Sonnet 18

 Overview

First of all, this is one of the most celebrated and oft quoted poems in the world. Personally, I think the sentiment is a bit much, but sweet as well I suppose.

This is a celebration of a girl’s beauty through comparison with the Summer, a reflection on mortality and a promise to transcend death through poetry. Very, very similar to Spenser’s Sonnet 75 (which for my money is a much nicer piece of poetry).

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.

William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

Click through the tabs below to explore my analysis of different aspects of the poem.


ContextThemesContentLanguage and techniquesStructureTone

Context

William Shakespeare is too famous for me to bother saying anything. This sonnet is part of the Fair Youth sequence of 126 sonnets. Personally, I don’t think you really need to delve into the whole to get an understanding of what this one is about.

Themes

I’d see three major themes: love, mortality and nature. However, I suppose you could also talk about the power of literature too.

We begin with the overblown flattery of the poetic voice’s love, move onto discussing how even the brightest day has to fade – mortality – and end with a promise that poetry can overcome the mortal weakness of flesh and preserve love and beauty forever. Nature is used throughout to serve as a suitable comparison.

Content

A rhetorical question opens the sonnet, questioning whether the summer is fair enough to be compared to the poetic voice’s love. Suggesting summer as being similar should immediately make you think of connotations such as warm, joyful, bright and beautiful. However, his love is ‘more lovely’ and ‘more temperature’ meaning that her beauty and her personality/attitude are even more impressive than the summer’s.

I’ll mention two interpretations for lines three to six.

I read this as a reflection on mortality as the ‘rough winds’ of May shaking the ‘darling buds’ represents the tempestuous spring, which in turn could represent a period where a woman’s beauty and attitude are being refined. Buds are the suggestions of beauty waiting to burst forth as flowers. Next ‘summer’s lease’ is described as being ‘too short’, which makes us think about the autumn and the winter to follow that will corrupt and decay the absolute beauty of the summer. These two lines show that this perfection of his love is not going to last forever and is confined within a short period of her life.

The fifth and sixth line I see as the inevitable decline associated with mortality. Her beauty (‘the eye of heaven’ – heaven’s perfect creation) was ‘too hot’ and therefore would the perfect ‘gold complexion’ always have to eventually be ‘dimmed’ like the sun gradually falling after midday. As the sun rises and falls, so too must his love’s beauty.

Others have interpreted these lines as suggesting that his love is unlike summer because the season is sometimes afflicted with ‘rough winds’, often seems to be over before it’s begun and (in lines five and six) is sometimes too bright or sometimes too dim, whereas his love is always beautiful.

It’s up to you which you find more convincing, or you could always mention alternative interpretations.

I believe my interpretation makes more sense when you consider that the next lines confirm that ‘every fair… sometime declines’ suggesting every beauty eventually fades either ‘by chance’ or ‘nature’s changing course’, so either accident/illness or simply through ageing.

The final quatrain is Shakespeare’s attempt to defy mortality. He promises that ‘thy eternal summer’ or beauty ‘shall not fade’ as he this sonnet will preserve the memory through ‘eternal lines’. Of course, he can’t stop her dying physically, but with this poem he prevents death from decaying or diminishing her beauty fully and leaving her forgotten.

‘So long as men can breathe’ and see, then they will read this poem and contemplate her beauty. Lovely stuff.

 

Language and techniques

No, not going to bother really here. I’ve gone through almost line by line and as long as you continue the close analysis you’ll be fine.

Checklist for you, but no analysis:

– Seasonal analogy (pathetic fallacy)

– Hyperbole when describing her beauty

– Personification of Death – stopping decay

Structure

Again each quatrain acts as a section of the sonnet’s narrative.

1. Talking up her beauty.
2. Explaining mortality.
3. Literature to defy.
4. (Couplet) Statement of eternity.

This is a Shakespearean sonnet and uses iambic pentameter throughout (10 syllables a line, alternating between unstressed and stressed). The regularity could be being used to symbolise the eternity of this beauty – always remaining as he sees it now.

 

Tone

This is delivered by someone at the height of their passion. Dreamy romance and seeing perfection in your lover is probably not how we feel when in the middle of a relationship, but rather when we are desperate to be with and around an individual at the early stages of a relationship and have yet to see all the flaws and irritations that inevitably will be unearthed gradually. Call me a cynic!

Author: Mr Sir

Although I've only been teaching Literature since 2011 and did my degree in History, I think that makes me better placed than many Lit teachers to provide notes that make sense and aren't garbled and wrapped up with inaccessible terminology and effluent nonsense. After adventures in Uganda and Uzbekistan, I am now settling down in the Netherlands. However, currently I am just about as unsettled as I have ever been, with a new job, a new baby, a new country and a hundred other things going on! Ask me a question, collaborate or abuse me.

5 thoughts on “Sonnet 18”

  1. Hell sir,
    You stated that the first line,” Shall i compare thee to a summer’s day” is a rhetorical question.Isn’t it rather hypophora .
    Hypophora is a figure of speech in which a writer raises a question and then immediately provides an answer to that question. Commonly, a question is asked in the first paragraph and then the paragraph is used to answer the question. It is also known as antipophora or anthypophora. literarydevices.net/hypophora/
    Thank you though for the great work.
    Really appreciate

    Hope Odeke

  2. 2 glaring errors here. It’s not a Petrarchan sonnet – it’s Shakespearean. Duh! Iambic pentametre has TEN syllables, not 8!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *