The Strange Volta in “My Mistress’s Eyes”

17 07 2022

So, I’m having a blast reading Reading Poetry: An Introduction, by Tom Furniss and Michael Bath. It’s just a darn solid introduction to poetry, AND it really foregrounds the volta. I plan to write about this book’s treatment of the volta more in another post, but for now, I’ll just note that its chapter on the sonnet begins with a section called “The Sonnet as Fixed Form” and then the next section turns to highlighting the volta–the second section is called “Finding the Volta: Form and Meaning,” and it begins, “If things were this simple, we could end this chapter here. Needless to say, they are not” (282–I’m citing the first edition, from 1996). And, so, yet again, there’s another example of the structure/form distinction, with structural turning coming out on top!

I’m going to forgo this discussion, though–again, for now–for another one, one focused on the turning of one sonnet: Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 (“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”). This is the first sonnet discussed in the “Finding the Volta” section, and it turns out that Furniss and Bath have what I consider to be a fairly unique take on sonnet’s turning, and I want to think a little about it here, sharing some ideas of my own that I think are distinctive, as well–at least, I don’t recall this being talked about in regard to this particular sonnet.

So, Furniss and Bath define the sonnet as “a short poem in iambic pentameters, fourteen lines long, which can often be divided into two parts known as the ‘octave’, the first eight lines, and the ‘sestet’, the last six” (281). And this definition is important: even though one might be used to hearing about how the Italian/Petrarchan sonnet turns after the octave while the English/Shakespearean sonnet turns after line twelve, heading into the final couplet, for Furniss and Bath, the place to look for a sonnet’s major turn really is after the octave, whether the sonnet one is reading is Italian or English.

This leads to a fascinating reading of Sonnet 130. Here’s what Furniss and Bath have to say about the poem:

Our statement that the volta is “delayed” in this sonnet certainly begs the question of how one chooses to apply the Italian term to the English sonnet. The volta is “delayed” only if the reader expects it to come at the end of line eight. If the expected place for a volta in such English sonnets is the end of line twelve, then clearly this sonnet meets those expectations. It is probably important at this point to recall what we said in [a previous chapter] about genre conventions being a matter of reader’s expectations. One advantage of thinking that the volta is delayed in this Shakespearian sonnet, however, results from the fact that this sonnet’s rhetorical strategy depends so heavily on keeping the reader guessing. This is a sonnet that plays games with conventional expectations about the subject matter for sonnets. Love sonnets normally praise the mistress, but this one does so through what we might call negative comparison….The longer Shakespeare can keep up this game before turning the whole poem round into a conventional–if paradoxical–compliment the better. For that reason it probably makes it more effective if the reader expects some kind of about-turn after line eight, only to find it delayed to line thirteen (which begins with the turning phrase “and yet”). (283)

Essentially, Furniss and Bath understand the volta in Sonnet 130 to be similar to the “strange voltas” I discuss here. I’d never really thought of this before–I was just another reader who expected the turn right before the final couplet. And because of this understanding, and the expectation aligned with it, I’d never given Sonnet 130’s turning a second thought. However, prompted by the thinking of Furniss and Bath, I now see something in the sonnet’s non-turning that I’d not seen before.

According to Furniss and Bath, we should expect a turn at line 9, but we don’t get it. They state that “it probably makes it more effective if the reader expects some kind of about-turn after line eight.” The initial “it” in that sentence refers to the expectation of a turn at the end of the octave. However, I want to argue that I think it’s more than just the expectation of genre that makes us think this in the case of Sonnet 130: the poem itself contributes to this expectation, as well.

The beginning of line 9 in Sonnet 130 gets so close to a turn. Line 9 contains the poem’s first declaration of love: “I love to hear her speak.” This is so nearly approaches a turn–as in: those earlier lines acknowledged some of the problems with my mistress, but now here comes the turn that will clarify what I love. That is, one could easily imagine this line going on to fully enact the turn, saying something like “I love to hear her speak, though…” and then going on to describe the mistress’s way with words, her wit, which of course, would reveal her true charm, her deep loveliness.

Additionally, it’s not at all coincidental that the love is articulated as being aligned with the mistress’s speaking. The speaking itself is significant, as well. Poems, of course, are privileged moments of speaking, or perhaps voicing. However, it also is the case that poems often also aim to arrive at privileged speech. So very many poems end with acts of saying. Consider Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella 1 (“Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show”) and 71 (“Who will in fairest book of nature know”), and George Herbert’s “Redemption” and “The Collar,” and so many others–so many that it’s relatively easy to imagine that Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 really is playing with this structural feature at the beginning of its ninth line, where certainly at least the strong possibility of a turn is evoked…only to be denied by the actual turn of the line, “yet well I know,” which reins in the hinted-at turning and brings the sonnet back into its pattern of denying the mistress’s attractions, and thus–for those expecting bigger turns at line 9–delaying the poem’s major turn.

In short, though they don’t indicate it directly, Furniss and Bath have helped me see and appreciate the playful tease that takes place in Sonnet 130’s ninth line, in which a turn is tantalizingly held out–only to be taken back. And seeing this ends up helping me to more fully agree with Furniss and Bath: the reader of Sonnet 130 really is kept guessing; a game really is taking place; expectations really are being toyed with. I like this more lively interpretation of this sonnet–especially how it offers me new insight into a poem I thought I’d already known very well.

Again, I acknowledge that what I think are some new thoughts may already have been thought about by scholars who have explored Sonnet 130. I need to do some research to see if others have already had this idea. They may have. Lots of very smart people have looked very closely at this sonnet. However, on the other hand, the dynamics of turning do tend to be neglected–even I missed this one, and I love turns! So, we shall see– If you have any leads about interpretations of this sonnet that I should read, let me know in the comments. Then check out Reading Poetry–a really fine introduction to the art of closely engaging verse!


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22 07 2022
Reading Poetry, and Finding the Volta | Structure & Surprise

[…] and 29 (“When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes”). As I’ve already discussed in a previous post the incredibly interesting discussion of the strange volta in Sonnet 130, I’ll leap to their […]

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