Quote of the Day: Paean To A Plain Woman

 

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–William Shakespeare

I’ve always thought of this poem as vindication for the rest of us.  One for the ladies who’ve always smiled, then shrugged, at a thousand years of poetic conceits they can’t possibly delude themselves into believing apply to them.  One for those of us who grew up feeling pretty secure about our faces and our bodies, and whose parents told us we shouldn’t have to make up, dress up, or pout like a Hollywood starlet in order to “catch” a man; and that if that’s what it took, such a man wasn’t worth catching, anyway.   One for those of us who were taught that life would take its course, that love would come one day, and that if we were kind and decent with each other, we’d happily and gracefully grow fat and decrepit together.

One for those of us who, when we walk, “tread on the ground.” And know it.

This sonnet, and 153 others, were first published by Thomas Thorpe, 412 years ago today, on May 20, 1609.  Today, only thirteen copies of the original run survive.  Although there’s been much speculation that the quarto was published without Shakespeare’s consent, the British Museum website concludes that Shakespeare did agree to the edition, but that there may have been some issues with the manuscript which caused inconsistencies and deviations from his original words.

Here’s to love, and Dark Ladies, everywhere.

**The poet’s use of the word “reeks,” as applied to his beloved, may be a bridge too far.  Even for me.  Perhaps it’s a portent that, ultimately, things aren’t going to go so well for this unfortunate pair.  Still a good poem, though.

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  1. She Reagan
    She
    @She

    This is the Quote of the Day. Our sign-up sheet for May is here.  There are still a very few days left.  Get ’em while they’re hot! If you’re new at this game, it’s a easy way to get your feet wet and start a conversation; if you’re an old-timer, you already know the ropes.  Either way, please sign up to speak up.

    Another ongoing project to encourage new voices is our Group Writing Project. May’s theme is “May Day, Mayday, May Days.” If you’re looking to share your own thoughts rather than those of others, please sign up for Group Writing too!

    • #1
  2. Marjorie Reynolds Coolidge
    Marjorie Reynolds
    @MarjorieReynolds

    When we studied it for Leaving Cert my teacher told us reeks didn’t have the same meaning back then. Although maybe she was just tired of having a classroom of teenagers all saying ‘ewww that’s disgusting miss!’ whenever she read it. That word is unfortunate.

    • #2
  3. Nohaaj Coolidge
    Nohaaj
    @Nohaaj

    I suggest that the word reeks is actually as written and accurate, given the state of dental hygiene in the middle ages. He is being accurate in every other attribute described, why should her breath be any different? One of the harsh realities of wearing a mask over the last year is that on occasion, I realize with a start, how foul my breath was at that moment. 

    • #3
  4. JoelB Member
    JoelB
    @JoelB

    Perhaps this one really was written by Shakespeare and not by that other guy.

    • #4
  5. She Reagan
    She
    @She

    Nohaaj (View Comment):

    I suggest that the word reeks is actually as written and accurate, given the state of dental hygiene in the middle ages. He is being accurate in every other attribute described, why should her breath be any different? 

    I remember, in my eulogy at Dad’s funeral, saying that he could be counted on to speak that which was often thought, but which, perhaps, did not need to be quite so well-expressed.  I think I feel similarly about this bit.

    JoelB (View Comment):

    Perhaps this one really was written by Shakespeare and not by that other guy.

    You could be right!

    • #5
  6. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    I love the entire poem, and choose not to get hooked by a single word. The idea that with all our issues, we know we are loveable and can be well-loved is a precious idea. Thanks, She, for starting off my morning with this lovely piece.

    • #6
  7. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    After Anne read this, Bill had the second best bed all to himself – out in the garage, probably.

    • #7
  8. She Reagan
    She
    @She

    Percival (View Comment):

    After Anne read this, Bill had the second best bed all to himself – out in the garage, probably.

    LOL.  Many years ago, my mother-in-law, my stepdaughter, and I visited England and among other things, visited Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford.  My mother-in-law marveled at the Elizabethan child-minder, a vertical pole with a horizontal bar at the right height and a leather strap which went around the waist of the unfortunate child whose activities were being circumscribed:

    UK, Shakespeare's Birthplace, The Baby Minder, early 1900s / HipPostcard

    Not-so-dumb, those old-timers.  There is nothing new under the sun.

    • #8
  9. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    She (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    After Anne read this, Bill had the second best bed all to himself – out in the garage, probably.

    LOL. Many years ago, my mother-in-law, my stepdaughter, and I visited England and among other things, visited Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford. My mother-in-law marveled at the Elizabethan child-minder, a vertical pole with a horizontal bar at the right height and a leather strap which went around the waist of the unfortunate child whose activities were being circumscribed:

    UK, Shakespeare's Birthplace, The Baby Minder, early 1900s / HipPostcard

    Not-so-dumb, those old-timers. There is nothing new under the sun.

    Somebody called the Chicago cops on my grandmother for keeping my uncle tied to the porch. “I should let him run out in the street and get hit by a car?”

    • #9
  10. She Reagan
    She
    @She

    Percival (View Comment):

    She (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    After Anne read this, Bill had the second best bed all to himself – out in the garage, probably.

    LOL. Many years ago, my mother-in-law, my stepdaughter, and I visited England and among other things, visited Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford. My mother-in-law marveled at the Elizabethan child-minder, a vertical pole with a horizontal bar at the right height and a leather strap which went around the waist of the unfortunate child whose activities were being circumscribed:

    UK, Shakespeare's Birthplace, The Baby Minder, early 1900s / HipPostcard

    Not-so-dumb, those old-timers. There is nothing new under the sun.

    Somebody called the Chicago cops on my grandmother for keeping my uncle tied to the porch. “I should let him run out in the street and get hit by a car?”

    Perfect.

    • #10
  11. Sandy Member
    Sandy
    @Sandy

    JoelB (View Comment):

    Perhaps this one really was written by Shakespeare and not by that other guy.

    Or as the 2000 year old man put it, “another guy by the same name.”

    • #11
  12. Henry Racette Contributor
    Henry Racette
    @HenryRacette

    I’ve always been divided about this one. I appreciate what his speaker is doing, making a kind of poetic admission against interest in order to strengthen his case. I’m just not sure that such bold truthfulness is likely to be… rewarded.

    As for “reeks,” it had a neutral meaning available in the Bard’s day, referring to emanations that needn’t be noxious or intense. But yes, it didn’t age well.

    • #12
  13. She Reagan
    She
    @She

    Henry Racette (View Comment):

    I’ve always been divided about this one. I appreciate what his speaker is doing, making a kind of poetic admission against interest in order to strengthen his case. I’m just not sure that such bold truthfulness is likely to be… rewarded.

    Isn’t that the point, though?  That “bold truthfulness,” rewarded or not, stands on its own?

     

    • #13
  14. Henry Racette Contributor
    Henry Racette
    @HenryRacette

    She (View Comment):

    Henry Racette (View Comment):

    I’ve always been divided about this one. I appreciate what his speaker is doing, making a kind of poetic admission against interest in order to strengthen his case. I’m just not sure that such bold truthfulness is likely to be… rewarded.

    Isn’t that the point, though? That “bold truthfulness,” rewarded or not, stands on its own?

     

    Hmm….

    • #14
  15. Mark Camp Member
    Mark Camp
    @MarkCamp

    Henry Racette (View Comment):

    I’ve always been divided about this one. I appreciate what his speaker is doing, making a kind of poetic admission against interest in order to strengthen his case. I’m just not sure that such bold truthfulness is likely to be… rewarded.

    As for “reeks,” it had a neutral meaning available in the Bard’s day, referring to emanations that needn’t be noxious or intense. But yes, it didn’t age well.

    All four of your answers to the questions raised here are breaths of fresh air.

    The sly humor in the third sentence was a little too sly, I guess.  As an old husband, I got it right away, as I reckon most old husbands did.

    • #15
  16. She Reagan
    She
    @She

    Mark Camp (View Comment):

    Henry Racette (View Comment):

    I’ve always been divided about this one. I appreciate what his speaker is doing, making a kind of poetic admission against interest in order to strengthen his case. I’m just not sure that such bold truthfulness is likely to be… rewarded.

    As for “reeks,” it had a neutral meaning available in the Bard’s day, referring to emanations that needn’t be noxious or intense. But yes, it didn’t age well.

    All four of your answers to the questions raised here are breaths of fresh air.

    The sly humor in the third sentence was a little too sly, I guess. As an old husband, I got it right away, as I reckon most old husbands did.

    Love that sly humor.  There might be some of it in the OP too.  But perhaps you have to be an “old wife” to appreciate it.  LOL.

    • #16
  17. She Reagan
    She
    @She

    Here’s a video by Sting (one of the few “modern” singer/songwriters to whom Mr. She would give the time of day, and of whom, for that reason alone, one of the few I know anything about and can converse about somewhat coherently). The song is called “Sister Moon,” and veers from St. Francis to Shakespeare, with a callout to Sonnet 130 along the way:

    • #17
  18. KentForrester Moderator
    KentForrester
    @KentForrester

    Mrs. She, I wish I could have called you in to teach this poem. You could have given it a perspective that I was never able to give it. 

    By the way, “reeks” has never bothered me because the connotation of the word has obviously changed since Shakespeare’s time.  But the comparison of hairs with wires has always bothered me. 

    • #18
  19. TBA Coolidge
    TBA
    @RobtGilsdorf

    And then there’s Billy Collins’ Litany

    You are the bread and the knife,
    the crystal goblet and the wine.
    You are the dew on the morning grass
    and the burning wheel of the sun.
    You are the white apron of the baker,
    and the marsh birds suddenly in flight.

    However, you are not the wind in the orchard,
    the plums on the counter,
    or the house of cards.
    And you are certainly not the pine-scented air.
    There is just no way that you are the pine-scented air. 

    [there is more] 

    • #19
  20. She Reagan
    She
    @She

    TBA (View Comment):

    And then there’s Billy Collins’ Litany.

    You are the bread and the knife,
    the crystal goblet and the wine.
    You are the dew on the morning grass
    and the burning wheel of the sun.
    You are the white apron of the baker,
    and the marsh birds suddenly in flight.

    However, you are not the wind in the orchard,
    the plums on the counter,
    or the house of cards.
    And you are certainly not the pine-scented air.
    There is just no way that you are the pine-scented air.

    [there is more]

    I love Billy Collins. And he does it beautifully.

    • #20
  21. Charlotte Member
    Charlotte
    @Charlotte

    How is paean pronounced, anyway? I’ve heard pine, peen, pane, pee-an, pye-an… it’s made me never ever want to use the word.

    Also, are there any other English words with a-e-a in them?

    • #21
  22. Taras Coolidge
    Taras
    @Taras

    KentForrester (View Comment):

    Mrs. She, I wish I could have called you in to teach this poem. You could have given it a perspective that I was never able to give it.

    By the way, “reeks” has never bothered me because the connotation of the word has obviously changed since Shakespeare’s time. But the comparison of hairs with wires has always bothered me.

    Metal wires were very hard to make, back then, so they would have been precious, probably used for jewelry and expensive embroidery.  Shakespeare is poking fun at poems that compare a woman’s hair to golden wires.

    • #22
  23. Henry Racette Contributor
    Henry Racette
    @HenryRacette

    Charlotte (View Comment):

    How is paean pronounced, anyway? I’ve heard pine, peen, pane, pee-an, pye-an… it’s made me never ever want to use the word.

    Also, are there any other English words with a-e-a in them?

    The archaea are (roughly speaking) certain very primitive single-celled organisms that typically inhabit hostile environments, hot springs and the like.

    • #23
  24. Mark Camp Member
    Mark Camp
    @MarkCamp

    KentForrester (View Comment):

    Mrs. She, I wish I could have called you in to teach this poem. You could have given it a perspective that I was never able to give it.

    By the way, “reeks” has never bothered me because the connotation of the word has obviously changed since Shakespeare’s time. But the comparison of hairs with wires has always bothered me.

    Same here.

    Why the difference? 

    Because it is trivially easy to guess what “reek” must have meant, based on the evidence of the poem. As soon as one does, his mind is temporarily transformed to that of S.’s contemporary audience.  One can appreciate the poem as it really is.

    But it is not possible for most of us to guess what wire meant.  So the poetic mind is a monster.  Its semantic processor is from modern times, and its poetical processor is from his.  The two produce a horrible image, of steel or copper wires (modern meaning) sprouting from the scalp of one’s beloved.

    • #24
  25. Mark Camp Member
    Mark Camp
    @MarkCamp

    She (View Comment):

    Mark Camp (View Comment):

    Henry Racette (View Comment):

    I’ve always been divided about this one. I appreciate what his speaker is doing, making a kind of poetic admission against interest in order to strengthen his case. I’m just not sure that such bold truthfulness is likely to be… rewarded.

    As for “reeks,” it had a neutral meaning available in the Bard’s day, referring to emanations that needn’t be noxious or intense. But yes, it didn’t age well.

    All four of your answers to the questions raised here are breaths of fresh air.

    The sly humor in the third sentence was a little too sly, I guess. As an old husband, I got it right away, as I reckon most old husbands did.

    Love that sly humor. There might be some of it in the OP too. But perhaps you have to be an “old wife” to appreciate it. LOL.

    You were still on time out for recent inappropriate behavior, but this Comment cried out for a Like.

    So I’ve decided to end your isolation early.  (If I’m candid: You probably never noticed that you were being punished anyway, so what was the point?)

     

    • #25
  26. Mark Camp Member
    Mark Camp
    @MarkCamp

    KentForrester (View Comment):

    Mrs. She, …

    Kent, whether or not it’s fair, you are one of the R. contributors who have to limbo under a lower bar than the rest.

    But even by that unequal standard, this was pretty low.  Thx and a hat tip.

     

    • #26
  27. She Reagan
    She
    @She

    Mark Camp (View Comment):
    But it is not possible for most of us to guess what wire meant.  So the poetic mind is a monster.  Its semantic processor is from modern times, and its poetical processor is from his.  The two produce a horrible image, of steel or copper wires (modern meaning) sprouting from the scalp of one’s beloved.

    Not horrible at all.  Shakespeare was making sly reference (which would have been understood by his contemporaries) to widely-known (among the denizens of Elizabeth’s Court) love poems which actually did, on occasion, compare women’s hair to wires, thus:

    Some angel she had been,
    Her long loose yellow locks like golden wire,
    Sprinkled with pearl, and pearling flowers atween,
    Do like a golden mantle her attire,
    And being crowned with a garland green. (Spenser–The Bride)

    The conceit may have developed from the hairnets that well-to-do women wore at the time and which were made of very fine precious metals, so actually were “golden wires.”

    Mark Camp (View Comment):
    Because it is trivially easy to guess what “reek” must have meant, based on the evidence of the poem. As soon as one does, his mind is temporarily transformed to that of S.’s contemporary audience.  One can appreciate the poem as it really is.

    As for “reek,” I looked it up in the Oxford English Dictionary (the complete one) of which I just happen to have a copy to hand and not online.  While its meaning has certainly changed over the centuries (seeming to start out as a description of the stench of “the dense or unctuous smoke from burning matter,” (examples from as early as 825), it never seems to have been used to describe a pleasant or heavenly scent, and there appears to be plenty of evidence that, in at least one sense of its use, it was well-known as a synonym for “foul smell” in Shakespeare’s time. “Curs’ whose breath I hate, as reeke all th’ rotten fennes,” a reference to the fetid swamp of the marshes–that’s Shakespeare, Coriolanus, 1607, two years before the Sonnets were published).

    As is often the case though, I enjoy myself far too much on these little excursions.  My favorite outtake?  “The closeness of the Place, or the overcharging of the Air, with the fuliginous Reeks of Men’s Bodies”–Robert Boyle, A Free Inquiry Into the Vulgarly Received Notion of Nature, 1685

    Fuliginous.  Now there’s a word-and-a-half.**  (Looking it up led me down another rabbit-hole to a word I haven’t thought about for decades: Tatterdemalian.  A word like that always reminds me of my former employee and friend Tony.  He’d have called it “one of them college words.”  Bless his heart.  One of the smartest guys I’ve ever known.

    **Which also reminds me (“fuliginous” meaning “sooty or smoky” of the old (perhaps very old) Scottish saying, “Lang may yer lum reek.”  Translation:  “Long may your chimney smoke,” a way to wish someone luck or a long life.

    • #27
  28. She Reagan
    She
    @She

    Charlotte (View Comment):
    How is paean pronounced, anyway? I’ve heard pine, peen, pane, pee-an, pye-an… it’s made me never ever want to use the word.

    I’ve always pronounced it “PEE-in.”  As in “They named the dog Liberace because he was the pee-in-ist.”

    It’s an awkward word, and probably shouldn’t be confused with pean, peon, or paeon.

    • #28
  29. KentForrester Moderator
    KentForrester
    @KentForrester

    Mark Camp (View Comment):

    KentForrester (View Comment):

    Mrs. She, …

    Kent, whether or not it’s fair, you are one of the R. contributors who have to limbo under a lower bar than the rest.

    But even by that unequal standard, this was pretty low. Thx and a hat tip.

     

    Mark, what in the world?

    • #29
  30. TBA Coolidge
    TBA
    @RobtGilsdorf

    She (View Comment):

    Mark Camp (View Comment):
    Because it is trivially easy to guess what “reek” must have meant, based on the evidence of the poem. As soon as one does, his mind is temporarily transformed to that of S.’s contemporary audience. One can appreciate the poem as it really is.

    As for “reek,” I looked it up in the Oxford English Dictionary (the complete one) of which I just happen to have a copy to hand and not online. While its meaning has certainly changed over the centuries (seeming to start out as a description of the stench of “the dense or unctuous smoke from burning matter,” (examples from as early as 825), it never seems to have been used to describe a pleasant or heavenly scent, and there appears to be plenty of evidence that, in at least one sense of its use, it was well-known as a synonym for “foul smell” in Shakespeare’s time. “Curs’ whose breath I hate, as reeke all th’ rotten fennes,” a reference to the fetid swamp of the marshes–that’s Shakespeare, Coriolanus, 1607, two years before the Sonnets were published).

    As is often the case though, I enjoy myself far too much on these little excursions. My favorite outtake? “The closeness of the Place, or the overcharging of the Air, with the fuliginous Reeks of Men’s Bodies”–Robert Boyle, A Free Inquiry Into the Vulgarly Received Notion of Nature, 1685

    Fuliginous. Now there’s a word-and-a-half.** (Looking it up led me down another rabbit-hole to a word I haven’t thought about for decades: Tatterdemalian. A word like that always reminds me of my former employee and friend Tony. He’d have called it “one of them college words.” Bless his heart. One of the smartest guys I’ve ever known.

    **Which also reminds me (“fuliginous” meaning “sooty or smoky” of the old (perhaps very old) Scottish saying, “Lang may yer lum reek.” Translation: “Long may your chimney smoke,” a way to wish someone luck or a long life.

    Fulgin is a type of cloth as I recall. Blackest of black of course. 

    • #30