Sonnet 130 — a Venomous and Treasonous Blast at Queen Elizabeth, the Dark Lady

Sonnet 130 within SHAKE-SPEARES SONNETS of 1609 presents a tangible link to Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, adding more evidence that the tyrannical and deceitful Dark Lady is none other than Elizabeth the First of England.

An allegorical portrait of Elizabeth I painted after 1620

An allegorical portrait of Elizabeth I painted after 1620

The story of Sonnet 130 begins in 1582, when Oxford was in banishment from court and trying to regain her favor.  That year Thomas Watson published Hekatompathia, or the Passionate Century of Love, a sequence of 100 consecutively numbered eighteen-line sonnets.  He dedicated this work to Oxford, his patron, thanking him for “perusing” the work in manuscript and giving it his blessing.  Some Oxfordians suggest it was the earl himself who crafted the “prose headers” explaining the poems; others speculate that he wrote the entire work.  Whatever the case, Oxford was deeply involved in Watson’s sonnet sequence and took a personal interest in its contents and publication.

And while Oxford used court plays of the 1580s attributed to his secretary John Lyly as a way of flattering the Queen, it appears he was using the Watson-attributed poems for the same reason; for example, Sonnet 7 of the 1582 series is obviously directed at Elizabeth, its opening line referring to “what saint I serve” – that is, the “divinely anointed” female monarch whose loyal subjects “serve” her with devotion.  As Oxford wrote to his father-in-law Burghley two years later, “I serve Her Majesty…”

Passionate Century’s Sonnet 7 amounts to a gorgeous rendering of effusive tributes to Elizabeth:

Hark you that list to hear what saint I serve:

Her yellow locks exceed the beaten gold;

Her sparkling eyes in heav’n a place deserve;

Her forehead high and fair of comely mold;

Her words are music all of silver sound;

Her wit so sharp as like can scarce be found;

Each eyebrow hangs like Iris in the skies;

Her Eagle’s nose is straight of stately frame;

On either cheek a Rose and Lily lies…

One of the Queen’s mottos was Rose without a Thorn; and, for example, Archbishop Cranmer in Henry VIII (5.5) predicts that the infant Elizabeth will be “a most unspotted lily” in later life.  Her grandfather, Henry VII, had created the House of Tudor by combining the red and white roses of Lancaster and York: “The red rose and the white are on his face, the fatal colors of our striving houses” — (Henry VI, 2.6.97-98); and this red-and-white Tudor theme is blatant in the 1582 sonnet as it now proceeds:

Her breath is sweet perfume, or holy flame;

Her lips more red than any Coral stone;

Her neck more white than aged Swans that moan;

Her breast transparent is, like Crystal rock;

Her fingers long, fit for Apollo’s Lute;

Her slipper such as Momus dare not mock;

Her virtues all so great as make me mute:

What other parts she hath I need not say,

Whose face alone is cause of my decay.

After twenty-six months Elizabeth finally lifted Oxford’s banishment, in early June 1583, when Roger Manners reported that de Vere “came to her presence, and after some bitter words and speeches, in the end all sins are forgiven, and he may repair to the Court at his pleasure.”  (For him to engage in “bitter words and speeches” with this supremely vain monarch, he must have felt mighty close to her!)

Now we jump nearly two decades ahead, to the weeks following the failed Essex Rebellion of 8 February 1601, when Elizabeth was holding Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton in the Tower of London to await his execution for high treason; and Oxford must have believed that Southampton was about to follow Essex to the chopping block.

As demonstrated in The Monument, the so-called Dark Lady series (Sonnets 127-152) corresponds to the period of Southampton’s imprisonment up to the Queen’s death on 24 March 1603.  Here he expresses his fury at Elizabeth, for not (yet) commuting Wriothesley’s death sentence; and in Sonnet 130 of the 1609 quarto Oxford completely reverses Watson’s sonnet number 7.

[It is doubtful, though not impossible, that Oxford circulated a single one of the Dark Lady sonnets to anyone, much less to the aged Queen.   All sonnets related to 1601-03 are part of Oxford’s “monument” for “eyes not yet created” (81) in posterity, a monument to contain “the living record” (55) of Southampton, i.e. his true history, which otherwise was being obliterated.]

When placed together, the earlier lines of 1582 and the later lines of 1601 are akin to a bold “rhyming match” between the worshipful earlier voice and the seething, vicious, even treasonous later voice:

1582: “Her sparkling eyes in heaven a place deserve”

1601: “My Mistress’ eyes are nothing like the Sunne”

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1582: “Her lips more red than any Coral stone”

1601: “Coral is far more red than her lips’ red”

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1582: “Her neck more white than aged Swans that moan … Her breast transparent is, like Crystal rock”

1601: “If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun”

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1582: “Her yellow locks exceed the beaten gold”

1601: “If hair be wires, black wires grow on her head”

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1582: “On either cheek a Rose and Lily lies”

1601: “I have seen Roses damasked, red and white,/ But no such Roses see I in her cheeks”

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1582: “Her breath is sweet perfume, or holy flame”

1601: “And in some perfumes is there more delight/ Than in the breath that from my Mistress reeks”

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1582: “Her words are music all of silver sound”

1601: “I love to hear her speak, yet well I know/ That Music hath a far more pleasing sound”

///

Here is the full verse as by “Shake-speare” in the Dark Lady series, surely a reversal by Oxford of his own early feelings toward his sovereign:

Sonnet 130

My Mistress’ eyes are nothing like the Sunne

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.

///

[In the couplet above, he is stating that any comparison of “she” (the Queen) with the “rare” qualities of “my love” (Southampton) is false; that is, she can’t compare with him.]

POSTSCRIPT

A volume of thirty-eight sonnets about “Diella” (as distinguished from Samuel Daniels’ “Delia” sonnets), published in 1596 and thought to have been written by Richard Linche, contains three sonnets (numbers 3, 22 and 31) with similarities to Watson’s number 7 of Passionate Century of Love, 1582.  As Alexander Waugh has pointed out, Oxford must have seen that sonnet, too, and even drawn upon it for his reversal.

The list of Dark Lady references to date, compiled by sonnet number:

In the Fair Youth series:

1 – Sonnet 1: “Beauty’s Rose” – the Queen’s dynasty of the Tudor Rose

2 – Sonnet 2: “Proving his beauty by succession” — the succession to Elizabeth 

3 – Sonnet 19: “The Phoenix” – the Queen’s emblem

4 – Sonnet 25: “The Marigold” – the Queen’s flower

5 – Sonnet 76: “Ever the Same” – the Queen’s motto in English

6  – Sonnet 107: “the Mortal Moon” – Queen Elizabeth as Diana, the chaste moon goddess

7 – Sonnet 125: “Were’t Ought to Me I Bore the Canopy” – Elizabeth’s funeral

In the Dark Lady series:

8 – Sonnet 128: “Those Jacks that Nimble Leap” – recalling the Queen at her virginals

9 – Sonnet 130: “My Mistress’ eyes are nothing like the Sunne” – Oxford’s anger at her as Southampton faces execution

10 – Sonnet 131: “Commanded by the Motion of Thine Eyes” – to a monarch

11 – Sonnet 151: “I Rise and Fall” – the courtier as sexual slave to his Queen

12 – Sonnet 152: “Thy love, thy truth, thy constancy” – Echo of Oxford’s sonnet to Elizabeth

The Bath Epilogue:

13 – Sonnet 153: “Against Strange Maladies a Sovereign Cure” – the Queen’s touch

14 – Sonnet 154: “Sleeping by a Virgin Hand Disarmed” – the Virgin Queen

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