Friday 13 October 2017

Sonnet 130 Revised

* Taken from one of my English degree modules... an amalgam of personal grief, physical insecurities perpetuated by the beauty/fashion industry, as well as literature influences. In dedication to my mother (an excellent poet) on what would have been her 58th birthday today.

Sonnet 130 Revised

My eyes are nothing like the sun;
Poisonberry be the tone of my stained lips;
If tame be yearned, medusoid strands be found.
I am an oyster unshelled, pearl luminescent,
Yet no such effulgence you see in my soulless eyes.
Shell cracked, devil’s weed flows;
Mother’s dead, from cradle to grave I go,
I love to hear her whisper, yet well I know
That voice shall never grow into crescendo.
I grant you never a goddess go;
Well darling, your goddess tramples through grief and strife.
And yet, good heavens, you poke, prod, ridicule,
Unmindful, this dull diamond is a jewel.

In my revision of Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 130’ I was inspired to offer the female subject an active voice, disrupting the Petrarchan tradition of presenting the female as a disembodied object. Reclaiming the possession of ‘I’, my speaker overturns the analytical framework that ‘Sonnet 130’ upholds - one that fragments the female body and dissects it, enforcing that beauty is the most important female attribute. With its feminist overtones, ‘Sonnet 130 Revised’ is fearless; the speaker asserts her authority as she confronts the pressures to maintain a beautiful appearance for her lover and to appease society’s expectations in today’s age of oversaturated beauty industries and pressures from celebrity culture. The speaker feels neglected by her partner, one who selfishly ignores her period of grieving for her mother and fails to realise her right to satisfy her own emotional needs rather than his. Inspired by Harryette Mullen’s ‘Dim Lady’ and George Hopkins’ ‘I Wake and Feel’, ‘Sonnet 130 Revised’’s title is ironically clinical and uneventful but the content differs as it displays postmodern elements of poetic intertextuality, linguistic and semantic hybridity as well as unconventional gender roles.
The first line counteracts ‘my mistress’ eyes’ with ‘my eyes’ as the speaker uses the first-person and hints at her rising confidence.[1] The elimination of ‘mistress’’ brings the line to the final iamb before the readers expect and thus, a sense of the speaker’s control is asserted from the offset. Although the speaker complies with Shakespeare’s anti-blazon rhetoric, it is her who voices her inadequacies, and as a result, she refuses to allow a man to define her body. In addition, lines two and three were devised as a sub-commentary on the growing beauty industry and its overwhelming influence on women today. The pressures to maintain a perfect appearance have increased due to the continual intense marketing of makeup and hair products. An online search for the term ‘poisonberry’, for instance, brings up results consisting of a popular lipstick from American makeup line, ‘LimeCrime’ in the shade ‘poisonberry’, as opposed to the plant itself. In ‘Sonnet 130’, ‘red’ is used as the complimentary adjective for a woman’s lips and ‘coral’ describes the mistress’ actual lips. Despite this new comparison, I desired to reject ‘coral’ as I felt it was still too reminiscent of ‘red’. Red shades of lipstick often evoke images of old Hollywood starlets such as Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor, as well as modern actresses like Nicole Kidman who frequently play femme-fatale roles and perform for the male gaze. Therefore, the start of my sonnet is intended to be a postfeminist critique. In media and consumer culture postfeminism acknowledges the ‘“empowering” and the “individual choice” of women to enjoy their beauty, femininity, and sexuality; but the diffuse power of heterosexual male control is concealed’.[2] By opting for a dark berry shade, I am rejecting the classic shade of red associated with Hollywood actresses and the ‘heterosexual male control’ exerted on them, instead welcoming a more rich tone that sounds hazardous to the ear. Furthermore, the concept of poisonberry plants bearing fruits that are toxic can relate to the classical view of women as silent images. If the inedible berries are taken to allude to women’s closed mouths, my speaker’s lips are ‘stained’ from their bursting and subsequently, her metamorphosis of being silent to unapologetically expressive. Lines one to three also draw inspiration from the opening of ‘Sonnet 20’: ‘A woman’s face with Nature’s own hand painted Hast thou, the master-mistress of my passion’.[3] Here, Shakespeare praises a woman’s natural beauty as being superior to anything man-made. Linking to my postfeminist critique, I decided to embrace these lines in my sonnet and subvert the modern principle of a woman’s need to wear makeup to maintain decorum. My speaker is accepting of her flawed features due to the physical side effects of her grief: lack of sleep and excess crying. She embraces that her eyes do not reminisce the brightness of the ‘sun’ because though this is also an image of nature, it is not a realistic comparison. ‘Nature’s own hand painted’, on the other hand, accepts a woman’s face as imperfect because it is authentically beautiful and allows for an open definition of beauty, as opposed to one that relies on bright and beaming eyes.  
I accept that ‘Sonnet 130’ can be read progressively in its unconventional metaphors, yet I wished to tackle my doubts in ‘Sonnet 130 Revised’, particularly by developing the image of ‘black wires’. Instead, my speaker has ‘medusoid strands’ for hair. ‘Medusoid’ typically describes an object ‘resembling a medusa or jellyfish in form or function’.[4] Hence, my speaker’s hair is wavy and sprouts outwards unlike the tameness enforced in the beauty industry through the masses of anti-frizz products. She refuses to tame her hair and this is perhaps a commentary on the pressure for women, predominately in the Afro-Caribbean community, to permanently relax or straighten theirs. In relation, I simultaneously embedded ‘medusoid’ because it etymologically alludes to the Greek goddess Medusa (‘Etymology: < Medusa n. 2 + -oid suffix’), known for her wild snakes as hair and ability to turn people to stone.[5] Invoking the image of Medusa adds a sense of exoticness to my speaker and further retreats from the idyllic white as ‘snow’ woman. By using ‘medusoid’, I am opening the possibility of an ethnic speaker, perhaps of brown or black skin, and this new racial profile radicalises the sonnet by reversing the Petrarchan-esque blazon exclusively intended for white women. It is also significant that ‘Medusa stands for balance within nature, and guards the thresholds of the earth, heaven, and the underworld. Her totem is the serpent, as it represents the endless cycle of death and rebirth’.[6] Although my speaker grapples with the death of her mother, she, like Medusa, can also embrace life by re-balancing nature and in this instance, she symbolises the rebirth of beauty standards and female subjectivity.
The following quatrain introduces the grief that the speaker is undergoing. By firstly declaring that she is an ‘oyster unshelled’, she is attempting to expose her vulnerability as oysters have externally tough matters but soft, squishy insides. I acknowledge that the correct term for removing an oyster’s shell is ‘shucked’. However, I decided to use ‘unshelled’ as it was softer in tone and the prefix, ‘un’ helps to emphasise the gentleness of ‘pearl luminescent’. Noticeably, I have not paralleled the third line in ‘Sonnet 130’ (‘If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun’). In removing the ‘breasts’ from the sonnet, I am allowing the speaker to reclaim her bodily autonomy and prevent a man from obsessing over her intimate areas. Using Renaissance logic, the grotesque body is ‘not separated from the world by clearly defined boundaries’, and we can consider the open body parts such as the ‘mouth, the genital organs, the breasts, the phallus, the potbelly, the nose’ to be grotesque.[7] In opposition, the classical body is demarcated by the mind and human intelligence. The juxtaposition between the spatial realms of the grotesque and classical is also clear: ‘the grotesque body’s favoured space is the marketplace where it can […] speak the language of festive obscenity and abuse’, whereas the classical body is governed by the likes of ‘palaces, churches, institutions, and private homes’.[8] Resisting Renaissance ideals, my sonnet strips the grotesqueness away from the female body and shifts the focus towards the classical body, whereby the speaker desires to be recognised for her mind and emotions rather than her external features. Linking to lines one to three and its commentary on capitalist beauty ideals, I am disallowing the speaker to fall into the trap of the grotesque body in the ‘marketplace’, which in modern society, I equate to mean the media industry’s standards. I am emphasising the speaker’s classical body but departing from the Renaissance idea of it being governed by the likes of ‘private homes’; I am shifting the classical body from the private to public sphere, in the open space of a sonnet where the speaker can write about her emotions with pride unobstructed by institutional or patriarchal boundaries.
I also associate lines four to seven with a religious context. I was inspired by how George Hopkins’ successfully ‘instresses’ his experience with God through his darker sonnets. In other words, Hopkins encapsulates his feelings and vividly projects them in his poetry for the readers to empathise. In particular, I was inspired by ‘I Wake and Feel’, especially its striking trope of ‘dead letters’, whereby the speaker feels neglected by God as his prayers are not acknowledged.[9] Lines four and five of ‘Sonnet 130 Revised’ are a direct response to God as the frustrated speaker receives no comfort in praying. As my speaker resonates with Hopkins’ spiritual dissatisfaction, the following two lines are directly inspired by his distinctive sound patterning (‘Bones built in me, flesh filled, blood brimmed the curse’).[10] Every word is monosyllabic and represents a fragmented, state of mind and broken spirit, as though the speaker is lifeless and loses the energy to speak. In relation to the fourth line, ‘shell cracked’ parallels with ‘unshelled’. Phonetically, ‘unshelled’ is rather euphonic due to the rolling double ‘l’ sound and the iambic stresses. In contrast, ‘cracked’ is cacophonic and harsh to the ear, representing a drastic change in the speaker’s internal state. The speaker hibernates into her shell again because of her rejection from God and/or her lover, yet the shell is now partly exposed, allowing the ‘devil’s weed’ to flow. ‘Devil’s weed’ is slang for the plant ‘datura’: ‘a preparation of any of these plants (esp. of D. stramonium), used as a poison or an intoxicating or hallucinogenic drug’.[11] As an intense strain of marijuana, ‘devil’s weed’ operates as a trance-inducing painkiller for my speaker, numbing her emotions. However, on a figurative level, the phrase indicates that the speaker’s retreat from God has left her vulnerable to the influences of the Devil, paralleling the hellish imagery of Hopkins (‘I am heartburn’/ ‘sweating selves’).[12] Following this line, ‘Mother’s dead’ is hard-hitting and somewhat disturbing as it catches the readers off guard. Here, the speaker transgresses the initial stage of grief (denial) allowing the readers insight into her trauma. ‘From cradle to grave I go’ is, therefore, emblematic of the speaker’s depression and pessimistic outlook as she begins to have suicidal thoughts. The specific choice of ‘cradle’ represents the burdensome lack of the maternal, perhaps personified most vividly through the removal of the breast from this sonnet. Like Hopkins, religion provides little reassurance for my speaker, and consequently, she too writes the sonnet to archive her trauma, usurping the sonnet as a public diary entry to prevent her emotions from becoming obliterated.
Predominately, ‘Sonnet 130 Revised’ embraces new linguistic and semantic choices in order to push the boundaries of gender roles. In particular, my integration of ‘goddess’ extends beyond Shakespeare’s appreciation for his mistress. A ‘sex goddess’, for example, is ‘a woman who is exceptionally sexually attractive or is regarded as a sex symbol’.[13] Despite her lover’s resistance in viewing her as a goddess of any kind, she defiantly asserts her identity as one in line twelve (‘your goddess’). In unison, there is also a heavy tone of sarcasm that could indicate a direct confrontation with Shakespeare and his disembodying of women, hence explaining the need to foreground her complex life issues (‘grief and strife’). ‘Goddess’ is fluid in its meanings yet ‘tramples’ was chosen specifically to draw inspiration from BDSM culture. In particular, I was inspired by the final lines of the ‘Dim Lady’ sonnet: ‘My ball and chain is plain from head to toe. And yet, by gosh, my scrumptious Twinkie has as much sex appeal for me as any lanky model or platinum movie idol who’s hyped beyond belief’.[14] Here, the ‘ball and chain’ likely refer to the props used in fetishistic bondage acts. The speaker is willingly dominated by his lover and accepts her as his sex goddess, despite her curvier size (‘Twinkie’). In my sonnet, the lover is imagined to show reluctance in being submissive but the speaker nevertheless assumes the role of a dominatrix. ‘Grief’ and ‘strife’ contain fricative ‘f’ sounds and this harshness on the tongue lends to an image of the speaker venomously shouting at her lover, perhaps humiliatingly spitting on him as she does so. Jeff Hilson comments on the traditional sonnet form as ‘a room, another male constraint fantasy’ and a ‘form of incarceration’.[15] Hilson’s intense wording encouraged me to equate my sonnet to a cramped room where the speaker’s lover has no choice but to remain, forced to listen to her wounded self. In my version, there is a sadistic tone conveyed in the final quatrain that I embedded in honour of Hilson who feels frustrated with the sonnet’s historical inadequacy in representing the female voice. In my scenario, however, the lover holds a mere fantasy of gaining back the big ‘I’ but is instead humiliated. ‘You poke, prod, ridicule’ is a comment on the speaker’s mistreatment, but I also envision her sadistically poking and prodding at her lover as she speaks. Just as earlier parts of the sonnet make reference to contemporary culture, I wanted to reflect the recent popularity of works such as Fifty Shades of Grey and Rihanna’s ‘SNM’ music video, which have promoted BDSM culture to the masses, and I would argue, normalised the openness of female sexuality. This newfound empowerment is entirely progressive as it repels against female oppression, as was once seen in Shakespeare’s era. In my sonnet, therefore, I am de-Othering the woman and showcasing her multifaceted nature: she can be emotional, vulnerable, dominant and erotic as a sex goddess but these traits are not mutually exclusive.
By simultaneously embracing and rejecting vital sonnet traditions, I have consciously oscillated between the reader’s expectations and reality. I have purposely embraced an abundance of punctuation with the many commas and semicolons to create an illusion of formality and to visually replicate the artificial style of ‘Sonnet 130’. The excess punctuation may appear contradictory to my goal in radicalising the sonnet form (especially as it counters the likes of ‘Dim Lady’ and its prose-style) but it ironically works to support my sonnet’s theme of distorted beauty. Furthermore, because the readers would likely expect me to finish the sonnet without resorting to traditional iambic pentameter, I decided to conform and ironically play on the tidy, epigrammatic endings that Shakespearean sonnets provide us, which seemingly undo the complexities set up beforehand. ‘Sonnet 130’’s couplet sees the speaker realising his true affections for his lover, despite all the shortcomings he has outlined. ‘False compare’ is an extravagant trope that sounds ethereal and pleasing, yet to modern readers I feel that it is archaic and surrealist. Unlike this dramatic atmosphere, lines eleven and twelve foreground the speaker’s rising self-worth that is set up in the prior three lines, hence the couplet is not intended to shock the reader in any way. ‘Sonnet 130 Revised’ refrains from a clear division between octave and sestet as there is no volta to be found in the eight line, rather it is explored in the tenth as the tone turns authoritative and sarcastic. The volta is withheld a further two lines to allow the speaker her time to grieve. In the Hopkins-esque lines, the readers are transfixed by the depressive tone and the building anticipation for the speaker’s empowerment is destroyed. Disappointed, the readers are startled by the sudden boldness in attitude, and because this has been strategically withheld, it furthers the impact when I finally gift them with vicarious pleasure. To compensate for deceiving the readers, the final line ends in a declarative fashion (‘is a jewel’) and the iambic pentameter stresses the noun ‘jewel’ and underlines it as the speaker’s newfound identity. Furthermore, the line is end-stopped to assure the reader that this definition of the speaker cannot be reversed or undone - it is eternally affixed within the sonnet.
‘Sonnet 130 Revised’ is a refreshingly experimental sonnet that boldly confronts issues of self-worth, emotional abuse, and grief. I have grappled with a constrained form and attempted to break free from Shakespeare’s conventions with my postfeminist messages, yet I also demonstrate some appreciation of the original form as I retain the rhyming couplet, excessive punctuation, and certain lexical choices. Ultimately, ‘Sonnet 130 Revised’ is a partly biographical piece; I have attempted to ‘instress’ my feelings of hurt and anguish, as well as the burning desire to conquer my grief and retaliate against ideas that the externalisation of emotions equates to weakness. My sonnet explicates that a woman should never feel pressured to appear as a doll-like figure for the male gaze, especially whilst battling an emotionally traumatic period. The embedding of grief into my sonnet may appear ambiguous, but it essentially works to stress the nonsensical nature of society’s endless expectations of women. My poem is the antagonist to ‘Sonnet 130’, defying its disembodiment of women, and my aim in writing it was to follow in the footsteps of the new-wave female poets (e.g. Mullen) that do the unthinkable and rewrite one of the most masculinised high-art forms ever created - the sonnet.  

[1] William Shakespeare, ‘Sonnet 130’ in The Penguin Book of the Sonnet, ed. by Phillis Levin (London: Penguin, 2001), p. 34.
[2] Meeta Jha, The Global Beauty Industry: Colorism, Racism, and the National Body (London: Routledge, 2015), p. 102.
[3] Shakespeare, ‘Sonnet 20’, The Penguin Book of the Sonnet, p. 27.
[4] ‘Medusoid, a.’, OED,  <> [accessed 8 January 2017].
[5] ‘Medusoid, a.’, OED.
[6] Brandi Auset, The Goddess Guide: Exploring the Attributes and Correspondences of the Divine Feminine (Minnesota: Llewellyn Worldwide, 2009), p. 54.
[7] Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. by Richard Nice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), p. 26.
[8] Bakhtin, p. 154.
[9] Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘I Wake and Feel the Fell of Dark, Not Day’, The Penguin Book of the Sonnet, p. 96.
[10] Hopkins, ‘I Wake and Feel’.
[11] ‘Datura, n.’, OED, <> [accessed 8 January 2017].
[12] Hopkins, ‘I Wake and Feel’.
[13] ‘Sex goddess, n.’, OED, <> [accessed 8 January 2017].
[14] Harryette Mullen, ‘Dim Lady’ in The Sonnets: Translating and Rewriting Shakespeare, ed. by Sharmila Cohen and Paul Legault (New York: Nightboat/Telephone Books, 2012), p. 204.
[15] Jeff Hilson, The Reality Street Book of Sonnets (Hastings: Reality Street Editions, 2008), p. 12.