William Shakespeare

Colin Burrow (ed.), The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Sonnets and Poems

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pg 640 pg 641 130

  • Editor’s Note1My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun,
  • Editor’s Note2Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
  • Editor’s Note3If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
  • Editor’s Note4If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
  • Editor’s Note5I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
  • 6But no such roses see I in her cheeks,
  • 7And in some perfumes is there more delight
  • Editor’s Note8Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
  • 9I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
  • 10That music hath a far more pleasing sound.
  • Editor’s Note11I grant I never saw a goddess go:
  • 12My mistress when she walks treads on the ground.
  • Editor’s Note13  And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
  • Editor’s Note14  As any she belied with false compare.

Notes Settings


Editor’s Note
1 My … sun My is given a proud emphasis to distinguish the poet's mistress from the majority of Elizabethan sonneteers' mistresses. Cf. Henry Constable's Diana (1592) 1.7, ll. 9–12: 'No, no, I flatter not, when I thee call | The sun, sith that the sun was never such; | But when the sun I thee compared withal | Doubtless the sun I flattered too much'. Lynche's Diella (1596) 3 is also a fruitful candidate for parody: 'My mistress' snow-white skin doth much excel | The pure-soft wool Arcadian sheep do bear; | Her hair exceeds gold forced in smallest wire, | In smaller threads than those Arachne spun; | Her eyes are crystal fountains, yet dart fire | More glorious to behold than midday sun; | Her Ivory front, (though soft as purest silk) | Looks like the table of Olympic Jove, | Her cheeks are like ripe cherries laid in milk, | Her alabaster neck the throne of Love; | Her other parts so far excel the rest, | That wanting words, they cannot be expressed'. Giles Fletcher's Licia 45 compares Licia's eyes first to a comet and then to a sun rising in the west. Shakespeare uses the comparison in 49.6.
Editor’s Note
2 Coral is a stock comparison for lips. See for example Lynche's Diella 31.2: 'sweet lips of coral hue but silken softness'; Zepheria Canzon 23.1: 'Thy coral coloured lips'; Richard Barnfield, Cynthia, Sonnet 6.1: 'Sweet coral lips, where Nature's treasure lies'; and Venus l. 542.
Editor’s Note
3 dun dingy brown
Editor’s Note
4 wires a traditional comparison in sonnet sequences. Wire, being made of gold, iron, brass, or copper, could not be black unless tarnished, although Barnabe Barnes, when looking for flaws in his mistress, finds 'A mole upon her forehead, coloured pale, | Her hair disordered, brown and crispèd wiry' (Parthenophil and Parthenophe 13.10–11). The anonymous Zepheria Canzon 17 sets out the orthodox coiffure of the Petrarchan mistress: 'The golden ceiling of thy brows' rich frame | Designs the proud pomp of thy face's architure: | Crystal transparent casements to the same | Are thine eyes' sun, which do the world depure, | Whose silvery canopy gold wire fringes'.
Editor’s Note
5 damasked, red and white OED's definition ('4. Having the hue of the damask rose') is unhelpful, since Rosa damascena includes red, white, and parti-coloured varieties. The reference is probably to R. x damascena var. versicolor ('the York and Lancaster Rose'), which has particoloured pink and white petals (and often also pure white or pure pink blooms). Damasked, red and white then means 'parti-coloured, I mean red and white on the same rose tree', rather than referring to three separate types of rose. A similar (single) 'rose brier' which bears red and white blooms is referred to in 1 Henry V1
Editor’s Note
8 reeks rises like smoke. The sense 'to stink' is not recorded before the eighteenth century. However, smoking chimneys 'reek' and so can blood, as in Lucrece l. 1377.
Editor’s Note
11 go walk. Goddesses were supposed not to touch the ground, as in Venus l. 1028 and n.
Editor’s Note
13 rare exceptional, precious
Editor’s Note
14 As any … compare as any woman misrepresented by inaccurate and deceitful comparisons. The poem archly ends with a comparison (As …). The emphasis falls on I think, which confesses a privately held, self-consciously inaccurate belief.
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