William Shakespeare 1609
When Thomas Thorpe published Shakespeare’s sequence of 154 sonnets in 1609, he did not organize the poems into divisions. Many Shakespearean critics, however, have recognized patterns or groups within the sequence. The first seventeen sonnets, for example, seem to be addressed to a young man, urging him to marry and have children; “Sonnet 18” marks a change in theme from that of immortality by means of procreation, to immortality through verse. A lesser poet might have been content supplying the expected affirmative response to the opening question. This speaker, however, answers in the negative; and in his explanation of why his beloved young friend should not be compared to a summer’s day, manages to compliment not only the sonnet’s recipient, but every reader, as well as himself as sonnetteer. The object of the speaker’s affection will not blossom and shine for a mere 24 hours, but forever—or at least as long as this sonnet continues to be read.
Shakespeare was born in Statford-upon-Avon on or about April 23, 1564. His father was a merchant who devoted himself to public service, attaining the highest of Stratford’s municipal positions—that of bailiff and justice of the peace—by 1568. Biographers have surmised that the elder Shakespeare’s
social standing and relative prosperity at this time would have enabled his son to attend the finest local grammar school, the King’s New School, where he would have received an outstanding classical education under the direction of highly regarded masters. There is no evidence that Shakespeare attended university. In 1582, at the age of eighteen, he married Ann Hathaway of Stratford, a woman eight years his senior. Their first child, Susanna, was born six months later, followed by twins, Hamnet and Judith, in 1585. These early years of Shakespeare’s adult life are not well documented; some time after the birth of his twins, he joined a professional acting company and made his way to London, where his first plays, the three parts of the Henry VI history cycle, were presented in 1589-91. The first reference to Shakespeare in the London literary world dates from 1592, when dramatist Robert Greene alluded to him as “an upstart crow.” Shakespeare further established himself as a professional actor and playwright when he joined the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, an acting company formed in 1594 under the patronage of Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon. The members of this company included the renowned tragedian Richard Burbage and the famous “clown” Will Kempe, who was one of the most popular actors of his time. This group began performing at the playhouse known simply as the Theatre and at the Cross Keys Inn, moving to the Swan Theatre on Bankside in 1596 when municipal authorities banned the public presentation of plays within the limits of the City of London. Three years later Shakespeare and other members of the company financed the building of the Globe Theatre, the most famous of all Elizabethan playhouses. By then the foremost London Company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men also performed at Court on numerous occasions, their success largely due to the fact that Shakespeare wrote for no other company.
In 1603 King James I granted the group a royal patent, and the company’s name was altered to reflect the King’s direct patronage. Records indicate that the King’s Men remained the most favored acting company in the Jacobean era, averaging a dozen performances at Court each year during the period. In addition to public performances at the Globe Theatre, the King’s Men played at the private Blackfriars Theatre; many of Shakespeare’s late plays were first staged at Blackfriars, where the intimate setting facilitated Shakespeare’s use of increasingly sophisticated stage techniques. The playwright profited handsomely from his long career in the theater and invested in real estate, purchasing properties in both Stratford and London. As early as 1596 he had attained sufficient status to be granted a coat of arms and the accompanying right to call himself a gentleman. By 1610, with his fortune made and his reputation as the leading English dramatist unchallenged, Shakespeare appears to have retired to Stratford, though business interests brought him to London on occasion. He died on April 23, 1616. and was buried in the chancel of Trinity Church in Stratford.
Shall I compare thee to a Summer’ s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And Summer’ s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’ s changing course untrimmed:
But thy eternal Summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’ st;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’ st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’ st:
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
Poetic tradition and basic etiquette dictate that the only acceptable answer to this question is “yes.” But the speaker refuses to answer this cliched request with more cliches; instead, he surprises the reader with an unconventional—yet still flattering—response. More of this playful handling of standard, overused compliments can be observed in Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 130.”
The speaker now begins to explain why he will not make the comparison suggested in line 1. The poem’s recipient is not only more attractive, but less vulnerable to extremes, than is a typical summer’s day. The speaker’s use of the word “temperate,” spoken in three syllables, is significant, because he will continue to praise the qualities of endurance and constancy, over those of change.
Lines 3 through 8 each contain a reason why summer is not the basis for a desirable simile. Early summer storms bring cruel gray days, and the rest of the season seems to pass in haste—especially in England, Shakespeare’s homeland.
Here the eye of heaven refers to the sun. The sunshine of summer days is greatly variable and unpredictable. Sometimes it comes on too strongly, and other days it(or “he,” as Shakespeare prefers) is obscured by clouds. The beauty of the sun’s face is thus not to be enjoyed every day, as is the attractiveness of the person addressed in the sonnet.
The idea of summer’s brevity and mutability is reinforced by the speaker’s use of a sequence of words suggesting the passing of a day: “shines” (line 5), “dimmed” (line 6), “declines” (line 7), “fade” (line 9). In other words, a summer day can begin and end as quickly as a sonnet.
There are two levels of meaning here, thanks to the play on the word “untrimmed”: age or accident can destroy the balance of sails on a sailboat, just as it can take away the attractiveness of a beautiful youth. In either case, “the wind is taken out of one’s sails,” as the old saying goes. Shakespeare’s artistry can be seen in his continuation of his sun-based metaphor with “declines,” even as a new figure of speech is developed.
- There are several audio recordings of readings of Shakespeare’s sonnets, including Sonnets of Shakespeare, by Spoken Arts, Inc.; Living Literature: The Sonnets of Shakespeare, by Crown Publishers, Inc.; and Shakespeare: The Sonnets, by Argo Records.
- Shakespeare’s Sonnets is a Films for the Humanities & Sciences video featuring an in-depth look at the poems and recitals of selected sonnets by such actors as Ben Kingsley and Claire Bloom.
The beginning of the third quatrain marks a change: now the sonnet’s subject, not summer, becomes the focus of the speaker’s description, which promises eternal beauty and youth through the existence of this verse. The subject of the sonnet “owns” and thus controls their attractive qualities and will never have to “own them up,” as summer must forfeit its beauty to autumn.
Death(in other words, the personification of that condition, often portrayed as a skeleton in a dark robe) will not be able to claim the sonnet’s recipient when he sees that the mortal has gained immortality through the lines of this sonnet. “Shade” is not only the darkness that is associated with the state of death, but the “valley of the shadow of death,” as described in the Bible’s 23rd Psalm, or the underworld of classical mythology.
“This” in line 14 seems ambiguous, but probably refers to “Sonnet 18” itself(i.e., the “eternal lines” of line 12). The final couplet thus includes a subtle twist on the speaker’s praise of his beloved: the life of the subject will be an endless summer, but only because the speaker has immortalized them in this poem, and only if people continue to read these verses.
Topics for Further Study
- Write a sonnet that, like this one, compares someone you know to an object. Use an object that is usually well thought of, and make the person sound even better than it in the comparison.
- Identify what “this” refers to in the last line, and how it relates to a summer’s day.
Although it is likely that Shakespeare himself did not arrange his 154 sonnets into groups, critics have come to recognize patterns or stages of their sequence. They have noticed, for example, that one dominant theme in Sonnets 1-17 is immortality through procreation. In the first seventeen sonnets a young man is urged to marry and have children. This is a very conventional theme for Elizabethan sonnets, but in “Sonnet 18,” Shakespeare advocates seeking immortality through poetry rather than through procreation: he wants to immortalize the object of his affection by creating a work of art that will last forever.
“Sonnet 18” is structured as an argumentative monologue delivered in response to the question—“Shall I compare thee to a Summer’s day?”—posed in the first line. The speaker answers the question in the negative, suggesting that the object of his affection is “more lovely and more temperate” than a mere summer’s day. Though summer days are pleasant, they are neither perfect nor everlasting. Their finiteness and propensity for bad weather make them, the speaker argues, a poor comparison with the object of his affection.
In the third quatrain(four-line stanza) the speaker refers to the object of his affection as an “eternal summer,” whose loveliness and temperance are obviously more enduring than a summer’s day. The “eternal lines” mentioned in line twelve, then, not only refer to the poetic lines of the sonnet, but also to the shape and beauty of the beloved. In the sonnet’s couplet(pair of rhyming lines that concludes the poem), the speaker contends that because poetry is immortal, so, too, can his beloved’s beauty remain immortal when preserved in verse: “So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, / So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.”
In “Sonnet 18” Shakespeare closely relates the theme of beauty with the theme of immortality. The speaker’s main contention, for example, explaining why the object of his affection is not comparable to a summer’s day, revolves around the idea that his beloved is indeed everlastingly beautiful: “Thou art more lovely and temperate: ... / So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, / So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.” Comparing both the love the speaker feels, and the eternal beauty that his love possesses to a summer’s day, then, is simply inadequate.
In the last two lines of the second quatrain, the speaker maintains that in the physical world, nature dictates that everything, even beauty, slowly decays. In the third quatrain, however, the speaker stops comparing his love with a summer’s day, and instead describes the extent of his beloved’s beauty: “But thy eternal Summer shall not fade / Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st; / Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade....” The speaker asserts that his beloved possesses a beauty so deep and enduring that it cannot be adversely affected by time and age. This beauty can even conquer death as long as there are people to read the lines of this poem.
The sonnet (from the Italian sonnetto, or little song) owes much of its long-standing popularity to Petrarch. By the mid-sixteenth century, this fixed poetic form was adopted by the English, who borrowed the fourteen line pattern and many of Petrarch’s literary conventions. However, English writers did alter the rhyme scheme to allow for more variety in rhyming words: while an Italian sonnet might rhyme abba, abba, cdc, dcd, an English or Shakespearean sonnet rhymes abab, cdcd, efef, gg.
In all but three of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets(“Sonnet 99,” “Sonnet 126,” and “Sonnet 145”), the first three groups of four lines each are known as quatrains, and the last two lines are recognized as a couplet. The three breaks between the quatrains and the couplet serve as convenient places where the writer’s train of thought can take a different
Compare & Contrast
- 1558: Elizabeth I became Queen of England and ruled until her death in 1603. A Protestant country, England was continually threatened by its Catholic neighbors, France and Spain, and Elizabeth herself survived several assassination attempts made by English Catholics. Fears regarding spying, treachery, and outright attack were pervasive throughout Elizabeth’s reign.
Today: Elizabeth II has ruled Britain since 1952. The early years of her reign took place during the height of the Cold War, in which Western democratic countries such as Britain and the United States were in a continual state of hostility with the communist Soviet Union and its allies. As in the reign of Elizabeth I, spying, treason, and invasion were a constant source of worry. Since the collapse of communism in the late 1980s, however, Britain has entered a period of relative peace, a condition never enjoyed by the first Elizabeth.
- 1600: A French commercial partnership obtained a monopoly on fur trade in the New World, while the English East India Company was established in hopes of challenging Dutch control of the spice trade.
Today: England, France, and other continental countries are moving to form the European Economic Community, a union designed to help European countries compete more effectively in the truly global marketplace, which is dominated by such economic giants as Japan and the United States.
- 1604: King James I publishes his Counterblaste to Tobacco, describing smoking as “a custome loathsome to the eye, hatefull to the nose, harm-full to the braine, dangerous to the lungs, and in the blacke stinking fume thereof, nearest resembling the horrible Stigian smoke of the pit that is bottomlesse.”
Today: Over fifty million Americans still smoke, despite its being identified as a cause of heart disease, emphysema, and lung cancer. Over 390,000 Americans die each year from the effects of smoking.
- 1605: The first newspaper began publication in Antwerp, Belgium.
Today: People get news and information from a host of sources and media, including print newspapers, books, and magazines, television and radio broadcasts, cable and satellite services, CD-ROMs, and internet sites.
- 1609: The ship Sea Venture, part of a convoy sailing to the aid of starving English settlers in the Virginia Colony, was shipwrecked on an island. Previously unexplored, the island had been called the Isle of Devils and was thought to be inhabited by demons.
Today: The Isle of Devils is now called Bermuda. It remains a colony of Great Britain and is one of the oldest members of the British Commonwealth. Because of its pleasant subtropical climate, it is a popular vacation destination.
direction. In “Sonnet 18,” a change in the course of the argument is marked by the word “but” at the beginning of the third quatrain. The final couplet does not simply affirm or contradict the speaker’s main idea, but extends it: the beloved is indeed everlastingly young and beautiful, but only if the sonnet lives on.
The rhythm employed in “Sonnet 18” is known as iambic pentameter. Iambic meter, the most familiar rhythm in the English language, is simply the succession of alternately stressed syllables, in which the first is unstressed and the second is stressed. The use of “penta” (meaning five) before “meter” means that there are five iambs per line.
Stresses embody meanings. Therefore, when Shakespeare breaks from the iambic meter and has two or more stresses fall side by side, he not only adds variety but emphasis to certain lines. “Rough winds” (line 3), “too hot” (line 5), and “Death brag” (line 11) are examples of spondees, because they are comprised of two accented and consecutive syllables. The change in the regularity of the rhythm adds force to the first two descriptions, and calls attention to the specter of Death in line 11.
The Renaissance: Shakespeare lived and wrote during the Renaissance, a time of great political, cultural, and social change. The influence of the Catholic Church, which had dominated all aspects of life throughout Europe during the Medieval period, was giving way to more secular, less spiritual forces. In religion the Reformation challenged the absolute authority of the pope in spiritual matters and emphasized the faith and devotional practices of the individual. Along with this dispersion of spiritual authority came a redistribution of political power to individual states, which were throwing off the control of the pope in Rome. Art and culture, too, experienced a reawakening(“renaissance” means “rebirth”) as sacred themes in painting, drama, and poetry were replaced by human concerns, such as love, honor, and physical beauty. Writers and painters sought to create new standards, new definitions of what was true, good, or beautiful, based on direct experience rather than on received knowledge or traditions. In this light, “Sonnet 18” seems very much a work of its times. Written during a period of rapid and often unsettling change, the poem expresses a sense of up-rootedness, a feeling of uncertainty regarding the future. Everywhere the speaker looks he sees things changing, fading, decaying. The central impulse of the poem is a seeking for that which never changes, for that which is certain and eternal.
The vogue for sonnets: Shakespeare’s Sonnets are considered a central part of his overall body of work. There is no solid evidence that Shakespeare drew directly on any single known work for the precise form or content of any of his sonnets. He was, however, following a tradition of sonnet(from the Italian sonnetto, or little song) writing that dates back to the fourteenth-century Rime of the Italian poet Petrarch. The first English sonneteer of note was Sir Thomas Wyatt, who, by the mid-sixteenth century, translated a number of Petrarch’s sonnets into English and wrote original compositions closely modeled on Italian patterns.
Along with his friend Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, Wyatt is credited with introducing a vogue for sonnet writing in England that lasted until the end of the sixteenth century. Although the English writers borrowed many poetic conventions already established by Petrarch, including adopting the fourteen-line format of the sonnet, they altered rhyme scheme from “abba abba cdc dcd” to “abab cdcd efef gg” in order to increase the scope of rhyming words. After each quatrain(abab, cdcd, efef) the writer can either continue developing a single idea, or he can pursue another. Surrey’s contribution to sonnet writing is significant in one important respect: he always ended his sonnets with a rhymed couplet(gg). This practice, which was followed by most Elizabethan sonneteers, also became Shakespeare’s own. Although Shakespeare’s sonnets were first published in 1609(during the reign of King James I), at least some were written a decade or more earlier(during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I) and circulated in manuscript among the author’s friends.
With its comfortable vocabulary, its pleasing and comprehensible imagery, and its famous opening line, “Sonnet 18” is clearly one of the favorites in Shakespeare’s sequence. The reason it has been quoted, anthologized, and written about so often seems to be its simple appeal—though critics such as David Weiser have described this simplicity as “more apparent than real,” and an inhibitor to the examination of which it is worthy. In Mind in Character: Shakespeare’s Speakers in the Sonnets, Weiser goes on to perform a close reading, paying close attention to its structure.
Whether or not Weiser is correct in assuming that the poem’s straightforwardness has inhibited textual interpretations, much of the criticism on “Sonnet 18” is indeed more concerned with history, placement, and influence than the sonnet itself. Hallett Smith, for example, sees much significance in its position at the head of a new sonnet grouping; in The Tension of the Lyre: Poetry in Shakespeare’s Sonnets, he establishes series within the sonnet sequence and then compares “Sonnet 18” to poems he finds similar. In The Fickle Glass: A Study of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Paul Ramsey discusses “Sonnet 18”’s place in the lyrical sonnet tradition, illustrating what Shakespeare may have borrowed and what he may have created anew.
Joanne Woolway is a freelance writer who recently earned her Ph.D. from Oriel College, Oxford, England. In the following essay, Woolway explains how Shakespeare created a love poem even while arguing that words and metaphors could not properly express his feelings.
The opening line of Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 18” questions the validity of poetic metaphors or similes to describe the woman the poet loves. The rest of the poem—which is all one sentence—then explores this central problem, and, in doing so, creates a poem through the very action of questioning the limits of poetry.
Shakespeare’s central point is that the usual ways of describing a woman in the traditions of courtly love are simply inadequate to describe what he feels for his lover. A series of comparisons is made, but their failings are quickly pointed out. So, while it would be conventional to describe her as being like a summer’s day, this would not be enough, he feels, as even summer days are not perfect. For a start, there can be strong breezes even in May. Summer, moreover, does not last long: in line 4 the passing of time is emphasized through the use of the word “lease” which is usually associated with the renting of property. Just as living in a house with a lease is a more uncertain mode of existence than owning your own property, so too placing all your hopes in one season can leave your idyllic world subject to the inevitable effects of transience and intemperance. The poem’s images show that its author is all too aware of such change and decay; the repetition of “fair” in line 7 draws attention to the fact that everything that is beautiful at some time declines from this perfect state. These conventional images of the seasons are therefore proven to be inadequate to describe his love’s beauty which, as he is later to demonstrate, can be made eternal through his poetry.
The technique is all the more effective because the images that he feels do not match his love’s perfection are, in fact, beautifully descriptive in themselves and would be admired in conventional love poetry. The “darling buds of May” and the “gold complexion” of summer days transport the reader to an idyllic pastoral world where the sun always shines and where nature is always renewing itself. In addition, the tone of these descriptions is almost caressing, as the poet lingers on the most loved features of the landscape, ascribing to his reponse
What Do I Read Next?
- Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets in all. The first 126 are addressed to a young man or “Friend” as he is called by the poet. (Sonnets 1-17 form a subgroup dealing with the subject of immortality through procreation.) Sonnets 127-152 are addressed to a mysterious “Dark Lady,” the poet’s mistress, who may have seduced the Friend. The last two do not fit into either of the two main groupings. Some of the most famous of Shakespeare’s other sonnets are Sonnet 130(My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun), Sonnet 29(When in disgrace with Fortune and men’s eyes), Sonnet 30(When to the sessions of sweet silent thought), and 116(Let me not to the marriage of true minds).
- The sonnet has been perhaps the most popular form in English verse. Countless poets have employed it. Among Shakespeare’s contemporaries, Sir Philip Sidney and Edmund Spenser composed important sonnet sequences(groups of sonnets in which the poems are thematically related). Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella was published in 1591, and Spenser’s Amoretti, was published in 1595. The fourteenth-century Italian poet Petrarch was a significant innovator of the sonnet form, and his works influenced Shakespeare and other poets. His sonnets are available in a number of English translations, including Rime Disperse (1991), translated by Joseph A. Barber.
- Similar to Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 18,” Spencer’s Sonnet 75 makes the beloved immortal by means of poetry. Unlike Shakespeare, who wrote “Sonnet 18,” in monologue form, Spenser wrote his sonnet as a dialogue.
to nature the same emotional quality—particularly in the choice of the word “darling”—that we would expect to mark his feeling for his lover. If this love is more tender than what he feels for these inanimate objects, then the reader is encouraged to think that it is great indeed.
The poem may strike us as both idealistic and yet familiar. The poet is speaking to someone with whom he feels comfortable and is clearly intimate. The use of “Thou,” “thee,” and “thy” to address this woman registers this conversational familiarity. This is not the distant woman of some Petrarchan love poems who is put on a pedestal and can never be approached, but can only be admired from afar. Rather, she is so near that the reader’s feeling is that he or she is overhearing a private conversation. Of course, this is not so: it is only an illusion of intimacy that is produced by the careful structuring of the poem, but it is an illusion which is so successfully created, that the seams of its creation are barely visible. It is easy to be drawn into this idealized vision of human relationships.
Part of the poet’s skill in bringing about this illusion lies in his measured control of the verse and of the structure of the sonnet. Note how certain words reappear at key points in the argument. The repetition of “And” at the beginning of lines 6 and 7 emphasizes the number of examples that Shakespeare can give to support his case. The repetition of “Nor” at the beginning of lines 10 and 11 has a similar effect. The third case of such repetition, in lines 13 and 14, builds on the previous two instances to produce a quietly decisive conclusion. Overall, these structures combine to give a measured pace to the poem, allowing its argument to be developed and eliciting a similarly measured agreement from its reader. It is as if, as Gary Waller has noted in English Poetry of the Sixteenth Century, that the poem “requires to be read in a solemn murmur, almost as if one were in church. It seems totally serene, as if taking into consideration all possibilities in order to affirm the uniqueness and irreplaceability of the beloved.”
You may have noticed that this poem follows the classic sonnet pattern as it was usually practiced by Shakespeare. Shakespearean sonnets have fourteen lines that can be divided by their rhyme into three sets of four lines, with alternate lines rhyming and then a concluding rhyming couplet. Typically, each line has ten syllables separated into five metrical “feet,” each consisting of an unstressed and a stressed beat. Some of the lines of this sonnet are irregular, but a totally regular one is line 3 where the stress falls on “winds,” “shake,” “darl-,” “buds,” and “May.” The lines of the concluding couplet are also regular; this is entirely appropriate as their carefully measured verse complements the poem’s serene conclusion.
The two lines of the concluding couplet are especially important in a sonnet. One notable feature of the sonnet form is what is called the volta. This means a turn, and it often introduces a change of argument. Sometimes the volta occurs at the moment of the concluding couplet—between lines 12 and 13. In “Sonnet 18,” however, this is not so; the volta is signaled by the word “But” at the beginning of line 9. It is here that Shakespeare introduces the point that develops the argument of the first eight lines and moves it forward toward the philosophical statement of the concluding couplet. Unlike the beauty of nature, he says, the beauty of his mistress will not decline. When the concluding couplet appears, therefore, it provides a means by which the claims of the previous four lines can be realized, and, thus, also provides an answer to the problem set up in lines 1 through 8. This, if you like, is the “how” that responds to the “what” of the poem.
The way that the conventions of the sonnet form are carefully handled in this poem can be seen if we compare its ending to that of Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 130.” This poem also demonstrates the inadequacy of traditional love poetry to sum up the beauty of a person. But while that poem works on a dramatic twist—its volta bringing a rather surprising, if pleasant, conclusion that undermines and subverts poetic convention—, “Sonnet 18” has a much gentler shift of perspective. In its concluding couplet, Shakespeare does not aim to reject the conventional tropes of poetry or to prove his poetic cleverness in outdoing his contemporaries with his wit. Rather, he seems to be conveying his realization that sometimes the sum of a poem is greater than its parts. While specific poetic images of nature may not be adequate to the task of describing someone so beautiful and keeping her image intact for posterity to appreciate, poetry itself can achieve immortality and so confer enduring fame on its subjects. The volta of “Sonnet 18,” therefore, is an answer and conclusion to—as well as an affirmation and fulfilment of—what has gone before. Unlike “Sonnet 130,” it is not a rejection of the comparison that the author has set up in the preceding lines; rather it is a translation of his argument onto a different plane of meaning. Thus he has made a poem out of not making a poem, while at the same time affirming the value of poetry itself and his own ability to write poetry which will last and which will convey the beauty of his lover to future generations.
Despite the apparent serenity and idealism of “Sonnet 18,” though, its anxiety about the passing of time and the decay of worldly things is not entirely laid to rest. Drawing attention to an under-current of fear about the passing of time which surfaces in the work of so many Renaissance poets, Gary Waller commented that “rarely are the extremes of erotic revelation offered in such rawness and complexity or with such obsessive anguish over the glorious failure of language to constitute or reassure the vulnerable self. They are a unique imaginative proving-ground where the feelings about love and the language traditionally used to capture them intermingle with and contradict each other.” There is a touch of sadness about this sonnet that even Shakespeare’s poetic skill cannot overcome.
Source: Joanne Woolway, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1997.
David K. Weiser
In the following excerpt, Weiser explores the varied use of presentation and dialogue in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 and how it gives more insight into the mind of Shakespeare itself.
One of the few critics to comment on the meaning of this sonnet is Edward Hubler. His remarks, with some modification, offer a starting point for detailed study. He states that although Sonnet 18 “is not one of Shakespeare’s greatest poems, it approaches perfection. The thing to be noticed is Shakespeare’s skillful and varied presentation of its subject matter; and we should note in passing that with the poet’s celebration of his friend there is a concomitant disclosure of himself. The more one studies the sonnets in search of the young man, the more one learns of Shakespeare.” Hubler’s evaluation may also be questioned. If a poem is virtually “perfect,” why should it not be “great”? Presumably, the achievement of “Sonnet 18” is lessened by its limited scope. But the question of value cannot be resolved without a thorough description of the poem’s structure. Rather than accepting literally what the sonnet-speaker says, it is important to examine what he does in the context of dialogue. Only in this sense is it true that the sonnet describes his love. The subject matter is therefore not a celebration of the youth but a series of actions and decisions made by the speaker. He ponders making a comparison, then makes it and develops its consequences.
The opening question—“shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”—combines two very different meanings. The first is whether or not to make this comparison. The second is whether the comparison is just. The distinction is useful because the speaker replies affirmatively to the first question and negatively to the second. He finds the comparison worth making, even though his beloved’s beauty exceeds that of ordinary nature. It is essential, then, that line 1 be recognized as a genuine question rather than a rhetorical formula. The difference helps explain how the sonnet attains a higher threshold of emotion than do its predecessors. Five of sonnets 1–17 begin in the interrogative mood also, but their questions are always put to the youth, not to the speaker himself. Each question implies a specific, inevitable answer. Sonnets 4 and 8 use the question form, preceded by an apostrophe, to convey a complaint about the youth’s self-love: “Unthrifty loveliness, why dost thou spend/Upon thyself thy beauty’s legacy?” and “Music to hear, why hear’st thou music sadly?” Both queries point out a discrepancy between what the youth is, “loveliness” and “music,” and what he does. Both assume the same reply, that his behavior cannot be justified. Similarly, in Sonnets 9 and 16 the initial questions have a built-in answer: “Is it for fear to wet a widow’s eye / That thou consum’st thyself in single life” and “But wherefore do not you a mightier way / Make war upon this bloody tyrant time”? One question calls for an admission of guilt, while the other denies any course of action but that the speaker prescribes. Even in Sonnet 17, which looks ahead to the subsequent breakthrough, the rhetorical answer “no one” is dictated by the opening question: “Who will believe my verse in time to come / If it were filled with your most high deserts?” Only by comparison with other sonnets does this rhetorical question become significant. It touches on the problem of poetic description, which becomes less credible the more it praises. The speaker realizes that a detailed attempt to “number all your graces” will seem hyperbolic. Rather than solving the problem in poetic terms, he takes recourse for the last time to the procreation theme: “But were some child of yours alive that time, / You should live twice in it and in my rhyme.”
In another sense, the first line of Sonnet 18 continues from the Procreation sonnets and outdoes them. The phrase “a summer’s day” combines two recurrent images of natural beauty. “Summer” appeared as one of the emblems in Sonnet 12’s catalog(“summer’s green all girded up in sheaves”) and in Sonnet 5’s brief account of natural process: “For never-resting time leads summer on / To hideous winter and confounds him there.” Sonnet 12 also mentioned “brave day sunk in hideous night,” while Sonnet 15 more emphatically warned that time will “change your day of youth to sullied
“... although Sonnet 18 ’is not one of Shakespeare’s greatest poems, it approaches perfection ... ’”
— Edward Hubler
night.” Just as the question form becomes more charged with meaning, so the compound image in Sonnet 18 acquires a new intensity. Unlike the earlier allusions to “summer” and “day,” there is no immediate decline to hideous winter and night. Instead, “summer’s day” stands as an example of beauty whose impermanence has been temporarily forgotten. A contrast is made, but, as the second line shows, it is no longer between youth and age but rather between natural and ideal beauty: “Thou art...more temperate.”
Taken together, the complex question and image of line 1 suggest that the controlling presence of the speaker will be instrumental in shaping the poem’s structure of dialogue. None of the previous sonnets began with so powerful a sense of personality. Shakespeare’s speaker, it should be remembered, had first referred to himself only in the modest phrase “for love of me” in Sonnet 10. He subsequently appears as an observer of nature in Sonnet 12 and in Sonnet 14 as an astronomer whose knowledge is derived from his beloved’s eyes. The speaker finally identifies himself as a poet in Sonnets 15-17, but he remains radically unsure of his powers. The new confidence displayed in Sonnet 18, therefore, arises from his awareness of an ability to order the world according to degrees of likeness and unlikeness. There is no concern for the misguided opinions of posterity and no claim that nature’s own replication will surpass the poet’s art. The lyric art has become autonomous because the technical problem raised in Sonnet 17 has been solved; the speaker decides to bypass the self-defeating task of detailed physical description. Instead, he represents the inner meaning of the beauty he perceives and explores its influence on his own mental processes. By concentrating on dramatized response to an ideal beauty, he avoids the danger of drawing an unconvincing portrait. What he stresses is the dynamic interplay of ideas, among which the beloved’s beauty functions as a central premise and as a source of meaning.
Although Sonnet 18 marks a shift toward greater subjectivity and more sustained introspection, the poem is remarkably free of egoism. Only once, in the opening line, is the speaker’s “I” explicitly mentioned. The following lines take “thou” and correlative images of natural beauty as their subject. Were it not for the couplet in which “this” refers to the poem as an eternal artifact, the speaker could be said to retire entirely behind the manifest content of his thoughts. His self-conscious conclusion is an unmistakable reminder of the human identity that has created the poem. It is especially significant that these two allusions to the speaker’s self, occurring in the first and last lines, impose a frame of self-awareness that encloses the subject matter of the poem.
In this way, the abstract entity of framing the two inner strophes of a sonnet by the two outer ones, as pointed out by Jakobson and Jones, takes on a specific psychological dimension. But the framing effect of lines 1 and 14 is not limited to the speaker himself. In both lines we also note the only appearances of the pronoun thee, indicating the second person as object of an action: “I compare thee” and “this gives life to thee.” The sonnet begins and ends with the speaker(or his poem) acting on the beloved. During the extended absence of the “I,” beginning with line 2, the second person functions as subject matter rather than as object: “Thou art more lovely and more temperate.” The “thou” does not actively perform but exists statically in contrast to the ever-changing phenomena of nature. Lines 3–8, marking the third and final step toward impersonality, evoke nature’s inconsistency without referring to either “I” or “thou.” They continue the speaker’s basic comparison between his beloved and a summer’s day by illustrating the defects of the latter through a series of images. First, the imperfection of natural beauty is shown by the “rough winds” that are no less a part of May than the “darling buds.” The winds’ action of shaking the buds also suggests the ascendancy of power over beauty. The second image, “summer’s lease hath all too short a date,” depends on a commercial metaphor to argue that if natural beauty were unblemished it would still be transient. The speaker thereby concedes his first point by uncovering a second, more basic flaw in natural beauty.
If these two images explain why his beloved is “more lovely,” the third, more developed image can be seen as an extension of “more temperate.” The sun is given the humanizing epithet “the eye of heaven” as well as “gold complexion” in order to remind us of its contrast with the “thou.” By shining “too hot” or being “dimm’ d,” the sun behaves intemperately but in accordance with its place in nature. It is with the universal rule of nature that the speaker is finally concerned. He begins with the small but precise image of shaken buds, progressing to the wider scope of summer and the sun. He concludes on the broadest level of generality:
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’ s changing course untrimmed.
The images in lines 3–8 have all been metonymic, drawn from the customary associations of “a summer’s day.” But the last two define the innate limitations of all that exists merely on the order of nature. The repetition of “fair” quickly separates the particular and the temporary from the universal, for each fair creature declines from its fair condition while the idea of beauty remains. And the alliteration of “chance” and “changing” underscores the inevitability of such a decline, if not by accident then by the predetermined pattern of growth and decay.
That repeated “ch” sound, bringing the octet to a close, is the most striking example of alliteration within any of these fourteen lines. Indeed, alliteration and other forms of purely auditory repetition are not prominent in Sonnet 18. What has replaced them is a different technique of repetition that gives the sonnet its unique quality: the reiteration of whole words rather than sounds. The process begins rather inconspicuously in line 2: “more lovely and more temperate.” Although this semantic repetition may not appear significant, it is soon precisely balanced by “too short” and “too hot” in lines 4–5. The doubling of “more” emphasizes the beloved’s virtues, while the repetition of “too” serves to heighten our sense of nature’s excesses. The idea of instability is reinforced by the reiteration of “sometime” in line 5, where it is interwoven with yet another repetition: “every fair from fair sometime declines.” Repeated words thus establish the sonnet’s texture of apparent clarity, which conceals a network of complex patterning. Engaged in making a comparison, the speaker is concerned primarily with distinguishing likeness from unlikeness. By reiterating words, and modifying their meanings in different contexts, he links physical and emotional similarities throughout the sonnet and arranges a system of correspondence parallel to that of the external world.
Sonnet 18’s octet features another type of meaningful repetition, depending not on the same word or sound but rather on the same grammatical relation. In these eight lines there are no less than six possessive constructions; together, they contribute directly to the poem’s thematic development. The series, like the series of images, begins with the phrase “a summer’s day.” It continues with the rhyme-link the “buds of May” and ends with the repetition of the key word in “summer’s lease.” The next genitive phrase, “the eye of heaven,” is exactly parallel with the second and leads to the corollary, “his gold complexion.” Finally, “nature’s changing course” indicates the most inclusive network of ownership. The series of possessive phrases has set out a hierarchy of natural beauty from which the speaker deliberately excludes his beloved. He now creates a separate, opposing level of beauty that belongs solely to the “thou.” Line 9 furnishes the traditional turning point: “But thy eternal summer shall not fade.” The line is strikingly effective because it combines a series of transformations from the patterns established before. The reentry of the second person makes a bridge between line 2 and lines 10–12, in which the “thou” figures as subject of an action. In the volta of line 9, however, the pronoun is genitive: “thy eternal summer” implies a reversal of the previous order since “summer” is now an object possessed rather than a possessor of beauty. Both techniques of repetition, the grammatical and the verbal, are employed here. The beloved’s ownership of beauty has been substituted for that of nature. Summer continues to represent the idea of beauty, but it has been assimilated to a personal vision, hence the change from “summer’s” to “summer.” Despite the use of “thy” instead of “thou,” we realize that the speaker has abandoned the natural, impersonal universe of lines 3–8 and turned to a uniquely human conception of reality.
Although the line that marks this turning point has structural affinities to those that came before, it nevertheless makes a clear departure. Throughout the octet the speaker used the simple present tense, placing a single verb in each line. By introducing the future in “shall not fade,” he shifts from the ordinary world to an anticipation of the ideal state that is preexistent in his mind. The phrase “thy eternal summer” represents an unprecedented act of imagination when compared to the rather passive and conventionally associated images that adumbrate “a summer’s day.” It is a metaphor rather than a metonymy, being based on a personal insight instead of a common or necessary association. The speaker is no longer content with recording reality and seeks to transform it in this line and throughout the third quatrain. The centrality of the beloved as the possessor of beauty is reinforced by line 10: “Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st.” As in lines 9 and 11, the speaker makes his point by negation in contrast to the assertions of the previous quatrain.
The second and third quatrains are quite similar in structure; both consist of an opening statement followed by two lines of development. In quatrain 2, both of the amplifying lines began with “and,” whereas in quatrain 3 they begin negatively with “nor.” There is also a corresponding contrast of imagery. The personification of death and “his shade” balances the earlier picture of the sun and “his gold complexion” as an emblem of life. Again, the use of a possessive construction denotes a hierarchy of power. Death’s sovereignty concludes in absolute terms the speaker’s definition of the realm of mortality. It provides a background from which the beloved’s “eternal summer” is exempted. The actions of the “thou” remain static. They are either negations, such as not losing beauty and not wandering in the shadows of death, or modes of existence—owning and growing being the actions that link lines 10 and 12 by rhyme. The speaker’s central contrast is fulfilled once again by the use of repeated words. The “fair” owned by the beloved defies the rule that “every fair from fair sometime declines.” The distinction between two levels of beauty is expressed further in the “eternal summer,” which is opposed to nature’s summer and allied with the “eternal lines” that will stand against time. The quatrain is unified by this reiteration of “eternal” in its opening and closing lines. By uniting the beloved’s “summer” and his own “lines” through the repeated adjective, the speaker subtly alludes to his own creative role. He chooses only to imply his possession of the ideal love and its poetic expression, which are equally his inventions. Sonnet 19 will be the first to use the possessive phrase “my love,” while also mentioning(without ironic deprecation) the corresponding phrase “my verse.”
The eternity alluded to in line 12 is explicitly defined by the couplet, which stands apart from the central comparison and explores its consequences:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
The closely parallel structure of the couplet represents a more condensed version of the sonnet’s organizing technique. Its basic symmetry derives from the repetition of “so long,” which serves to coordinate the separate actions of each line. The first line in itself repeats the auxiliary “can” in order to link two related actions that stand for life itself. These actions of breathing and seeing are further linked by assonance. The second line is similarly divided into two corresponding actions through which “this,” the entire sonnet, both “lives” and “gives life.” Two tendencies that were developed earlier in the sonnet, toward longer sentences and increased frequency of verbs, culminate in the couplet. Every line until the eighth is grammatically complete, containing a subject and a single verb. Although three of these seven lines begin with “and,” the conjunction is needed for stylistic rather than grammatical purposes. Line 8, however, is unquestionably less than a sentence: “By chance, or nature’s changing course untrimmed.” In quatrain 3, lines 10 and 12 are likewise subordinated to the lines that precede them, so that the speaker has moved toward lengthier, more complex statements. He also lends emphasis to these statements by doubling the verbs. Lines 10 and 11 are the first to include two verbs instead of one; thereafter, four of the sonnet’s last five lines contain two active verbs, giving a final sense of purposeful activity.
The intent of the couplet’s intricate symmetry is to set forth a relation of condition and result. If human life continues, so that people can read and recite the poem, then the poem, too, will live and confer a kind of immortality on the object of its praise. The speaker’s promise to eternalize his beloved is thus carefully qualified. His sonnet is not a stone that simply endures the elements but a human monument that exists only as long as mankind chooses to read. A threefold relation of interdependence is now established. Just as the beloved’s immortality depends on “this,” the poem itself requires that life and literacy continue. The basic relation between the sonnet-speaker and his ideal love yields in the couplet to a wider dimension of human interaction. The reader himself, as one who breathes and sees, must complete the process of eternalization that the speaker began.
This reading of the sonnet verifies its closing prediction, even though our knowledge of the speaker and his beloved remains negligible. No description of their particular identities has been given; nonetheless, we are content to understand, and perhaps to emulate, the speaker’s essential act of comparison. The sonnet’s world is divided between the contemporary present that nature provides and the eternity created by poetry. It passively and impersonally renders the former realm but involves us in actively creating the latter. From the opening, and open, question of line 1 we are allowed to share in the poetic performance. In the interpersonal framework of lines 1 and 14, the act of immortalization is carried out by the speaker’s “I” and by “this,” the poem itself. Lines 2-13 lack any reference to the speaker, enhancing our sense of being “in” the poem, where a clearly defined dramatic speaker would have excluded us. We identify with the speaker, who is playing an active role, in contrast to the passivity of the beloved, who is merely the object of the action. Moreover, the complex patterning within these lines, beginning with the doublings of “more” and “too” in the first quatrain, encourages us to recognize how poetic artifice, subsuming a hierarchy of images and of semantic and grammatical repetition, reflects the beauty of nature but transcends it by virtue of its constancy. Finally, our human presence, as those who breathe and see, validates the poet’s claim that our participation is a necessary component of poetic immortalization. It is the reader’s task as co-maker of the poet’s pledge that accounts for the distinctive and continuing appeal of Sonnet 18. Dialogue has been extended here, beyond the dramatic “I” and “thou” toward the vital participation of all humanity.
Source: David K. Weiser, “Sonnet 18 as Dialogue,” in Mind in Character: Shakespeare’s Speaker in the Sonnets, University of Missouri Press, pp. 130-38.
Ramsey, Paul. The Fickle Glass: A Study of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, AMS Press, 1979, pp. 111-114, 133.
Smith, Hallett. The Tension of the Lyre: Poetry in Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Huntington Library, 1981, pp. 13-14, 142.
Waller, Gary, English Poetry of the Sixteenth Century, Longman, 1993.
Weiser, David K. Mind in Character: Shakespeare’s Speakers in the Sonnets, University of Missouri Press, 1987, pp. 128-138.
Andrews, Michael Cameron. “Sincerity and Subterfuge in Three Shakespearean Sonnet Groups.” Shakespeare Quarterly 33, No. 3(Autumn 1982): 314-27.
Explores the autobiographical element in Shakespeare’s sonnets. Andrews views the speaker of the sonnets as a persona distinct from Shakespeare, describing him as a “dramatic character at once removed from his creator.”
A wide-ranging discussion by an acclaimed poet, touching on several issues related to the sonnets, including their style, themes, and form.
Fleissner, Robert F. “That Cheek of Night’ : Toward the Dark Lady.” CLA Journal XVI, No. 3(March 1973): 312-23.
Concludes that the Dark Lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets was “very likely” black.
Muir, Kenneth. Shakespeare’s Sonnets. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1979.
A concise overview of major issues in criticism of Shakespeare’s sonnets, including their style, the dates of their composition and publication, the ordering of the poems, and their relation to other works by the poet.
Smith, Barbara Herrnstein, ed. Sonnets, by William Shakespeare. New York: New York University Press, 1969, 290 p.
A glossed critical edition of Shakespeare’s sonnets, with an introduction, commentary, and thematic index.