Sonnet 18: Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
By William Shakespeare
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 dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;
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.
Analysis Of Sonnet 18
Sonnet 18 is devoted to praising a friend or lover, traditionally known as the ‘fair youth’, the sonnet itself a guarantee that this person’s beauty will be sustained. Even death will be silenced because the lines of verse will be read by future generations, when speaker and poet and lover are no more, keeping the fair image alive through the power of verse.
The opening line is almost a tease, reflecting the speaker’s uncertainty as he attempts to compare his lover with a summer’s day. The rhetorical question is posed for both speaker and reader and even the metrical stance of this first line is open to conjecture. Is it pure iambic pentameter? This comparison will not be straightforward.
This image of the perfect English summer’s day is then surpassed as the second line reveals that the lover is more lovely and more temperate. Lovely is still quite commonly used in England and carries the same meaning (attractive, nice, beautiful) whilst temperate in Shakespeare’s time meant gentle-natured, restrained, moderate and composed.
The second line refers directly to the lover with the use of the second person pronoun Thou, now archaic. As the sonnet progresses however, lines 3 – 8 concentrate on the ups and downs of the weather, and are distanced, taken along on a steady iambic rhythm (except for line 5, see later).
Summer time in England is a hit and miss affair weather-wise. Winds blow, rain clouds gather and before you know where you are, summer has come and gone in a week.The season seems all too short – that’s true for today as it was in Shakespeare’s time – and people tend to moan when it’s too hot, and grumble when it’s overcast.
The speaker is suggesting that for most people, summer will pass all too quickly and they will grow old, as is natural, their beauty fading with the passing of the season.
With repetition, alliteration and internal and end rhyme, the reader is taken along through this uncertain, changing, fateful time. Note the language of these lines: rough, shake, too short, Sometimes, too hot, often, dimmed, declines, chance, changing, untrimmed.
And there are interesting combinations within each line, which add to the texture and soundscape: Rough/buds, shake/May, hot/heaven, eye/shines, often/gold/complexion, fair from fair, sometimes/declines, chance/nature/changing, nature/course.
Life is not an easy passage through Time for most, if not all people. Random events can radically alter who we are, and we are all subject to Time’s effects.
In the meantime the vagaries of the English summer weather are called up again and again as the speaker attempts to put everything into perspective. Finally, the lover’s beauty, metaphorically an eternal summer, will be preserved forever in the poet’s immmortal lines.
And those final two lines, 13 and 14, are harmony itself. Following twelve lines without any punctuated caesura (a pause or break in the delivery of the line), line 13 has a 6/4 caesura and the last line a 4/6. The humble comma sorts out the syntax, leaving everything in balance, giving life.
Perhaps only someone of genius could claim to have such literary powers, strong enough to preserve the beauty of a lover, beyond even death.
Declines (V): Third person present tense of the word “decline”, that is, (typically of something regarded as good) to become smaller, fewer, or less; decrease
Course (N): The way in which something progresses or develops
Untrimmed (Adj): Not having been trimmed or cut away
Thy (Pr): An older form of the word “your”
Eternal (Adj): Lasting or existing forever; without end
Fade (V): Gradually grow faint and disappear
Possession (N): The state of having, owning, or controlling something
Ow’st (V): Short form of the word “owest” which is, in turn, an older form of the word “owe”
Brag (V): Say something in a boastful manner
Wand’rest (V): Short form of the word “wanderest” which is, in turn, an older form of the word “wander”
Grow’st (V): Short form of the word “growest” which is, in turn, an older form of the word “grow”
Poetic Devices in Sonnet 18:
Sonnets typically occur in two types of rhyme schemes – in the pattern ABBA ABBA CDE CDE, known as the Petrarchan sonnet, or in the pattern ABAB CDCD EFEF GG, known as the Shakespearian sonnet. This sonnet is a typical Shakespearean one, as it follows the rhyme scheme mentioned above in its entirety without the slightest of deviation.
This rhetorical device is used when a poet addresses his or her poem to an absent audience. In this poem, the poet uses the device of an apostrophe when he addresses all his words to his beloved, whom we never see responding at any point in the poem.
This rhetorical device is used when an overt comparison is made between two different things. In this poem, the poet uses the device of simile in line 1 itself when he makes a comparison between his beloved and a summer’s day and then says it is not an appropriate comparison to make.
This rhetorical device is used when a covert comparison is made between two different things or ideas. In this poem, the poet uses the device of metaphor in line 4 when he compares summer with a landlord who leases out his property only for a short time. Again in line 5, he compares the sun with the eye of heaven. In line 6, he compares the color of the sun with that of gold. Finally, in line 9, he compares the youth and beauty of his beloved with the summer season.
This rhetorical device is used to bestow human qualities on something that is not human. In this poem, the poet uses the device of personification with respect to death in line 11, when he endows death with the human ability to brag.
Central Idea of Sonnet 18:
Nature is beautiful, but it is subject to change. On the other hand, the beauty of the poet’s beloved is unchanging. However, that beauty is liable to disappear with the death of his beloved. That is why the poet composes a poem whose subject is that very beauty in order to immortalize it. He is sure that future generations will read this poem and appreciate the beauty of which it speaks.
Themes of Sonnet 18:
Mutability of nature:
The poet begins this sonnet by asking whether he should compare his beloved to a summer’s day, but does not wait for an answer. This is because he knows that his beloved’s beauty is unchanging and timeless, whereas nature can be both beautiful and terrifying, and that the change from one state to the other can occur at any point in time. One day the sun’s light can illuminate and invigorate the earth, while the next this light may fade away completely filling the sky with clouds and the possibility of precipitation. Both of these faces of nature are described aptly by the poet here.
Aging as a natural process:
While the poet clearly expresses his desire to immortalize the beauty of his beloved, he does not deny that she will age with time. The poet knows that the course of nature cannot be stopped, and that Time is a natural progression. Hence, the ravages that time commits on the human race are also inescapable. Therefore, he cannot stop his beloved from growing old or her physical body from decaying. However, one death or two does not mean that the entire human species will come to an end. Man will live on, and so will art. That is precisely why the poet chooses to immortalize his beloved through the medium of poetry.
The Theme of Self-reflexivity:
Self-reflexivity is the process by which an artist refers to his own art. That is exactly what the poet does in the last line of this sonnet by referring to his poem as “this”. He is intensely aware of the value that his own poetry can accord to something. He knows that his poetry can, in fact, make his beloved immortal. This kind of self-awareness is a sign of reflexivity, and it is very rare in works dating back prior to the 21st century. Hence this shows how modern Shakespeare was as a writer, and how he has influenced all later generations of writers as well.
The Tone of Sonnet 18:
The tone of this poem vacillates between pessimism and optimism. On the one hand, the poet talks about how nothing is permanent – how the weather changes, how the earth goes through various seasons one after the other, and how the human body must age and die. On the other hand, the poet also asserts the immortality of art. Art is, for Shakespeare, eternal. He knows that long after he is gone, his poetry will continue to be read and appreciated.