An Overview of Sonnet 130
Author(s): Joanne Woolway
Source: Poetry for Students. Detroit: Gale. From Literature Resource Center.
Document Type: Critical essay
[Joanne Woolway is a freelance writer who recently earned her Ph.D. from Oriel College, Oxford, England. In the following essay, Woolway analyzes how, in “Sonnet 130,” Shakespeare “succeeds...in turning traditional poetic conventions around.” She also takes a close look at the ways Shakespeare's versification—his skill patterning of stressed and unstressed syllable—supports the poem's meaning]
In the sixteenth century, a form of poetry called the blazon was briefly popular. “Blazon” is a technical term usually used to describe heraldry. It always involved a detailed summary of all of the main features and colors of an illustration and also described the position and relation of one picture to another. This method of depiction was translated into poetry and was used to portray the features of the human, usually female, body. A typical blazon would start with the hair and work downward, focusing on eyes, ears, lips, neck, breasts and so on. Sometimes, it would start at the feet and work its way up. (One famous example of the blazon is English poet Edmund Spenser's description of Belphoebe in book two of his poem The Faerie Queene.) This form was well suited to the style of courtly love poetry that was flourishing at this time, as it allowed writers to project an idea of an idealized and distant woman whose features they could admire from afar.
Shakespeare's “Sonnet 130” is interesting because it works by inverting the traditions of the blazon form. The reader knows what to expect from this type of poetry, and so the dramatic force of the poem comes from his or her expectations being turned upside down. The surprise is greatest in the first four lines, in which the contrary imagery is gradually revealed. While the first line does not sound so different from a conventional love poem or poem of