Raph Recommends: Sonnet 130

Raph al Guul

While taking my Reading List exam yesterday, I was confronted with an interesting opportunity; at the very end of the 30 minute exam, I was asked to talk about a text of my choice that I had selected for this occasion. I actually found this to be a difficult question for two main reasons. Firstly, on my reading list there were many, many texts that I personally liked very much. If you are compiling your reading list, if at all possible, you will obviously choose those pieces of literature that you actually appreciate and relate to. Consequently, free choice of only one of them can become difficult. The second problem is, of course, fandom. Just because I like a text doesn’t mean that I can make an adequate academically relevant statement about it. In fact, chances are that I would rather talk about why I like it, instead of why it is relevant to the canon of English literature.

And that is the reason why I didn’t choose to talk about White Noise, which – as you might remember – I have highly recommended in a previous article. In fact, as someone who prefers modernist and postmodern literature, I did something seemingly peculiar: I picked Shakespeare. Now, I am not particularly enthusiastic about good old Bill. What I am very fond of, though, is his Sonnet 130 – the single greatest sonnet in the history of English literature, in my opinion. Granted, such a statement should probably not be made by a BA student who only just started to familiarize himself with the canon – but hey, it’s the end of the semester; a little bit of euphoria and boldness should be permitted.

The good thing about the recommendation of a sonnet is, of course, that 14 lines of iambic pentameter are not something you have to think long and hard about investing your time in. If you don’t like it, you can move on to other things after two minutes – and if you do like it, then you are free to spend a little more time on it. I won’t dwell much on formal aspects of the poem; I would rather like to address the reason why Sonnet 130 is particularly dear to me.

First of all, the poem starts out on a surprising note: “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.” One can’t help but wonder if this is going to be some kind of horribly mean denigration of the speaker’s significant other. Of course, as per usual, the key lies in the closing couplet; this sonnet is not so much about that particular mistress, but about the “false compare” with which Shakespeare seems to be frustrated. In making fun of the stale, generic figurative language that is commonly used to address themes of love and affection, the speaker demonstrates in beautiful verse that poetry, and especially love poetry, should not be about accumulating existing imagery. And what makes Sonnet 130 particularly striking is that this was written more than 400 years ago, and yet, we are still familiar with the very same metaphors and images that Shakespeare criticized back then.

This sonnet is a call for originality. If you feel that your affection is a rare sensation, and you want to express that, be it in prose, poetry, or even every day speech, your language should reflect that sense of uniqueness. I like knowing that Shakespeare, who himself is associated with beautifully constructed tributes to love (Romeo & Juliet being just one of them), was aware that the key to such writing is not the deployment of metaphors itself, but the originality within them. Thus, I recommend this sonnet to anyone who would like to see love poetry that isn’t actually about love. Sonnet 130 is a wonderful and humorous approach to original writing about something unique. And if you are thinking about your upcoming Reading List exam, why not include it in your own selection, too?

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4 responses to “Raph Recommends: Sonnet 130

  1. great choice of sonnet.

  2. anninatroxler

    Thanks! Sonnet 130 joined my list.

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