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Denitza Vlaeva


William Shakespeare

My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red:
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask'd, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound:
I grant I never saw a goddess go,-
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet, I think my love as rare
As any she belied in false compare.

John Milton

When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest He returning chide,
"Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?"
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, "God doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts. Who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly: thousands at his bidding speed,
And post o'er land and ocean without a rest;
They also server who only stand and wait."


"The dark lady of the sonnets" is the main object of Shakespeare's "CXXX". This time, however, there is no love triangle present, nor is the hero the one that is left out in the end. It seems that Shakespeare is virtually tired of the usual Petrarchan form of the sonnets - artificial, exaggerated, coloured, hyperbolised and having courtly love as their main subject. Shakespeare uses inexcusable satire against the tradition of creating a sonnet, which is most widely indicated by the description of his lover. The poet writes of her most grotesquely, something that is highly unusual in a traditional sonnet.

Unlike Shakespeare's poem, but still refusing to acknowledge the sonnet's traditional form, the story of Milton's "On His Blindness" is autobiographical and describes a man who has suffered enormously through the loss of his sight and his talents. These are equal to the author and he refers to them as punishments. The whole of the poem consists of questions ("Doth God exact day labour light-denied?") revealing Milton's pain and although humility is sensed, there still remains the inevitable and haunting "Why me?". However, he is answered by Patience that it is not the one who has talents who earns God's love but the one who is able to "bear his mild yoke". The idea by itself resembles the theme of stoical endurance.

The tone of "CXXX" remains unaltered throughout the whole of the poem. What we are witnessing here is a satirical Shakespeare at his best, the humour of the phrases being evoked by the improbable comparisons: "... her eyes are nothing like the sun", "coral is far more red that Her lips' red", "black wires grow on her head". Creating humour and deceiving the reader is the poet's intention and he keeps strictly to it, this including the proof of the hero's love in his last few words; "I think my love as rare".

The negative mood and atmosphere of Milton's poem contrast with these of the other poem, the resentful tone echoes until the very end. It is reflective and personal as the poet describes a painful memory. The bitter question: "Doth God exact day labour light denied?" ends the octave and resembles the climax of the hero's suffering. Calmness can be sensed among the last few lines, as the words now seem to be spoken by a man who has accepted his state and is ready to serve God again: "They also serve who only stand and wait."

Shakespeare swerves around a physical description of his beloved without any obvious reason. This absorbs all of the reader's attention and leaves them under the impression that his attitude is totally mock-heroic, that the use of the word "My mistress" is only a device helping the poet develop a better comic effect and that there is no true love involved in the subject of the sonnet. Yet, it is with the very last couplet of the poem that he reveals the hero's true feelings:

And yet by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied in false compare.

There is a similar development of attitude in "On His Blindness". The extreme resignation from the beginning of Milton's sonnet are eventually replaced by a more objective, less personal and wiser viewpoint. The statement "His state/ is kingly" proves the hero's obedience and the fact he has accepted to "bear his mild yoke", be patient and wait for God's sign.

The imagery and comparisons used in "CXXX" are Shakespeare's main strategy for creating a false impression upon the reader. Most of them are inverted, comic and grotesque and therefore produce a corresponding effect: "no such roses (see I in her cheeks)", "in perfumes (is there more delight than in her breath...)", "music (hath a more pleasing sound)", "if snow be white, (why her breasts are dun").

The main message of Milton's sonnet is emphasised by the use of symbolism. The imagery consists of references to time, light/darkness, which resemble life and talents and the loss of them, time and God, all aiming at clarifying the picture of the author's suffering. First, there is "half my days", then come the "light", spent in this "dark world and wide". The uneasy and agoraphobic atmosphere is hastened by the appearing of God's figure: "He", "my Maker" and the pain sharpened by the mentioning of "gifts" once more. The sonnet, however, finishes with Patience - a symbol of faith, strength and maturity - pleading for the hero's stoical endurance.

Shakespeare's poem has a structure consisting of a set of 12 lines and a couplet, which emphasises its descriptive nature. The sonnet's rhythm of iambic pentameter is not altered throughout the poem, which indicates no change of mood and atmosphere. The alternate rhyme pattern (sun/dun, red/head) is only changed by the last couplet of the sonnet (rare/compare). This is a crucial device used by Shakespeare in order to remove the false idea of mockery of the hero's lover and and replace it with the sudden and unexpected truth about his love for her.

"On His Blindness" is has the conventional structure common for the sonnet - an octave, developing the story line and the author's message, and a sestet to conclude it. The "abba" rhyme pattern is being used all throughout the octave, whereas a rhyme pattern of "abcabc" is what the sestet consists of. The change in rhyme in the developing and concluding parts of the poem reflects the change of mood and atmosphere of it - the positive feel takes over the negative mood and atmosphere of the beginning of the sonnet. The rhythm of iambic pentameter is a constant feature of "On His Blindness" and, just like in "CXXX", makes the poemstrict and constrain and thus adds power to the sentiment. The use of subordinate clauses ("....;though my soul more bent/ To serve therewith my Maker, and present/ My true account, lest He returning chide,...") expands the poem and is added in order to complete its structure of a traditional sonnet. Rhetoric questions such as "Doth god.... light denied"), strange word order and speech within speech are used in order to emphasize the hero's state of mind and personal conflict. The dramatic form is one of dramatic immediacy as the talking voice resembles the author's monologue addressing a reader.

The points connecting Shakespeare and Milton's poems are just as common as the contrasts between them. Both authors have rejected the conventional form of the sonnet and have used a number of various images in order to describe a personal experience. Yet their tone, mood and their structure are not equivalent as are not the intention of the poets.



© Denitza Vlaeva
© E-magazine LiterNet, 13.05.2000, № 5 (6)