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Does the Brutal Truth in Sonnet 130 Essay

Does the brutal truth in Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 130’ and Swift’s ‘A beautiful Young Nymph going to bed’, take away from the beauty of the two poems. Beauty and aesthetics can be defined as “Nothing more nor less, than sensitivity to the sublime and the beautiful and an aversion to the ordinary and ugly”, this means that beauty can be absolutely anything which is beautiful as long as it is not ugly or ordinary, this may seem harsh, much like the poems by William Shakespeare and Jonathan Swift.

In both poems; ‘Sonnet 130’ by William Shakespeare and ‘A beautiful young nymph going to bed’ by Jonathan Swift, aesthetic beauty is explored in a brutal and honest light. Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 130’ tells the story of a man describing his mistress intimately, yet distastefully; “… why then her breasts are dun. ” Whereas in ‘A beautiful young nymph going to bed’, Swift tells the story of a low class prostitute in London in the 18th century “Pride of Drury Lane”, and her undressing “Takes off her artificial hair”.

When considering beauty and aesthetics within the poems; “Sonnet 130” and ‘A beautiful young nymph going to bed’, it may seem impossible to think of the poems as beautiful when they include such vulgarity and distaste towards the women within them; Shakespeare’s ‘Dark Lady’ and Swift’s work of fiction ‘Corinna’. However, the poems are written and presented beautifully, and may be considered well deserved of their place within the canon of English Literature.

The worth and value of texts within the canon of English literature “… are generally characterised by complexity of plot, structure, language and ideas. ” Despite the ugliness in the poems, the way the poems are written and the complexity of them, still leave the poems as classic texts to be enjoyed and appreciated. The use of metaphors, similes and the complexity of the story within both makes them eligible for the canon of English literature, showing that a poem can still be considered beautiful for the way it is written despite the contents. Sonnet 130’ may initially seem harsh; however it was not intended to disparage Shakespeare’s mistress’s looks as so many commentators have understood, what is meant is that she and her looks together do not require ridiculous comparisons to angels which are clearly unrealistic as her personality and the way she is, is attractive in itself. The term “…mistress…” has an ambiguous meaning, it could refer to a husband’s wife, or as defined in the Oxford English Dictionary; “… a woman loved and courted by a man; a female sweetheart” or “a woman other than his wife with whom a man has a long-lasting sexual relationship”.

The poem suggests the latter meaning, supposing it to be, Shakespeare’s so-called Dark Lady. Shakespeare wrote about ‘the Dark Lady’ in many of his sonnets. Sonnets 127-152 were allegedly based on ‘the Dark Lady’ so called because the poems make it clear that she has black hair and dusky skin, “…breasts are dun. ” Each of the poems deal with a highly personal theme, for example, in ‘Sonnet 130’ a relationship between a man and his mistress experiencing love and lust is discussed. The sonnets have an autobiographical feel, posing the question; who was Shakespeare’s ‘Dark Lady’?

Shakespeare scholar, Dr Duncan Salkeld from the University of Chichester found evidence suggesting that she was a madam called “Lucy Negro” or “Black Luce”, who ran a notorious brothel in Clerkenwell. He believes that she is “the foremost candidate for the dubious role of the “Dark Lady”. Wilson Knight said when considering the relationship between Shakespeare and the ‘Dark Lady’; that “…it appears to have been finer than lust and cruder than love”, here he demonstrates his doubts about them being in love.

He admits that they may have had strong feelings for each other but questions whether they were in love, he does; however agree that their relationship went further than lust and the sexual side of the relationship. The fact that Shakespeare kept her identity hidden, does pose the question, did he really love her and in turn support Wilson’s quote about not being in love. It may seem romantic of Shakespeare to have kept his lover a secret, but we must remain aware that he did have a wife at home in Stratford upon Avon.

The possible occupation of Shakespeare’s ‘Dark Lady’ gives a contextual link to Swift’s poem; ‘A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed’, as the role of prostitution is explored in this poem and there are suggestions that this was the role of the Dark Lady. The purpose of satire is to show what is bad or weak about something or someone through humour and exaggeration. Jonathan Swift is known as ‘The Godfather of Satire’, Swift himself defined satire as; “satire is a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s faces but their own’.

Here, Swift explains how everyone who reads his satire will see how he is mocking everyone else, apart from themselves. The use of satire gives ‘A beautiful young nymph going to bed’ complexity when looking at the meaning, similarly to Sonnet 130, making it eligible for the canon of English Literature, as one of the requirements to be eligible is that the work has “…complexity…”. Swift published ‘A beautiful young nymph going to bed’ in 1734, the poem is satirical, and it satirise women’s artificiality; “Takes off her artificial hair” and their use of the male gaze.

He wrote the poem in the 18th century, when around 63,000 prostitutes were working in London, a terrible time, as prostitutes became more popular and more common, sexually transmitted diseases spread rapidly. Although in his poem, he looks down upon Corinna and effectively the women who were also in her position, he also intends to satirize the wealthy men who use prostitutes and in turn cause this problem. The male voice of narration in this poem is judgemental and snobbish. This voice effectively mocks the upper classes who most likely use prostitution as they could afford it.

The voice insults those upper classes who use and abuse Corinna, demonstrating the gap between the classes in society at the time. Much like Swift, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 has a separate motive, other than writing a love poem to his “…mistress…”. On another level, the poem might suggest that the metaphors and language that sonneteers traditionally use are often hyperbolic beyond reality. ‘Sonnet 130’ mocks the fanciful conventions of romantic poetry by subverting the conventions of Petrarchan sonnets, which wrote about idealised beauty.

This poem is about Shakespeare’s relationship with the ‘dark lady’ and he speaks of her realistically but harshly posing the question; is it better to be attractive with no personality or plain with a good personality? Here Shakespeare chooses the latter and is brutally honest, rather than being complimentary. The vocabulary he uses is harsh and cold; “…reeks…” Here Shakespeare comments on his mistress’s breath, he seems rude and offensive. The implication here is that when he goes to kiss her, he is not thinking of her, but of her bad breath and this is unkind.

However, this may be merely a reflection of Elizabethan dental hygiene. Shakespeare writes that “Coral is far more red…”, which is a clever simile, comparing her lips to coral is slightly over the top, as for lips to be that bright, they would have had to have been painted on and this is the type of fakery that Shakespeare is mocking. Shakespeare focuses on all of the things that would make you look at a woman sensually, her eyes, lips, breasts, skin and hair. However, in this poem these features are not appealing which is different to a conventional sonnet.

A sonnet would traditionally have 14 lines, 3 quatrains and a final rhyming couplet; “…love as rare” and “…false compare”, which follows an abab rhyme scheme, ‘Sonnet 130’ follows these conventions but, a sonnet is also conventionally romantic and flattering, and this sonnet does not follow this convention at all. Undeniably, the form of a sonnet is presented charmingly and despite the harsh content, still leaves the poem to be enjoyed. He comments that he thinks his “…love as rare…”, however, the fact that he kept this dark lady’s identity secret shows a lack of respect and a hint of embarrassment as he did not reveal the truth.

This lack of respect correlates with Swift’s ‘A beautiful young nymph going to bed’ as he is rude, sarcastic and brutal about the fictional Corinna; “Pride of Drury Lane”. Swift tells the reader that Corinna is unpopular, “Never did Covent Garden boast” and that no one is interested in her as she returns home at “… the Midnight Hour. ” At the time Covent Garden and Drury Lane would both have been heavily populated by prostitutes. Swift is disgusted by women like Corinna and is not shy about showing it in this poem.

He describes Corinna as offensively and nastily as he can, telling the reader about her “…flabby dugs…” Swift links lines inside the poems to further insult Corinna; “…slips the Bolsters…” and “Ruins…”. “Must ev’ry morn her limbs unite” she has to rebuild herself and reconstruct her beauty every morning. Ruins are what is left of an ancient building when the structure is lost, Corinna is compared to a building when Swift says “…and off she slips the Bolsters that supply her hips. implying that, like a building she has a structure and without it, she becomes the “Ruins of the Night”. Swift criticises artificial beauty and fakery, which has links to famous fairy tales, such as; Snow White or Sleeping Beauty. In these stories the women are beautiful for being natural; “…skin as white as snow…”unlike Corinna. This suggests that pale and natural skin is attractive, which links to the women of the 18th century, when the paler you were, the more beautiful you were.

Corinna objectifies the opposite of 18th century beauty The brutal truth within ‘Sonnet 130’ does not take away the beauty from the poem. The beauty of Sonnet 130 is continued by the composite way it has been written and the ambiguous meanings and reasons for being written; these are what make the poem seem complex as it is filled with different ideas. The poem could be a confession of love as believed, a slightly sarcastic joke about his mistress or a complex exploration of the conventions of sonnets. The brutal truth within the poem hides Shakespeare’s true feelings for ‘the Dark Lady’.

In Jonathan Swift’s ‘A beautiful young nymph going to bed’ the appeal of the poem is continued, despite the brutal truth of the contents, by the strong concept of satire within the poem. Swift has very cleverly turned what appears to be a misogynistic attack on women to become an attack on the people who have caused this for her. The brutal truth about Corinna hides the underlying meaning and it is this complexity within the meaning and plot, which keeps the reader interested and allows Swift to broadcast his message subtly but with clarity.


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