Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Many Faces of the Dark Lady Sonnet

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     By creating his sonnet cycle, William Shakespeare entered into, and simultaneously complicated, an age-old tradition of sonnet-writing. This "Petrarchan" tradition demanded certain conventions, such as the inclusion of blazons, the subject of unrequited love, and conceits drawn between the beloved and nature. In response to this tradition, Shakespeare's Sonnet 130 concurrently follows, rejects, and exceeds it. We will consider each of the "faces" of this sonnet separately.

The Sonnet as Rejection of Tradition

     Typically, scholars have read this sonnet as a reversal of traditional Petrarchan modes. For example, Helen Vender, in her book The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets, describes how Shakespeare follows typical forms and vocabulary of Petrarchan sonnets ("(1) comparison by simile, (2) hierarchizing, (3) valuing by a standard, (4) meraphorizing"  (557)), while also subverting them. He uses these forms in a way to say the opposite of what would normally be expected from a Petrarchan poem. Rather than praising the beloved for aesthetically pleasing physical attributes, the speaker of Sonnet 130 describes his beloved's lack of beauty. Form follows this content. Although the general sonnet form is preserved, there are aberrations to the iambic pentameter, such as the word "Coral" on the second line, or "I have seen roses damasked" on the fifth. These aberrations reinforce the reversal of Petrarchan ideals in the sonnet.
     Similarly, Sonnet 69 also rejects the sonnet tradition, albeit in a different way. In Sonnet 69, the speaker praises the beloved’s physical attributes, saying that “The parts of thee that the world’s eye doth view / want nothing." However, the speaker refuses to stop at physical beauty. He adds that upon further inspection, “ To thy fair flower [is added] the rank smell of weeds," because “thou dost common grow." While Sonnet 130 expresses affection regardless of negative aesthetics, Sonnet 69 expresses revulsion regardless of positive aesthetics. Sonnet 69 reacts against the Petrarchan tradition like Sonnet 130, but does so by claiming that actions count just as much (if not more) than physical beauty.

The Sonnet as Continuation of Tradition

     Even though Sonnet 130 reverses some traditional ideas, it is still a tender poem about love and affection. Helen Vendler draws attention to the fact that romantic affection enters the sonnet in the third quatrain (557). This can also be seen in Stephen Fry's interpretative reading of the sonnet. In this reading, rather than disparaging the lady, his tone is full of tenderness. When he reaches the "affective third quatrain," he emphasizes the amount of love that he feels, and he reiterates that love in the final couplet. Although we obviously see the discontinuities between a typical Petrarchan sonnet and the one that Shakespeare offers, we should also consider it as a continuation of a tradition. The speaker still loves the beloved. 

The Sonnet as Exceeding the Tradition

     Sonnet 130, in addition to continuing and subverting the tradition, also goes beyond it by creating a kind of "metapoetics." In fact, Robert Matz attributes the rise of the popularity of Sonnet 130 to its metapoetical character (501). The sonnet, by both continuing and reversing the tradition, asks questions about the art of poetry itself. Should poetry follow the tradition? What poetical experiments can we create in regards to the tradition? The poem draws attention to itself as a poem and asks to be analyzed as such. Even by addressing the poem to a third party rather than to the beloved, the poem is directing itself toward a reading audience. By directing attention toward itself, the sonnet not only continues and complicates the tradition, but extends it into new territories.

     Sonnet 130, written to the "dark lady," has many faces. In one we see the tradition of Petrarch--a speaker proclaiming his love toward his beloved. In another we see a reversal of that very tradition--a speaker who lists his beloved's physical imperfections rather than her perfections (which is still better than listing their moral imperfections, like in Sonnet 69). And in yet another we see a master poet drawing attention to his own work within the tradition. Although the faces of this sonnet may not be equally beautiful, "I think my love as rare" for each to make them beautiful in my eyes. 

Works Cited

Matz, Robert. "The Scandals of Shakespeare's Sonnets." ELH77.2 (2010): 477-508. Web.

Vendler, Helen. The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard UP, 1997. Print.

1 comment:

  1. Very thorough! I love how you compare the two sonnets. It's funny how in a traditional sonnet, Shakespeare is still playing around. I'm not sure I'd like this sonnet to be written about me. I like it being ambiguously about the dark lady.