Colin Burrow (ed.), The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Sonnets and Poems
pg 634 pg 635 127
- Editor’s Note1In the old age black was not counted fair,
- Editor’s Note2Or if it were it bore not beauty's name;
- Editor’s Note3But now is black beauty's successive heir,
- Editor’s Note4And beauty slandered with a bastard shame:
- Editor’s Note5For since each hand hath put on Nature's power,
- Editor’s Note6Fairing the foul with Art's false borrowed face,
- Editor’s Note7Sweet beauty hath no name, no holy bower,
- Editor’s Note8But is profaned, if not lives in disgrace.
- Editor’s NoteCritical Apparatus9Therefore my mistress' eyes are raven black,
- Editor’s NoteCritical Apparatus10Her brows so suited, and they mourners seem
- Editor’s Note11At such who, not born fair, no beauty lack,
- Editor’s Note12Sland'ring creation with a false esteem.
- Editor’s Note13 Yet so they mourn, becoming of their woe,
- Editor’s Note14 That every tongue says beauty should look so.
1 black … fair Dark colouring (dark hair and dark eyes) was not considered beautiful (with a pun on fair meaning 'blonde').
2 Modifies the previous line: 'or if it was called fair it wasn't called beautiful'.
3 successive heir the true inheritor by blood. Successive is a standard term to describe hereditary succession (OED 3b) as in The Spanish Tragedy 3.1.14: 'Your King, | By hate deprivèd of his dearest son, | The only hope of our successive line'.
4 And beauty … shame (a) beauty is declared illegitimate; (a) beauty is publicly shamed with having borne a bastard. The desire for paradox here creates a genealogical problem: beauty is both the source of due succession and its own illegitimate offspring.
5 put on Nature's power usurped an office which is properly Nature's (through cosmetics)
6 Fairing the foul making the foul beautiful (or blonde). The use of fair as a transitive verb is not common, and would have added to the deliberate strangeness here, which anticipates the witches in Macbeth 1.1.10: 'Fair is foul, and foul is fair'.
7 no name … bower no legitimate hereditary title (or reputation) and no sacred inner sanctum. Bower is usually glossed as a vague poeticism (so OED cites this passage under 1b: 'a vague poetic word for an idealized abode'), but it continues the poem's concern with legitimate succession and bastardy, and means 'a bed-room' (OED 2). Not even beauty's bedchamber is safe from profanation.
8 is profaned is defiled, perhaps with a suggestion that her holiest places have been invaded
9 mistress'] q (Mistersse)
9–10 eyes … brows] brooke (conj. Staunton); eyes … eyes q; eyes … hairs capell; hairs … eyes conj. Walker; brows … eyes globe (conj, Staunton); eyes … brow ingram and redpath
9 Therefore because of beauty's profanation (by the abuse of cosmetics) they are black in mourning
raven black Compare the proverb 'As black as a raven' (Dent R32.2).
10 and] q; that gildon; as dyce 1857
10 brows Q's repetition of 'eyes' has prompted many emendations. Staunton's is the most convincing, since black brows (eyebrows) are elsewhere referred to by Shakespeare (L.L.L. 4.3.256–8: 'O, if in black my lady's brows be decked | It mourns that painting and usurping hair | Should ravish doters with a false aspect'), and are often treated as expressive (e.g. 'I see your brows are full of discontent', Richard II 4.1.320).
so suited and similarly attired, and. And may mean 'As if', 'as though' (OED 3), as in Dream 1.2.77–8: 'I will roar you an 'twere any nightingale'.
11 At … lack at those who, despite not being born beautiful, do not lack beauty through their use of cosmetics. Beauty here almost merits inverted commas, since it has been so thoroughly contaminated by its context.
12 Sland'ring … esteem giving a bad name to what is natural by making real beauty indistinguishable from false
13 so in such a way (leading to that in l. 14).
becoming of gracing, suiting so well with that they become beautiful
14 so i.e. black like the mistress's eyes
The lover who envies the instrument on which his mistress plays is a cliché in the period. Fastidious Brisk in Jonson's Every Man Out of his Humour 3.9.101–6 describes his mistress playing the viola de gamba: 'I have wished myself to be that instrument, I think, a thousand times'. E. C.'s Emaricdulſe Sonnet 17 ('I am enchanted with thy snow-white hands') dwells with erotic fascination on his mistress's hands and the music they produce. For a discussion and transcription of the version of this sonnet in Bodleian MS Rawl. Poet. 152, see R. H. Robbins, 'A Seventeenth Century Manuscript of Shakespeare's Sonnet 128', NQ 212 (1967), 137–8. The variants in this transcription illustrate how seventeenth-century miscellanists modified details which they found obscure or inapplicable to their own circumstances.