Poetically Speaking: Sonnet 130 by William Shakespeare

What’s the first word that comes to mind when you hear the name William Shakespeare?

For me, the immediate answer is “poet.”

Considering the iambic pentameter of his plays, it makes sense that Shakespeare was also a brilliant poet who wrote 154 sonnets over the course of his lifetime. In each sonnet, he drew out beautiful imagery and sentiments from the rigid form that follows a specific line structure and rhyme scheme.

One of my favorite Shakespeare sonnets, one I refer to often when trying to improve my own writing, is Sonnet 130.

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.

Like the best poems, Sonnet 130 is layered. Instead of showering his mistress with false comparisons, the narrator suggests that he loves her all the more fiercely for seeing her clearly–a beautiful thought that is as relevant today as it would have been in Shakespeare’s own lifetime. The interplay between what is overtly stated and what is left unsaid here works as a primer for how to write and how to do it well. This sonnet never calls the subject of the poem beautiful or any other niceties. Still, by the end, it’s impossible to think the narrator feels anything but a deep love for the subject.

Sonnet 130 challenges everything readers think they know about love poems–and it does so with humor. Being a sonnet is impressive enough, but also being funny and conversational? Being timely and relevant while being more than four hundred years old? Astonishing.

Like a magician diverting the audience’s attention, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 is a misdirect of sorts as he uses simple language and plain ideas to give voice to an abstract concept. And, really, isn’t that the standard to which every poem, not to mention every writer, should strive?

This post originally appeared on Books Take You Places in 2015 as part of the Bard on the Blogs series.

Check back every Friday in April for a new Poetically Speaking post. Until then, you can also browse older posts (and guest posts) for more poetry.