Comparative Analysis: Sonnet 130 and Ars Poetica

Categories: Sonnet 130


The quote "Change what you see by changing how you see" by Huie encapsulates the essence of two distinct poems, "Sonnet 130" by William Shakespeare and "Ars Poetica" by Archibald MacLeish. While both delve into themes of simplicity and love, they present different perspectives on the expectations from a mistress and a poem.

This essay aims to explore the nuances of these poems, examining their commonalities and disparities in depth.

Simplicity and Love as Common Themes

“Sonnet 130” and “Ars Poetica” share a common theme of simplicity, expressed through their desire for uncomplicated beauty in a mistress and a poem. In Shakespeare's sonnet, the initial impression of dissatisfaction with the mistress's physical attributes transforms into a realization that true beauty lies in their love. The line, "And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare" reflects the shift from physical expectations to a deeper appreciation for genuine affection (Shakespeare 13).

In contrast, "Ars Poetica" articulates the idea that a poem should embrace simplicity.

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MacLeish contends that a poem should be "wordless" and "motionless in time," advocating for a form of expression that goes beyond intricate interpretations and complexities (MacLeish 7, 9). Both poems converge in their celebration of simplicity, whether in love or in the art of poetry.

Differing Expectations: Mistress vs. Poem

However, a significant difference emerges in the expectations set by each poem. “Sonnet 130” sees Shakespeare initially placing numerous expectations on his mistress, criticizing her physical features extensively. The dissatisfaction with her eyes, lips, hair, and other qualities is evident in lines such as "her eyes are nothing like the sun" and "coral is far more red than her lips' red" (Shakespeare 1, 2).

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Yet, the poem concludes with a revelation that his love transcends these superficial expectations.

On the other hand, "Ars Poetica" takes a starkly contrasting stance, urging that a poem should be devoid of expectations. MacLeish emphasizes that a poem should not mean but be, advocating for a form of poetry that defies conventional norms and societal expectations (MacLeish 23).

This stark contrast in expectations signifies a broader commentary on the nature of human relationships and artistic expression. Shakespeare's sonnet reflects the societal norms and expectations placed upon individuals, especially women, in the context of love and beauty. In contrast, MacLeish's poem challenges these norms, suggesting that art, like love, should be free from constraints and interpretations.

Imagery: Beauty and Nature

Both poems employ the use of imagery to convey their messages effectively. In "Sonnet 130," Shakespeare compares his mistress's features to elements of nature, such as roses. The line "I have seen roses damask’d, red and white, but no such roses see I in her cheeks" uses vivid imagery to portray the contrast between traditional beauty and the speaker's perception of his mistress (Shakespeare 5).

In "Ars Poetica," MacLeish employs imagery by comparing words to the flight of birds. The metaphorical representation of a poem being "wordless as the flight of birds" adds a layer of visual richness to the poem (MacLeish 7). Both writers draw on the power of imagery to enhance the aesthetic quality of their works and create a more profound impact on the reader.

This use of imagery serves as a bridge between the simplicity advocated in both poems and the intricate nature of human emotions and artistic expression. While Shakespeare uses imagery to emphasize the mundane and real aspects of his mistress, MacLeish uses it to elevate the abstract concept of a poem's essence.


In conclusion, the comparative analysis of "Sonnet 130" and "Ars Poetica" reveals their shared themes of simplicity and adoration, yet distinct expectations set for a mistress and a poem. Shakespeare's sonnet traverses from physical dissatisfaction to a profound appreciation for love, while MacLeish's poem advocates for the simplicity and freedom of expression in poetry. The use of imagery in both poems adds depth and visual appeal, contributing to their overall literary significance.

The exploration of these nuances not only sheds light on the poems' intrinsic meanings but also provides insights into the societal expectations and artistic principles prevalent during the respective periods. Analyzing these key similarities and differences helps readers understand the poems in a more analytical and contextual way, unraveling the layers of meaning embedded in the verses of these timeless pieces of literature.

Updated: Nov 30, 2023
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Comparative Analysis: Sonnet 130 and Ars Poetica. (2016, Dec 24). Retrieved from

Comparative Analysis: Sonnet 130 and Ars Poetica essay
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