I want to begin with a rather large question: how do we define genius in poetry? In our modern era, we value artists for their originality, breaking through conventions to create a new form of art. However, in Shakespeare’s time, artistic merit was judged by how well an artists worked within given conventions while sometimes slightly bending the rules. In my previous post on the sonnet, I pointed out two major contributions that Shakespeare made to the sonnet form: a new rhyme scheme (abab cdcd efef gg) and a new meter, iambic pentameter. For this blog post, I want to discuss how Shakespeare challenges the expectations of what a love poem is.
The Best Love Poem or the Best Anti-Love Poem
A comparison is the best place to start. Consider Henry Constable’s “My lady’s presence makes the roses red.” Constable’s sonnet retains the same rhyme sequence in the octave as that of the original Italian sonnet: abbaabba. In the first eight lines of his sonnet, Constable works through three different comparisons in which he contrasts his beloved to a rose, a lily, and a marigold. Each flower becomes a way for Constable to praise the beauty of a different part of his beloved’s body: her lips are so red that the roses “blush,” the whiteness of her hands make the lilies envious, and the marigolds believe the sun shines when she walks by them. Line 9, the volta of the sonnet, sums up Constable’s theme: “In brief: all flowers from her virtue take.” To paraphrase Constable here, all flowers take their qualities from his beloved’s beauty. He goes on in lines 10 through 14 to point how his beloved’s “sweet breathe,” “eyebeams,” and tears sustain all flowers by acting as the wind, the sun, and the rain respectively.
“My lady’s presence makes the roses red” is a typical blazon. In a blazon, the poet lists or catalogues the beloved features through a series of comparisons through which the beloved always wins out. Now in “My lady’s presence” all of the comparisons that Constable uses are fairly conventional.
Here’s where the genius that is Shakespeare comes through in “My mistress’ eyes” (Sonnet 130). From the opening line (“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.”) something strange is happening: shouldn’t his mistress’ eyes be just like the sun? Even in the next line (“Coral is far more red than her lips’ red”), Shakespeare seems to breaking from traditional expectations of a love poem: his beloved’s lips are not nearly as red as coral. In each of the comparisons that Shakespeare sets up (to roses, coral, snow, roses again, perfume, music, and a goddess) he describes his beloved as coming up short. What’s going on here? This is not how a love poem is suppose to work, right?
First off, we need to understand that Shakespeare is intentionally writing against the blazon form, which he is showing as boring, worn out, and cliched.
Second, if we only read the first twelve lines of the sonnet, we could conclude that Shakespeare is being cruel to his beloved, pointing out her shortcomings. However, it is in lines 13 and 14 that we get the volta: “And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare/ As any she belied with false compare.” To paraphrase: “I believe that my love’s beauty is more rare than any other when they are compared.” Shakespeare has just spent the majority of the poem describing how his beloved loses out when compared to the sun or a rose, so how can he make this final claim? The answer lies in his phrase “false compare.” Consider this: are anyone’s lips really redder than coral? Is anyone’s skin whiter than snow? Are anyone’s eyes brighter than the sun? Of course not. In Constable’s sonnet, he only sees his beloved through these very conventional, worn out comparisons. He does not see her as a person. However, Shakespeare rejects these tired comparisons as false and, by doing so, he can see his beloved for who she truly is. Shakespeare looks beyond cliches to the real person of his beloved. On this basis, Shakespeare claims that his feeling for his beloved are more sincere, more original than all other poets’ love.
So I want to leave you with this question: is Sonnet 130 the best love poem ever written or the best poem ever written against love poetry?