Thine eyes I love, and they, as pitying me,
Knowing thy heart torments me with disdain,
Have put on black and loving mourners be,
Looking with pretty ruth upon my pain.
And truly not the morning sun of heaven
Better becomes the grey cheeks of the east,
Nor that full star that ushers in the even,
Doth half that glory to the sober west,
As those two mourning eyes become thy face:
O! let it then as well beseem thy heart
To mourn for me since mourning doth thee grace,
And suit thy pity like in every part.
Then will I swear beauty herself is black,
And all they foul that thy complexion lack.
This sonnet takes up again the theme of 127, that his mistress’s eyes, being black, seem to be in mourning. But whereas in the earlier sonnet they seemed to be mourning for the fact that most beauty was feigned, concocted and cosmetic, now they are pitying the poet himself, but for what is never quite made clear. Traditionally the Petrarchan sonneteer bewailed the fact that his mistress was cold and aloof and refused to respond to his amorous advances. Therefore he was forever desirous of pity for being sexually unsatisfied, although he would never state the matter quite so crudely. Take for example Sidney’s Sonnet 77 to Stella, in which he remarks that her looks, her face, her presence, her hand, her lips, her skin, her voice and her sweet conversation, if he is rightly minded, are sufficient to make him fully blest. Yet he acknowledges that something is perhaps lacking, about which he coyly states
Yet ah! My maiden Muse doth blush to tell the rest.
and one is left to guess the full meaning. In the context of what follows in sonnets 133 & 134, in which the poet implies that his friend has been hooked by this Siren mistress, and that he himself is betrayed, the pity might be required simply because he, the poet, has been put on one side. But in 135 & 136, the main theme of which seems to be sexual intercourse and the fact that he is not getting enough of it, the pity would seem to be required as consolation for his never ending frustrations, and is a more conventional request in the Petrarchan or Sidneyan tradition. There is probably a partial element of satire in all this, a satire of the sonnet tradition and of beauty’s comparisons (the sun, the evening star etc.). The poet will not declare why the pity is needed, but he enjoys the twist in the end, that the beauty who is denying him all this is both black and not black, fair and not fair, foul and not foul, wicked and not wicked, all at the same time.
Most of the dark lady sonnets work simultaneously on a number of different levels. This one glides easily between the worlds of visual description, sexual innuendo, moral criticism, emotional entanglement and social commentary, without firmly setting a foot in any one of them. In the notes below I have tried to indicate what appear to be the primary meanings, but the nature of the thing is such that no commentary can fully do it justice.
The 1609 Quarto Version
THine eies I loue,and they as pittying me,
Knowing thy heart torment me with diſdaine,
Haue put on black,and louing mourners bee,
Looking with pretty ruth vpon my paine.
And truly not the morning Sun of Heauen
Better becomes the gray cheeks of th’ Eaſt,
Nor that full Starre that vſhers in the Eauen
Doth halfe that glory to the ſober Weft
As thoſe two morning eyes become thy face:
O let it then as well beſeeme thy heart
To mourne for me ſince mourning doth thee grace,
And ſute thy pitty like in euery part.
Then will I ſweare beauty her ſelfe is blacke,
And all they foule that thy complexion lacke.
1. Thine eyes I love, and they, as pitying me,
Thine eyes – eyes were the prime movers in setting up the bond between Laura and Petrarch, Sidney and Stella, and no doubt between other sonneteers and their mistresses. One should also remember Shakespeare’s own words in The Merchant of Venice:
Tell me where is fancy bred,
Or in the heart, or in the head?
How begot, how nourished?
It is engendered in the eyes,
With gazing fed; and fancy dies
In the cradle where it lies.
Let us all ring fancy’s knell
I’ll begin it,–Ding, dong, bell. MV.III.2.63-71.2. Knowing thy heart torments me with disdain,Knowing thy heart torments me = (your eyes), being aware of the fact that your heart tortures me. The Q reading torment may be correct, its meaning being ‘Knowing your heart to torment me, i.e. knowing that it is in the process of tormenting me’.
disdain = contempt, scorn, arrogant indifference. This was the traditional attitude of the adored beauty, who would not yield to the sexual desires and intemperance of her lover, either because she was naturally frigid, or simply because, as may well have been the case, she did not fancy him. The conventions of love poetry of the time usually ascribed her aloofness to her excessive purity and virginal chastity.3. Have put on black and loving mourners be,Have put on black = have dressed themselves in black clothes (for mourning) ; are coloured black. The poet interprets the dark colour of his beloved’s eyes as symbolic of their sympathy with his suffering. They appear to have clothed themselves in black as if they were mourners at the funeral of his desires.4. Looking with pretty ruth upon my pain.ruth = pity, compassion.
pretty ruth – the poet finds the display of compassion very fetching and alluring, probably rather sexy.
upon my pain = on me suffering pain because I love you. Compare the groans of love in the previous sonnet. In reality the lover groaned because the beloved would not satisfy his desires for closer intimacy and sexual fulfilment, though this was never stated directly.5. And truly not the morning sun of heaven
truly – see the comment on oaths in the previous sonnet, 131, in the note to line 6.
the morning sun of heaven = the sun, as it arises in the heavens in the morning. But presumably with a pun also on mourning.6. Better becomes the grey cheeks of the east,better becomes = is more adequately suited to, is better in harmony with.
the grey cheeks of the east – the sun rises in the East, into a darkened sky, described here as grey cheeks. The greyness suggests the cold of dawn, and the fleeting, disappearing blackness of night. Possibly also the pallidness of the beloved, but it is more likely that the metaphor is one of becomingness and the harmonious totality of dawn, rather than a direct comparison of the greyness of the woman’s face with the morning sky.7. Nor that full star that ushers in the even,that full star = Hesperus, or the evening star, (the planet Venus, which shines in the morning and evening, close to the sun). In the days before artificial lighting these celestial phenomena would be well known to everyone. Venus is often very prominent in the evening sky at sunset, shining like an exceedingly bright star. Although modern telescopes have shown that it is always a crescent, this would not have been apparent to Shakespeare and his contemporaries, who would only ever have seen it as a’ full star’.
that ushers in – OED 7.b. gives this example of ushers as meaning ‘to inaugurate or bring in (a period of time)’. However the word is clearly based on the noun, ‘usher’, recorded at a much earlier date, an official who stood at a doorway, or who conducted attendants and dignitaries in a court of law, or at certain civic functions. The metaphor here is of an usher, the evening star, who officiates at the going down of the sun. It introduces a tone of solemnity and hushed silence to the description.
the even = the evening.8. Doth half that glory to the sober west,Doth half that glory to = provides half the glory to, glorifies to even half the extent that (those two mourning eyes glorify your face).
sober = restrained, sombre, subdued.
5-8. – GBE finds these metaphors (morning sun, evening star, sober west etc.), so trite and threadbare that he suspects a parodic intent. I think that that is too harsh a judgement, and there is beauty in the lines despite the relative familiarity of the metaphors. They are only hackneyed if one is often coming across them, which is not likely to be the case. Others think that the metaphors are unflattering and suggest that his mistress is ugly, apart from her eyes. Inevitably any comment on such matters is subjective and not factual, but on a personal note I find them more exalting than demeaning to the image of her face. Who would not wish to be compared to the dawn light, or the bright star of evening, both of them harbingers of returning beauty?9. As those two mourning eyes become thy face:mourning – this is an emendation of Q’s morning, now generally accepted. In spelling the two words at the time were interchangeable.
become thy face = are suited to your face, are well and fittingly placed within your face.10. O! let it then as well beseem thy heartas well = in the same way (as your eyes seem to mourn for me)
beseem thy heart = be fitting for your heart, be appropriate that your heart should also.11. To mourn for me since mourning doth thee grace,since mourning doth thee grace = as the act of mourning adds grace and beauty to you,12. And suit thy pity like in every part.
‘Let not only your eyes, but every part of you be suitably garbed and behaved as if they too were pitying me’. The syntax of the line does however allow different interpretations. It could be taken with the previous line, with mourning being the subject of suit. ‘And the mourning you now show is appropriate (doth suit) to the pity which every part of you seems now to have adopted’. Probably the word suit hints also at soot, ‘to blacken’, as in:
Her eyes so suited, and they mourners seem, 127.13. Then will I swear beauty herself is black,Then will I = if you do these things, i.e. mourn me in your heart as well as with your eyes, and pity me (by letting me have sex with you?), then I will etc.
swear – but perhaps the swearing will be with such sarcanet surety oaths as carry no weight. (See the note to line 5 above).
beauty herself = the very essence of beauty, beauty in the abstract, ideal beauty, the goddess Beauty.
black = dark coloured, brunette, sun-tanned, morally debased, wicked. The word could have all of these meanings. As a pure description of colour Shakespeare in the sonnets applies it to night and to ink. As a description of complexion it is used of his mistress here and in other sonnets, usually with the implication that her moral complexion is also under consideration. Cleopatra uses it of her own facial and skin colour:
……………………………………………..Think on me
That am with Phoebus amorous pinches black
And wrinkled deep in time. AC.I.5.27-9.
The fashion for sun-bathing was unknown in Elizabethan times and high class women would avoid getting a sun tan, as it was too suggestive of peasant toil, a hard open air life, and poverty. Keeping a milk white skin was a much more desirable ideal.14. And all they foul that thy complexion lack.And all they foul = and all those other beauties (who are fair, i.e. blonde) are foul (dark, morally suspect, wicked).
that thy complexion lack = who are not coloured like you. complexion also referred to the moral and physical constitution of a person. OED 1-3. Here the prime meaning seems to be that of facial colour, which is apparently dark. How dark it is impossible to say, since the words black and foul are used with moral connotations, as well as physical ones, and in the previous sonnet he declares,
In nothing art thou black save in thy deeds,
which, taken literally, implies that her facial complexion is not black at all.