Ladies and gents, I apologize in advance for the intolerably long notes below, but I recommend them if you have some leisure–they seem to me to include some insights about what Shakespeare offers as an education for love.
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 & white,
but no such roses I see in her cheeks.
& in some perfumes there is 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.
& yet, by heav’n, I think my love as rare
as any she belied with false compare.
Here’s a sonnet rather more modern than the latest feminist anti-rom-com talk. It is learned and graceful, and is one of the few works of Shakespeare I know that looks at the origin of love and of love poetry and the proper education of love. It makes vulgarity graceful while deflating the false graces that so impress us. I’m not sure it’s going to tell you not to look at pretty girls. It will certainly make no dent in the cosmetics industry, or the fashion industry, or whatever it is that does the dirty work required to keep philistines thinking they’re snobs. This sort of story is the opposite of that. If Jane Austen had had any weakness for rhyme and an audience of men, she would have written this story.
This is the story of a man who loves–and is facing competition from flatterers. In a world where there is poetry, who could conceivably not be in that position? This is a man who has to prove his love true without lying about it, as we all are encouraged to do. He seems confident, and even successful, but I would not recommend you try to pursue your love in his manner. This man is removing the beautiful ornaments that conceal the slavery of love. He is stripping the garlands from our chains. This is a dangerous thing to do, to say the least, because the poets who teach people to love poetically have a great influence on human affairs. Schools and businesses are far less influential than popular music. What this man is doing is saying, rather boldly that he prefers his own to the beautiful.
I have all sorts of things to say about that.
People like pretty poetry because it sounds good. And they especially like flattery in poetry. The craft put into it is spontaneously enjoyable. Do you know Bertie Wooster’s famous dictum, You can’t go by what a girl says, when she’s giving you the devil for making a chump of yourself. It’s like Shakespeare. Sounds well, but doesn’t mean anything? In these latter days, the nothing is especially effected by metaphor.
I like to make fun of people, so here’s an old trick about poetry. Count the words. There are 123 words in this sonnet, which is a lot, even for English. The central word is delight, which is, happily, also in the middle of the poem–the end of the seventh line. Delight is the theme of this poem, or the opinion that the pleasant is the good, which is meant to take your eyes off beauty. This is a rational sonnet, one that teaches us not to lose sight of what we’ve got for the sake of fantasies. It is an attack on Platonism as it’s taught by romantics and by people who don’t realize that Plato’s Symposium is supposed to be funny.
Now, let’s read ’em and weep.
First stanza. The lover makes his woman seem ugly by a series of impolite comparisons. Poetry does that. In the cold light of day, the praise heaped on women’s beauty has a downside: The man who looks at his mistress clear-eyed might be taken for a detractor. Were he talking about someone else, a fight should probably ensue. She is neither red nor white where she should be. Perhaps the woman is not well, or not so young anymore? She is black as you can ask, where you’d expect, but that is hardly a compliment.
The sonnet starts with “my mistress.” She is a woman, but not simply a woman. She is beloved of the lover speaking to us, let’s say, successfully. Love poetry is written by lovers. You worry about how to persuade someone to accept your suit of love; or if it’s a going concern, you worry about not losing your beloved. Beloveds obviously do not write love poetry. The purpose of love poetry is to get through your speeches what one cannot get through your looks; lovers are not beautiful–their beloveds are–no talking on the part of the beloved is required to create a lover. If a suit of love were anything remotely so spontaneous, love poetry would be impossible, and all we’d read about in verse were heroes and philosophers. We live through death-like misery whenever we fall in love, and happily read Shakespeare if we survive.
We are told almost nothing about this woman, as if it were impossible to see her, because we do not see with our eyes. We see with our minds, because of the blindness created by poetry. I can tell you exactly how a lover might come to this realization: One day, you try to talk to the woman, and her uncharitable response teaches you that it takes a lot of flattery to get in a word edgewise, your seriousness or passion notwithstanding. For those among us who aren’t naturally suspicious, it takes a further event — seeing fair lady, who was supposedly ne’er won by faint heart, won over by a reptilian weakling who must crawl because he cannot stand. Man thus learns how the free gift of love turns into a terrible injustice, a curse on the decent and good-hearted. How could any pretty woman be so vain!
Shakespeare looks at this another way. He starts with the damnedest metaphor of them all: the eyes and the sun, I’m sure you’ve heard it. He denies the slightest resemblance–this is one of only three negative statements in the poem, although you think there are many more. One tricky thing Shakespeare is pointing out is this: If fair lady’s eyes were suns, you’d be blind. The lover here is happy not to be blind. Another is this: Women may with propriety throw glances that might lead a man to his ruin. Seeing a woman is a great danger in itself, but seeing her look at you can decide your fate. Any man of sense will take care not to encourage that kind of insanity.
The two further comparisons, the lips and the breasts, are supposed to remind you that love poetry is really vulgar stuff. Eros is no philosopher, and what we want is not family-friendly or acceptable in a forum for decent conservatives. Here, the comparison with what poets have to offer in their work is not quite as negative–there is some truth in what they say. What strikes the man with an eye for color is that poetry sharpens contrasts here, rather than inventing stuff that should make you laugh. The difference is that the business with the sun is done in metaphor, but the other sort of stuff is done in similes. What poetry does to your mind here is what cosmetics do to your eyes. You can say poetry provides a service because there is a demand. That exaggeration is part of our desire. This is tied up with the fact that a man in love thinks his beloved prettiest. Eunuchs, however, often go around talking about de gustibus.
Finally, the poets are allowed one true depiction–hair is, in fact, black. But they’re wires, they grow on the head. That’s not Shakespearean, let’s say. Even when they get the color right, poets only do it to distract from the rather dispiriting reality. Poems here would seem to help women give men a rush of blood to the head. They teach men to dare, but not, it would seem, to dare well. Perhaps the problem is not that this deceives men. Perhaps they’re just badly deceived. The lover speaking here, after all, is no way dissatisfied with his beloved.
He is dissatisfied with the standards: Snow white is too white for people. But the simile is one thing: White snow also suggests something else. Metaphor comes back. This is innocence, or purity. That rather defeats erotic longing in one way, heightens it in another. The beauty you can’t have may tempt you to pretty speeches, but the beauty you can may tempt you toward pretty girls. That snow recalls purity should suggest that metaphor is basic to the language of morality. It is in tension with eros, which might look less pleasant than the beautiful. The beautiful may be comparatively bloodless.
The final image, the black wires, is really unpleasant. I am not sure I understand the associated metaphor. Is it supposed to show that poetic play with images can be unpleasant, to suggest that we should be careful of the habit of transforming parts of people into other things in our imaginations?
Except for the opening line, the poet suggests that before we even see what is in front of us, we see imaginations. Before the lips comes the coral, so too with the others. Poetry has constructed a world of images in between us and the world in which we live. We may have to deal with what the poets have done to us to see clearly again. But this is not to say that there was another way to go. Perhaps love, struggling as it does with fantastic metaphors, is where love lives or begins to know it is love. Perhaps our fantasies are natural.
Second stanza. Now, the speaker starts with what he himself can say from his own knowledge. This is what men should do: see with their own eyes, not take for granted what they hear–perhaps from poets. Hence the beginning–seeing is the subject, seeing the mistress in contrast with the images poets offer. Again, we have a strong negation. Again, a poetic phrase, this time a matter of decoration, suggests a comparison with the mistress. His mistress’ blush is not like damask’d roses, or maybe she does not blush. The blush recalls the white snow. It is, again, red and white, like lips and breasts were, or nearly were, before. Is a mistress supposed to blush?
This suggestion of intimacy continues with the very rude comparison of perfumes and breath. Close enough to feel someone’s breath is too close for poetry’s comfort. The lover is not satisfied with beholding his mistress, as an art critic would. He is now holding her. She is a mistress, not a painting of one. Perhaps the mistress is delightful even if all her parts are not. Are any simply delightful?
This is the first time the lover mentions pleasure. The description of the mistress and the contrast with the poets’ imaginations has been about beauty. Some perfumes — though maybe not many or most — are more delightful than breath. The mistress does not seem to have much to recommend her, either to the poets or to her lover. This plain woman is not a mistress because of her beauty, but because of love. Perhaps men looking to make love are not looking carefully. Perhaps the poets do them a favor in stealing their minds with fantasies. Or perhaps a lover should learn from what he does, not from what poets say he should do.
Third stanza. This quatrain is the only one to mention love. It starts, I love to hear her speak. The mistress is heard, not seen. This is the philosophical core of the sonnet. Speech is opposed to music–the latter is more pleasant as a sound; implicitly, the former is more pleasant as something said to cause love. That is wisdom. Perhaps the mistress speaks of love. That may be the most pleasing thing to a lover.
The sequel is a comparison even more astounding than the original comparison to the sun: The speaker admits he never saw a goddess go, but his mistress treads on the ground. He has heard poets talk about how goddesses are not tied to the ground. Earthly things are too hard. Everyone knows, love is on the wing. Maybe nobody has seen a goddess. Maybe poets just speak about it. The attack on love poetry and fantasy is an attack on the aspiration to the divine. The man who prefers his mistress’ speech to music is damned near atheism: Music is our education about the divine when we are young.
This is a comparison of the mistress as a whole and the goddess as a whole. For once, the things mentioned are in motion; this is the only motion mentioned in the poem, unless speech and breath are motions. Notice that breath, speech, and music are connected. The sun was only compared to the mistress’ eyes. This is possible because the portrait of the mistress is complete: The first stanza starts with the mistress, the second stanza ends with her. She encloses her comparison. In the second half of the sonnet, the mistress appears once–talk of her walk is between talk of a goddess and an oath: by heav’n. The question is, therefore, is love or the beloved some kind of divine thing? Is a mistress a ruler, despite her defects, in comparison with poetic imagination? Or is she merely the creature of poets?
Only in the third stanza is there a suggestion that the mistress be displayed to advantage by the extravagant comparisons. Her speech is preferred to music, though not in its aspect of sound. The other preference, perhaps, is for a moving mistress. Goddesses stand where they are painted or sculpted. This may be why the third stanza is a stanza: At first glance, its first couplet should belong with the first two stanzas, the description of the mistress; the second couplet with the concluding couplet, tied together by goddess and heaven. Though what’s the worth of an oath by heaven in the mouth of a man who just admitted he never saw a goddess move?
The unity of the stanza depends on the understanding of what is divine in relation to human beings. This is the work of love. The comparison between mistress and goddess is the only one in the sonnet where no preference is stated. The speaker grants that he has no access to the inspiration of the poets, but he does not reject his mistress for that reason. There are two motions described here: the going up of the divine, the moving on the ground of the mistress. This is what we know of love.
The couplet. It announces right away that it is opposed to the rest of the poem, giving the third stanza its needed definition. It starts, and yet!–the previous to the contrary notwithstanding, the speaker’s love is as rare as any love grounded in false comparisons. The rude honesty had thus far made us believe this was not the speech of a lover talking to his beloved. But now we sense that this lover is in competition with other lovers. They are armed with love poetry.
Imaginations of goddesses come spontaneously out of descriptions of beauty. Lovers call their beloveds divine in order to seduce them. This is double impiety! The speaker’s own impiety is to deny there are goddesses, as described in poetry, and to affirm love of a human being. Apparently, human beings are lovable. But what is the love of a woman if not the love of her beauty? Delight seems to be the key. First, the mistress has to be distinguished from the imaginations of the poets, which are ultimately imaginations of goddesses. Only then can love of a woman be affirmed, but then it seems worthless or impossible! How can something perishable and defective, by comparison with the divine, be lovable? Goddesses are lovable only in the beholding; a mistress can be held. That is one way to compensate. Speech may be the other.
But speech reverses the relationship. The poet’s speech is lovely, unlike the lack of speech in images. What is the worth of speech? Flattery may be more pleasing than music; is poetry more musical than music? Are love speeches more pleasing than music? But the attack on the lies of the poets, necessary to persuade one’s beloved to return love instead of shopping for flattery, raises questions–what should be preferred to music or flattery? It must be truth: The poet says what he truly sees, unlike liars. Part of that truth is that he has never seen a goddess. Truthful love is to be preferred to the lying loves of the poets. But it is less believable.
One affirms with an oath what would otherwise not be believed. That is a poetic device–calling on a divine authority. Needless to say, the American Constitution does not recognize that any oath depends on divine justice! The woman gives the lie to flattery; she does not deserve that praise.
This sonnet is about finding another kind of praise, one that is truthful. It is somewhat comic, so as to avoid the fevered idealism that drives talk of beauty. But the closing statement cannot be comic. There is danger in the comic truth. Reassurance is necessary, a return to our needs. Love is also something we need in order to know we are who we are–a lover who plays too much with the beliefs of his beloved will lose her.