The Sonnets (3)

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The graphic shows Cleopatra, the quintessential Dark Woman: alluring, and dangerous.

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Love, Lust, and the Dark Woman

If it is difficult to know whether the image of the ideal in sonnet 94 is seriously intended (though a little obscure) or ironical, there is no doubt at all about the irony in the sonnets to the Dark Woman.

Petrarch Inverted: Sonnets 132, 130 and 138

The virtuous lady of the courtly tradition was of course fair. Outer beauty reflected inner beauty, as Peter Bembo so passionately argued, and dark or black was a traditional symbol of the black, dark side of human nature. What then if the Poet becomes fascinated by a woman whose hair is black and whose eyes, not blue, are dark too? Sonnet 132 is a witty inversion of the convention; the images we are accustomed to are still there--eye/heart, sunrise, Venus in the evening sky--but (if she has pity on him), her dark beauty becomes the ideal, and fair becomes foul. (Do I need to remind you that Macbeth echoes eerily behind the last couplet?)

You have probably read sonnet 130 before, but will relish it the more now you have a wider context to place it in. It is quite simply making fun of the exaggerated effusions of poets in the Petrarchan tradition; you will find that the sonnets of Love's Labour's Lost are fine examples of the kind of poem being satirized. In this sonnet I enjoy the use of the word "reeks" and the determinedly prosaic thud of line 12 especially.

The situation behind sonnet 138 is a little more disturbing. We gather from lines 9-10 that the Dark Woman has been "unjust," which in the context sounds rather like "unfaithful," and that the Poet is significantly older than she. The poem is witty, elegant, but its argument is that they are compatible as a pair, only because for different motives they are both hypocritical, and thus "lie" together.

What is your overall response to the ironies in this sonnet?

Do you respond more to the wit, or to the compromising situation described?

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Dark Woman, Dark Sonnets: 147 and 129

As you read these two sonnets you will be reminded of Peter Bembo's description of the lover whose love is governed by sense rather than reason; and you may also recall the passages of male revulsion at female sexuality expressed in Hamlet and King Lear. Now the image of darkness is no longer inverted, used as an image of beauty and virtue. The Dark Woman is a force of evil, tempting the Poet to the near-madness of what W.H. Auden has called "that most humiliating of all erotic experiences, sexual infatuation." [Note 1]

Sonnet 129 in particular is bitter in its analysis of the disgust triggered by the consummation of a guilt-ridden sexual passion. Notice that (like sonnet 21) it deliberately avoids a personal pronoun, or any reference at all to the object of desire: she is simply that, an object, to be despised as the emotions she evokes are to be despised. Explore the punning power of words like "expense," "spirit," "waste," and "hell."

Do you find evidence of misogyny in this poem?

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  1. See p. xxxiv of the Introduction to the Signet pocket edition. [Back]

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This page last updated April 20, 1997. Enquiries to Michael Best,
© Michael Best, The University of Victoria, and the Open University of B.C.