IN the ould age blacke was not counted faire,
Or if it weare it bore not beauties name:
But now is blacke beauties ſucceſſiue heire,
And Beautie ſlanderd with a baſtard ſhame,
For ſince each hand hath put on Natures power,
Fairing the foule with Arts faulſe borrow’d face,
Sweet beauty hath no name no holy boure,
But is prophan’d, if not liues in diſgrace.
Therefore my Miſterſſe eyes are Rauen blacke, Miſtreſſe
Her eyes ſo ſuted, and they mourners ſeeme,
At ſuch who not borne faire no beauty lack,
Slandring Creation with a falſe eſteeme,
Yet ſo they mourne becomming of their woe,
That euery toung ſaies beauty ſhould looke ſo.
Sonnet 127, the first of the sonnets concerned with the poet’s mistress, lacks anything that might mark it as an initial sonnet. It works a conventional conceit, the black and the fair, found elsewhere in Shakespeare, for example Berowne’s reference to cosmetic painting,
O if in blacke my Ladies browes be deckt,
It mournes, that painting vsurping haire
Should rauish doters with a false aspect:
And therfore is she borne to make blacke, faire. (LLL 4.3.254-261)
Mistresses in sonnet sequences from Petrarch onwards had fair skin (and hair) and generally dark eyes. 1
The sonnet opens with the claim that “In the ould age blacke was not counted faire.” The “ould age,” it becomes clear in the sestet, is the classical age as well as the biblical. The spouse of the Song of Songs sings, “I am blacke . . but yet fayre,” and commands, “Marueyle not at me that I am so blacke, for why? the sunne hath shined vpon me: my mothers chyldren haue euyll wyll at me” (1.4-5; BB, with its sidenote, “Blacke, thorowe the spottes of sinne”). Black, thus, was associated with the foul and sinful and “was not counted faire.” If black were adjudged “faire,” it did not carry the title or was not the legitimate heir of beauty (“it bore not beauties name”). But in this present time black has succeeded to beauty or become its heir, now that beauty is dead (“now is blacke beauties successiue heire”). Similarly the name of beauty is disgraced or defamed (“slanderd”) by an illegitimate usurping (“bastard shame”): black has appropriated the name of beauty. (The thought occurs earlier in Sonnet 68, where the prelapsarian past is an age, “Before these bastard signes of faire were borne,” and the youth’s complexion is preserved in order “To shew faulse Art what beauty was of yore.”)
But now every hand (“each hand”) has dressed itself in or taken to itself the creativity that belongs to nature (“hath put on Natures power;” the image is a cosmetic one), and has made of the foul something fair (“Fairing the foule”) with “Arts faulse borrow’d face.” A “borrow’d face” is one that is laid on artfully and falsely. Consequently beauty has been escheated or disposessed of its title (“beauty hath no name”); nor has it a “holy boure,” a sanctum of the face, in which it might dwell. Bowers were frequent in times of yore, for example, Spenser’s “Bowre of blisse,” where, falsely, “nature had for wantonesse ensude / Art, and that Art at nature did repine.” 2 Now beauty is “prophan’d,” ‘desecrated’ or ‘abused;’ as in Sonnet 142.6 ‘profane’ hints at its origin (pro + fanum = outside the temple); hence beauty has been cast out from the bower or paradise, where it should dwell; cast out from the garden, it now “lives in disgrace,” a fallen creature.
The sestet’s “Therefore” applies the generalized argument of the fair becoming black and foul to the eyes: “my Mistresse eyes are Rauen blacke.” The phrase ‘raven black’ was proverbial, but in making the eyes “Rauen blacke” Shakespeare has had recourse to the locus classicus of the fair turning foul, Ovid’s account of the raven, which according to fable was in olden times fair, but whose prattling tongue (“corve loquax”) caused it to be turned black. In his translation of the passage from the Metamorphoses, Golding, speaking of “blazing eyes,” compares them to the
prating rauen white by nature being bred,
Hadst on thy feathers iustly late a colie colour spred,
For this same bird in ancient time had feathers faire and whight
As euer was the driuen snow, or siluer cleare and bright . . .
His toong was cause of all his harme, his tatling toong did make
His colour which before was white became so foule and blake. 3
By implication the mistress’ eyes, born fair, have like all things become fallen and been turned dark. Her eyes are “so suted;” either ‘covered in soot’ or darkened (Golding’s “colie colour,” where ‘colly’ or ‘coaly’ means ‘sooty;” in Lucrece the crow’s wings are “coale blacke”), or they ‘belong to a set’ (‘suited’) or they are ‘attired’ (‘suited’) in widow’s weeds, which give them the appearance of mourners (“mourners seeme”). 4 Her eyes appear to grieve at such who, not being born fair, still claim a misnamed beauty (“lack no beauty”), as they malign what nature has given them (“Slandring Creation”) by valuing false beauty (“with a false esteeme”). The repetition of “slanderd” and “Slandring” is pivotal. So the eyes mourn and their mourning befits the sorrow they feel (“becoming of their woe”), because common report (“euery toung”), like the raven’s “toong” which caused it to fall into darkness (in Ovid, “lingua fuit damno”), now states that beauty should appear black or false (“that beauty should looke so”). The choice of “looke” rather than ‘be’ emphasizes the falsity of cosmetic appearance.
127.1. Shakespeare may well have had in mind Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella 7, with its tropes of black eyes, black as contrary to beauty, eyes as mourners, and references to art.
127.2. Spenser, Faerie Queene 18.104.22.168-4.
127.3. Golding 2.667-76, passim; Ovid, Met. 2.534-541, passim, “cum candidus ante fuisses, / corve loquax, subito nigrantis versus in alas. / nam fuit haec quondam niveis argentea pennis / ales . . lingua fuit damno: lingua faciente loquaci / qui color albus erat, nunc est contrarius albo.”
127.4. Luc. 1009.