In the old age black was not counted fair,
Or if it were, it bore not beauty's name;
But now is black beauty's successive heir,
And beauty slandered with a bastard shame:
For since each hand hath put on Nature's power,
Fairing the foul with Art's false borrowed face,
Sweet beauty hath no name, no holy bower,
But is profaned, if not lives in disgrace.
Therefore my mistress' eyes are raven black,
Her eyes so suited, and they mourners seem
At such who, not born fair, no beauty lack,
Sland'ring creation with a false esteem:
Yet so they mourn becoming of their woe,
That every tongue says beauty should look so.
With the commencement of the so called 'Dark Lady' sonnets, there is a marked change of tone from that of serene reflection on a love that has been almost eternized, to a slightly disturbed analysis of a passion which is at times close to frenzy. The opening sonnet introduces his mistress as 'black', but then digresses unexpectedly into a tirade against cosmetics and face painting, something which Shakespeare never found easy to tolerate, for he seems to equate it with a falseness in human relations. The argument of the poem seems to be that his beloved mistress is black because it is symbolic of a mourning for the debasement of true beauty. His love having taken on this guise of black mourning, it has now become so fashionable that common opinion has swung round to believing that dark beauties alone are truly beautiful. He therefore feels that his passion for her is justified.
The praise of fair or blonde beauty, and the criticism of its counterpart, is made easier by the looseness of meaning of the word 'fair' in English, since it can signify both light coloured and beautiful, as well as having a range of moral applications, as in Macbeth:
Fair is foul and foul is fair
Hover through the fog and filthy air. Mac.I.1.10-11.
The counterpart to fairness, described by words such as black, dark, foul, immediately gives access to a tone of moral opprobrium and condemnation, as for example in 147:
For I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright,
Who art as black as hell, as dark as night.
The tradition of praising one's mistress as fair was well established, and may be found in Petrarch's sonnets to Laura. The counter tradition also seems to have been well defined early on, both in the Italian sonnets, and at an early date in the English speaking world, in Sidney's Astrophel and Stella, of which I give Sonnet 7 (below left). It was printed in 1591 but was in circulation in manuscript from 1581 onwards. By the time Shakespeare's sonnet sequence was published in 1609, the fashion for sonneteering was already passed, but the secret fascination for dark haired beauties no doubt long outlasted the fashion for sonnet writing.
It is difficult to know how significant the darkness of the dark lady was. Should we equate it with the feelings of guilt often attached to male sexual desires, repressed or otherwise, or should it be seen as a light hearted, conventional, and somewhat frivolous explanation of and justification for an extreme emotional entanglement? In terms of Mediterranean types of beauty, the idealisation of fairness seems almost nonsensical, unless it was adopted simply because it was known that such types were relatively rare and therefore they were thought to be unattainable. In England one wonders what the situation of the Mary Fittons of the world and all the other brunettes might have been, if their darkness was considered to be synonymous with hell, and night, and hidden desires. ( Although it seems that Mary Fitton herself was fair, which rather disqualifies her from the title of Dark Lady). Fortunately the demotic sexual tradition has often taken little account of religious and puritanical views of restraint and repression. Fortunately, that is, for the continuation of the human race. The historical record is however heavily biased in favour of literary works written by educated men and the influences and prejudices they detail are often distinctive of that class and social background. Roman Catholic ideas of the sinfulness of sexuality were always close at hand in Elizabethan England. Shakespeare, as an educated man, would have been imbued with those ideas. It may well be that part of the tradition was secretly to consider dark haired women more libidinous, and therefore more desirable, and the association with them more sinful. At any rate Shakespeare seems to have found his mistress entirely irresistible, and his account of the liaison does not show him to be free of guilt either. This sonnet however still remains a puzzle, because it seems to be such an odd way to start a series of poems in praise of one's mistress. It is perhaps because all the praise has already been lavished on the beautiful youth, the true love of his heart, that this part of the series can only be a tortured raking over of the coals of desire for a woman who has tempted his lust. The truth is that, if one is looking for poems expressive of everlasting love, one turns to the main sequence of sonnets to the youth. But if one wishes to know what the effect of guilty and 'sinful loving' is on a mind sensitive to most of the tortures of the human heart, then one looks at the sonnets to the 'dark lady'.
There are many verbal links in Sonnet 127 to the four preceding ones, for example bastard, born, disgrace, Nature, Art, which implies that its position here was quite deliberately chosen. Or else the motifs of 123-6 have been unconsciously carried over into this sonnet.
There are also resemblances to Love's Labour's Lost IV.3.228-70, and the full extract is printed below for easy comparison. Some additional comments are also added thereunto.
Sidneys Sonnet 6 from Astrophel and Stella shows that Stella is black, dazzling and beautiful, and also makes use of the association of black with mourning.
ASTROPHEL AND STELLA
When Nature made her chief work - STELLA'S eyes
In colour black why wrapt she beams so bright?
Would she in beamy black, like painter wise
Frame daintiest lustre, mixed of shades of light?
Or did she else that sober hue devise,
In object best to knit and strength our sight?
Lest if no veil these brave gleams did disguise,
They sun-like should more dazzle than delight.
Or would she her miraculous power show?
That whereas black seems beauty's contrary
She, even in black, doth make all beauties flow!
But so and thus, she minding LOVE should be
Placed ever there, gave him this mourning weed;
To honour all their deaths, which for her bleed.
The 1609 Quarto Version
IN the ould age blacke was not counted faire,
Or if it weare it bore not beauties name:
But now is blacke beauties ſucceſſiue heire,
And Beautie ſlanderd with a baſtard ſhame,
For ſince each hand hath put on Natures power,
Fairing the foule with Arts faulſe borrow'd face,
Sweet beauty hath no name no holy boure,
But is prophan'd, if not liues in difgrace.
Therefore my Miſterfſe eyes are Rauen blacke,
Her eyes fo ſuted,and they mourners ſeeme,
At ſuch who not borne faire no beauty lack,
Slandring Creation with a falſe eſteeme,
Yet ſo they mourne becomming of their woe,
That euery toung ſaies beauty ſhould looke ſo.