Sonnet 127

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Sonnet 127

In the old age black was not counted fair,
Or if it were, it bore not beauty's name;
But now is black beauty's successive heir,
And beauty slandered with a bastard shame:
For since each hand hath put on Nature's power,
Fairing the foul with art's false borrowed face,
Sweet beauty hath no name, no holy bower,
But is profaned, if not lives in disgrace.
Therefore my mistress' brows are raven black,
Her eyes so suited, and they mourners seem
At such who, not born fair, no beauty lack,
Sland'ring creation with a false esteem:
Yet so they mourn, becoming of their woe,
That every tongue says beauty should look so.

–William Shakespeare

Sonnet 127 of Shakespeare's sonnets (1609) is the first of the Dark Lady sequence (sonnets 127–152), called so because the poems make it clear that the speaker's mistress has black hair and eyes and dark skin.[1] In this poem the speaker finds himself attracted to a woman who is not beautiful in the conventional sense, and explains it by declaring that because of cosmetics one can no longer discern between true and false beauties, so that the true beauties have been denigrated and out of favour.[2]

Structure[edit]

John Kerrigan examines the rhyme schemes in the sonnets very closely and clearly makes that the point that even though we now pronounce words differently from 400 years ago, we are not clueless as to how the words were pronounced. After Kerrigan examines what he names “the internal and external evidence available to us,” he concludes that the imperfect rhymes may in fact be more imperfect today than there were 400 years ago, but there is no real harm in reading the sonnets with a modern accent.[3] Kerrigan finds the lack of scholarly work done about the meter of the sonnets to be “unfortunate given the incredible richness of the metrical patterns in the sonnets. The sonnets are written in iambic pentameter, a line consisting of five metrical feet, each foot containing two syllables, the first unstressed and the second stressed. In practice, good verse written in iambic pentameter contains variations in this basic pattern. Instead of the usual foot, some feet may instead contain a trochee (stressed followed by unstressed), a spondee (two stressed), or a pyrrhic (two unstressed).”[4]

Possible influences[edit]

Italian poet Francesco Petrarch, who was inspired by his love Laura, created the sonnet as a type of poetry. After his invention, the traditional Petrarchan theme became one of a “proud, virtuous lady and an abject, scorned lover”.[5] The sonnet form became very popular and was introduced into English Poetry by Wyatt and Surrey. Yet, Shakespeare’s sonnets vary dramatically from those of his contemporaries. His sonnets are “very different from Petrarch, in whose love poems the processing of tradition and the establishment of new voices are no less complex, but more systematically present, active, and profound.” [6] There is also “relatively little of the platonic idealism that fills such works as Spenser’s Amoretti in which the poet’s love for his lady lifts him above human weakness to contemplation of the divine”.[7]

Sonnet 127 reflects changing definitions of beauty in early modern England. Around the 1600s, makeup began to become available to everyone, thus being used by the masses and influencing Shakespeare’s perception of beauty. The past in which “black was not counted fair” refers to traditional Elizabethan era priority of light skin, hair, and eyes over dark.[8]

Dark Lady[edit]

Many suggest Shakespeare was influenced to write the Dark Lady Sonnets by a person. However, attempts to locate the Dark Lady have failed. There is no consensus as to who the identity of the dark lady belongs to; the Sonnets give away nothing referring to age, background or station in life.[9]

The Dark Lady sonnets delve into sexuality, jealousy, and beauty.[10] The first sonnet of this series, Sonnet 127, begins with Shakespeare's Speaker apologizing for his mistress's un-ideal beauty, associated with old age.[11] Instead of shying away from unauthentic interpretation, he emphasizes his mistress’s cruel and "black" state.[12] Some understand "black" to represent more than a color. Ronald Levao sees it as interchangeable with the term foul.[13]

The relationship between language and color is important for understanding the Dark Lady sonnets. Elizabeth Harvey explains: “The parallel between language and art was far from simple, and that rhetoric's colors depended upon a ghostly discourse of natural historical knowledge that invisibly shaped the chromatic lexicon of Shakespeare's sonnets.” [14] The meanings and qualities associated with color are not necessarily universal or timeless, however. Recent critics have made arguments linking darkness with race and ethnicity. Scholars of early modern colonialism find it appropriate to portray the sexual relationship as a white man being sexually attracted to a negro.[15]

The sonnet may also be understood as portraying an early reaction to women using cosmetics. The introduction of cosmetics should be viewed as a paradigm shift rather than a progression along the same spectrum. Margreta de Grazia reads Sonnet 127 in these terms: “Old values have been purged. Sweet beauty is stripped of her title (hath no name) and her sanctioned place (no holy boure), cast out into the contaminating open air (profaned) and thereby exposed to abuse and violation (in disgrace). In the place of 'beauties rose' now rules black.” [16] Helen Vendler also examines this sonnet with an eye on cosmetics, “How did a black haired, black eyed woman come to be the reigning heir of beauty? The sonnet explains that the invention of cosmetics disgraced true beauty by allowing every ugly woman to become beautiful.” [17] The speaker in sonnet 127 is therefore someone mourning the cheapness of cosmetic beauty but also recognizing that he finds himself to be attracted to a woman or women that use it.

References[edit]

  1. ^ Vendler, Helen. The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets, Cambridge, London: Harvard University Press, 1997, p. 540.
  2. ^ Vendler, pp. 540-1.
  3. ^ Kerrigan, John. The Sonnets; And, A Lover's Complaint. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Viking, 1986. Print.
  4. ^ Kerrigan, John. The Sonnets ; And, A Lover's Complaint. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Viking, 1986. Print.
  5. ^ Sonnets of Shakespeare. Masterplots, Fourth Edition [serial online]. November 2010;:1-4. Available from: MagillOnLiterature Plus, Ipswich, MA. Accessed March 2, 2012.
  6. ^ Lyne, Raphael. Shakespeare: Introduction: Tradition And The Sonnets. Vol. 5 Issue 3. Humanities International Complete, 2009. Print.
  7. ^ Sonnets of Shakespeare. Masterplots, Fourth Edition [serial online]. November 2010;:1-4. Available from: MagillOnLiterature Plus, Ipswich, MA. Accessed March 2, 2012.
  8. ^ Dolan, Frances E. "Taking the Pencil out of God's Hand: Art, Nature, and the Face-Painting Debate in Early Modern England." Vol. 108 Issue 2. PMLA, 1993. Print.
  9. ^ Green, Martin. "Emilia Lanier IS The Dark Lady Of The Sonnets." English Studies, Vol.87 Issue 5. MasterFILE Premier, 2006. Print.
  10. ^ Vendler, Helen. The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. USA: Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data, 1997. Print.
  11. ^ Edmonson, Paul and Stanley Wells. Shakespeare’s Sonnets. New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 2004. Print.
  12. ^ Blackwell, Basil and Bateson, F. W.. Essays in Criticism. Vol. 2. MI: Michigan State College Press, 1952. Print.
  13. ^ Levao, Ronald. "Something from Nothing in Shakespeare’s Sonnets: Where Black is the Color, Where None is the Number." Literary Imagination, Vol. 12 Issue 3. New Brunswick, NJ: 2010. Print
  14. ^ Harvey, Elizabeth and Schoenfeldt, Michael (ed). A Companion to Shakespeare's Sonnets. Blackwell Publishing, 2007. Print.
  15. ^ Harvey, Elizabeth and Schoenfeldt, Michael (ed). A Companion to Shakespeare's Sonnets. Blackwell Publishing, 2007. Print.
  16. ^ De, Grazia Margreta., and Stanley W. Wells. The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001. Print.
  17. ^ Vendler, Helen. The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. USA: Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data, 1997. Print.

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