Shakespeare Sonnet 20: "A woman’s face with Nature’s own hand painted"
Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford
Sonnet 20 belongs to the group of sonnets that scholars have incorrectly designated as the “young man” poems. However, the scholars have also conceded that their classifications are not ironclad.
And as readers experience these sonnets, they come to realize that there is, indeed, no young man nor any person at all in these sonnets.
Clearly, sonnets 1-17 can accurately be designated at the “Marriage Sonnets,” in which the speaker is urging a young man to marry and produce offspring to ensure his legacy, but sonnets 18-126, as these commentaries will reveal, do not portray the kind of relationship that some scholars have claimed for them.
In Sonnet 20, the speaker is not addressing a person, but his poetry as he often does in this group of sonnets 18-126.
First Quatrain: "A woman’s face with Nature’s own hand painted"
In the first quatrain, the speaker tells the sonnet that it has the grace of a woman’s countenance without the fickleness. The sonnet is the “master-mistress” of the poet’s “passion.”
Thus, the speaker likens the poem to a woman companion, but he finds the poem an even more satisfying companion because the poem’s face is naturally painted with nature and not cosmetics as a human woman would be.
Also, the sonnet will remain steadfast because it is “not acquainted / With shifting change, as is false women’s fashion.” Fortunately, the poem does have a “woman’s gentle heart,” metaphorically speaking, of course!
Second Quatrain: "An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling"
In the second quatrain, the speaker continues to compare the attributes of the poem to those of a woman. He finds a woman to have bright eyes, but the poem’s eyes are even brighter and “less false in rolling.”
And what the poem gazes upon becomes gilded: it saves for future generations the subject that is placed into it. And like a painter who controls the colors that he uses with his brushes, the poem “steals men’s eyes and women’s souls” because of the poet's amazing skill at capturing the momentous drama as it occurs.
Third Quatrain: "And for a woman wert thou first created"
The speaker says that the poem was first created for a woman; he is, no doubt, speaking of the origin of the Petrarchan sonnets that were designed to place women on pedestals, to celebrate the love of romantic partners when it was mostly the man who was idealizing the woman.
But then along comes this particular speaker by the grace of nature who realizes that such unreality causes the art form to fall; its “doting” became too fantastic to be useful.
The speaker with his new understanding of realism is defeating that outmoded purpose. The old way of mere idolization is not the present speaker’s purpose.
This speaker/poet wants to make rime that truly represents the nature of the subject he chooses to immortalize. And he praises the sonnet as such a practical and useful vehicle.
The Couplet: "But since she prick’d thee out for women’s pleasure"
Still the speaker recognizes the feminine attraction to poetry and has no wish to change that fact.
The speaker however will devote his talent and skill and love of his art to make the sonnets a useful form that will hold love as “their treasure.”
Reading Sonnet 20
© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes