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My Mistress’ Eyes by Shakespeare

Sonnet number 130 is one of Shakespeare’s most famous sonnets. The convention of writing love sonnets during the days of Shakespeare was to compare the beloved to everything beautiful in nature and raise the beloved to the level of a Goddess. The greatest poet of this tradition is Petrarch. In the sonnet under reference here Shakespeare ridicules this practice by writing that his beloved is not beautiful when she is compared to great objects in nature, yet he loves her ardently. A summary of the poem is the focus of this paper.

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In the sonnet, “My Mistress’ Eyes”, the speaker compares the beauty of his beloved to several other beauties. He says that “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”. This is the first line of the sonnet and it certainly shocks the reader who has been used to see showers of praises on the beloved. Obviously, he expects that she will not be liked by the lover for this simple reason. The poet continues his comparison by stating that her lips are not as red as coral. Anticipating the reader’s next object of anxiety, the speaker says “If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun”. Loving a woman with dun-colored breasts must certainly raise eyebrows during the days of Shakespeare. The next target is the beauty of her hairs. It is also quite despairing. They are like black wires, says the speaker.

In the next quatrain the poet describes her cheeks and breath. Both are unpleasant. “I have seen roses damask’d, red and white, / But no such roses see I in her cheeks”. He has observed roses separated by colors like red and white. But no such colors are there on her cheeks to make her more beautiful than other females. Perfumes are very delightful. The poet has the experience of it. He must have thought that her physical nearness would enable him to smell her breath like that of the best perfumes. He should have been disappointed, as the convention goes. More disappointment to the reader comes when the speaker describes her speech: “That music hath a far more pleasing sound”. No man in those days could think of falling in love with a woman of this nature. For the poet, however, she is a Goddess walking on earth: “I grant I never saw a goddess go”. This implies that this lover is more practical and sensible. He cannot be carried away into any fantastic world by the external appearance of a woman.

The couplet gives more surprise. When the poet utters “by heaven” to assert that “I think my love as rare”, no more doubts the leaders carry. A beloved person requires no false comparisons, the poet declares. A woman need not look like a rose or her eyes need not be like the sun is the message emerging from the sonnet. As Keats later on declared, following Shakespeare’s ideas on love, the beauty lies in the beholder. It is the heart and not the body which matters in love. When the poet says that “My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground”, he means that he cannot be carried away by an angel. He lives on this earth and he has the heart to see an angel in his beloved who is earthly in all respects.

The poem thus mocks at the use of extraordinary use of metaphors to praise the beauty of a loved woman, as Petrarch does. Such idealizing comparisons can only falsify what is real. Not only was that, most such comparisons were made to idealize an imperfect woman. The way Shakespeare expands the contrasts is also interesting. In the first quatrain, each line carries a contrast to the lady. In the second and the third he uses two lines, giving a progression to the idea that yet “my love as rare”. Thus, the structure helps the theme of the sonnet.

References

Shakespeare, William. “My Mistress Eyes”.

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StudyCorgi. 2021. "My Mistress’ Eyes by Shakespeare." October 19, 2021. https://studycorgi.com/my-mistress-eyes-by-shakespeare/.

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StudyCorgi. (2021) 'My Mistress’ Eyes by Shakespeare'. 19 October.

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