in fact, that Queen Elizabeth's teeth were blackened by rot. "Fashionable" women then blackened their own teeth, even if they were healthy, in order to pay homage to the "fashion" set by the Queen (who, in the end, had all or nearly all of her teeth extracted, after which she padded the inside of her mouth with cotton when in public to avoid the sunken-in cheeks that followed her toothlessness). But I digress.

Here, Shakespeare notes what the conventions are: to say that eyes are like the sun, lips like coral, breath like perfume, skin as white as snow with cheeks red as roses, a voice like music, a manner of walking that was more like floating. He then slashes straight through them, saying that if those are the ideals, then by comparison, the woman he's writing about (the Dark Lady, called so in part because of her "black" hair) is a complete failure.

The true turn comes in that final couplet, in which he asserts that the woman he writes of is more rare than any woman he might write lies about.

This piece was probably one of the "sweet sonnets" referenced by Meres as being familiar in company. Knowing that the Bard was an actor, I rather expect that rather than any sort of sweet or serious delivery, this was a comedic performance piece. That does not, however, diminish its power over time. I thereby give you two earnest readings of this poem from two Harry Potter stars: Daniel Radcliffe and Alan Rickman.

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