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 damasked, 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 by heaven, I think my love as rare,
As any she belied with false compare.
With a deftness of touch that takes away any sting that might otherwise arise from implied criticism of other sonneteers, the poet satirises the tradition of comparing one's beloved to all things beautiful under the sun, and to things divine and immortal as well. It is often said that the praise of his mistress is so negative that the reader is left with the impression that she is almost unlovable. On the contrary, although the octet makes many negative comparisons, the sestet contrives to make one believe that the sound of her voice is sweeter than any music, and that she far outdistances any goddess in her merely human beauties and her mortal approachability.
A typical sonnet of the time which uses lofty comparisons to praise a beloved idol is given below. There are many others, and the tradition of fulsome praise in this vein stretches back to Petrarch and his sonnets to Laura. E.g.
The way she walked was not the way of mortals
but of angelic forms, and when she spoke
more than an earthly voice it was that sang:
a godly spirit and a living sun
was what I saw, and if she is not now,
my wound still bleeds, although the bow's unbent.
Canzoniere 90, trans. Mark Musa.
My Lady's hair is threads of beaten gold;
Her front the purest crystal eye hath seen;
Her eyes the brightest stars the heavens hold;
Her cheeks, red roses, such as seld have been;
Her pretty lips of red vermilion dye;
Her hand of ivory the purest white;
Her blush AURORA, or the morning sky.
Her breast displays two silver fountains bright;
The spheres, her voice; her grace, the Graces three;
Her body is the saint that I adore;
Her smiles and favours, sweet as honey be.
Her feet, fair THETIS praiseth evermore.
But Ah, the worst and last is yet behind :
For of a griffon she doth bear the mind!
By Bartholomew Griffin. Published 1596
The 1609 Quarto Version
MY Miſtres eyes are nothing like the Sunne,
Currall is farre more red,then her lips red,
If ſnow be white,why then her breſts are dun:
If haires be wiers,black wiers grow on her head:
I haue ſeene Roſes damaskt,red and white,
But no ſuch Roſes ſee I in her cheekes,
And in ſome perfumes is there more delight,
Then in the breath that from my Miſtres reekes.
I loue to heare her ſpeake,yet well I know,
That Muſicke hath a farre more pleaſing ſound:
I graunt I neuer ſaw a goddeſſe goe,
My Miſtres when ſhee walkes treads on the groun d.
And yet by heauen I thinke my loue as rare,
As any ſhe beli'd with falſe compare.