MY Miſtres eyes are nothing like the Sunne,
Currall is farre more red, then her lips red,
If ſnow be white why then her breſts are dun:
If haires be wiers, black wiers grow on her head:
I haue ſeene Roſes damaskt, red and white,
But no ſuch Roſes ſee I in her cheekes,
And in ſome perfumes is there more delight,
Then in the breath that from my Miſtres reekes.
I loue to heare her ſpeake, yet well I know,
That Muſicke hath a farre more pleaſing ſound:
I graunt I neuer ſaw a goddeſſe goe,
My Miſtres when ſhee walkes treads on the ground.
And yet by heauen I thinke my loue as rare,
As any ſhe beli’d with falſe compare.
Sonnet 130 is a blason, an example of which is found in most sonnet sequences. Its rules were laid down in in the 13th century by Geoffrey de Vinsauf and required that the parts of a mistress’ beauty be praised in order, from hair to feet, and emblematically often through biblical topoi such as the Song of Solomon 5.10-16 and 7.1-10. More specifically, Shakespeare’s sonnet is part of the later 16th century fashion of the contreblason, which originated with Clément Marot’s Sensuiuent les blasons anatomiques du corps femenin, ensemble les contreblasons de nouueau composez and which celebrated a woman’s parts, including her most intimate, in a parodic and sometimes lewd way: Marot has one devoted to a woman’s “Con” complete with illustration. 1 While there is no evidence linking Shakespeare to Marot’s volume or the French mode, the contreblason became a familiar feature of Elizabethan sonnet sequences and Marot was known and translated by Spenser. Shakespeare’s version, though famous, is very much an academic exercise: its details parallel the details of other blasons to a degree that influences become impossible to determine.
As good an example of a blason, which Shakespeare could have known, is that cited by Kerrigan: Thomas Watson’s Hekatompathia 7, whose details, Watson observes, derive from such a range of authors that it may be called a ‘parasitic praise’ (“’αινη παρασιτικη”). He explains that, “This passion of loue is liuely expressed by the Authour, in that he lauishlie praiseth the person and beautifull ornamentes of his loue, one after an other as they lie in order.” The lines relevant to Sonnet 130 are,
Harke you that list to heare what sainte I serue:
Her yellowe lockes exceede the beaten goulde;
Her sparkeling eies in heau’n a place deserue . .
Her wordes are musicke all of siluer sounde . .
On either cheeke a Rose and Lillie lies;
Her breath is sweete perfume, or hollie flame;
Her lips more red then any Corall Stone . .
Her vertues all so great as make me mute:
Like Spenser who refuses to compare his mistress’ “powrefull eies . . to the Sun” (Amoretti 9.2-5), so also Shakespeare exclaims, “My Mistres eyes are nothing like the Sunne.” In blasons eyes were compared to any heavenly body, whether stars or sun. Shakespeare neglects the blason’s normal order and next introduces the lips: “Curral is farre more red, then her lips red.” Coral lips, as in Watson above, or Richard Linche’s “sweete lyps of Corrall hue” (Diella 31.2), were commonplace, although the lips of William Percy’s contreblason, Coelia 12, are “ruddie plumes embrew’d with heauenly foods, / When I would sucke them turne to driest currall.” 2 The line contrasting the snow’s whiteness with the brown or grey (“dun”) of the mistress’ breasts is a Shakespearean invention – skin was customarily snowy white. “If haires be wiers, black wiers grow on her head,” parodies the sonneteers’ repeated comparison of hair with wires, a comparison informed by the Elizabethan practice of crisping the hair so that it became hard like wire (Constance’s hair is called “wiery” in Jn. 3.4.64), as well as the fashion of using gold filaments either as a frame to hold hair in place place (known as a “tire,” see Sonnet 53.8) or as threads through the hair (see Barnes, Parthenophil 48.10-11, “Her heires no grace of golden wyres want / Pure pearles with perfect Rubines are inset”). The damask rose, of which Henry Lyte says “the verie colour of the Floures . . be neyther red nor white, but of a mixt colour betwixt red and white, almost carnation colour,” was the standard simile for the cheeks (see Viola’s “damaske cheek” in TN 2.4.15 or Linche, Diella 31.5, “Faire cheekes of purest Roses red and white”) and was used emblematically of Elizabeth I (see Fulke Greville, Caelica 81.1-2, “Vnder a Throne I saw a Virgin sit, / The red, and white Rose quarter’d in her face”). 3 Shakespeare’s, “damaskt, red and white,” draws on a feature of the Song of Solomon, where the nose is compared to “the towre of Libanus, which loketh towarde Damascus,” (7.5; BB), points to the mixing of red and white in the damask rose, and recalls the red and white fuci combined on the cheeks of Elizabethan woman, especially that of mercury sublimate which in the words of Thomas Tuke caused a “rotting of the teeth” and “vnsauorie breath.” 4 The breath of Shakespeare’s mistress lacks the clichéd sweetness of customary mistress’ breath, for example, Richard Linche’s, “sweet breath that breaths incomparable sweetnes” (Diella 31.4) or Emaricdulf’s “Her hony breath, but more then hony sweete, / Exceeds the odours of Arabia” (15.9-10). The breath of Shakespeare’s mistress lacks such perfumery and there is less delight to be taken from the breath that “in her reekes.” As in Sonnet 54, “perfumes” (per + fumare = to smoke through) is associated with smoke, as is “reekes” which is to smoke (Florio has “Fumare, to smoke, to reeke”), often with pestilent connotations. While the voice of the mistress was always musick (for example, Griffin, Fidessa 39.9, “The Spheares her voyce,” or Watson, above, “Her wordes are musicke all of siluer sounde”), Shakespeare is more realistic: music has a “farre more pleasing sound” than her voice. The title of “goddesse” was commonly afforded mistresses (compare Drayton, Ideas Mirrour 43.12, “Now call her Goddesse,” or Spenser, Amoretti 22.13, “O goddesse,” a translation of Desportes, Diane 39.3, “Déesse;” the appellation was frequent among the French). Shakespeare is equally down to earth when it comes to his mistress’ walking, admitting to not having seen a goddess walking; his mistress, when she walks, has her feet firmly on the ground (“treads on the ground”). The couplet’s “by heauen” is either an interjection or a calling on heaven as witness. The poet claims his mistress, now “my loue,” is as esteemed and uncommon (“rare”) as any woman (“she”) who is misrepresented or seen to be false (“belied”) by “false compare.” The contreblason is thus partly turned on itself, becoming, in an ambiguous final couplet, either a double negative that compounds falsity or one where the negatives cancel out each other to confirm her rarity.
130.1. Clément Marot, Sensuiuent les blasons anatomiques du corps femenin, ensemble les contreblasons de nouueau composez, & additionez, auec les figures, le tout mis par ordre: composez par plusieurs poetes contemporains (Paris: Charles Langelier, 1543); the volume was the result of a competition and was expanded and rearranged in later editions.
130.2. Richard Percy, Sonnets to the Fairest Coelia (London: Adam Islip, 1594) 12.8-9.
130.3. Rembert Dodoens, A New Herbal or Historie of Plants. . now first translated out of French into English by Henry Lyte Esquire (London, Edward Griffin, 1619) 470.
130.4. Tuke B4v.