Shakespeare's Sonnet 18
William Shakespeare’s 18th sonnet begins with one of the strongest one-two punches in lyric poetry. The first line asks the question, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”
The natural response to such a preposterous question is twofold. Either one ought not to compare another thereto lest the one find himself stricken by envious sorrow at the result of the comparison, or one might flatly answer “no,” because the beauty, magnificence, and splendor of summer would be too difficult for a mortal to match. Then line two hits: “Thou art more lovely and more temperate.” Shakespeare answers his own initial rhetorical question. Yes, he shall compare his beloved to a summer day, and she will come out favorably in the comparison. Not only is she more temperate than the scalding temperatures of summer, but she is also more lovely. Is she perhaps in the first “spring” of her youth, and in Shakespeare’s aesthetic imagination, does the beauty of spring trump the beauty of summer? We shall investigate further as we proceed to the poem as a whole.
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.
The summer quickly loses its calming splendor as the poem moves past the first two lines. Rough winds, so different from the placid, ever-constant wind of Earthly Paradise seen in Dante’s Purgatorio 28.8-12, afflict summer. It lasts only a short while, and therefore cannot be enjoyed the same way as an enduring, constant pleasure. Summer’s heat and cloudy, tempestuous nature again speak against its constancy and harmony. There are also instances of decrepitude, degeneration, and decline present in summer.
However, in line 9, we hear of the poet’s beloved again, and we are told that her “eternal summer shall not fade.” Then curiously in mercantile terms, the poet suggests that the beloved “ow’st” her eternal summer, or fair complexion. This may sound to a modern English reader’s ear like “owes,” but the term actually means “owns.” This beautiful woman, therefore, owns her unfading splendor and owes it to none, not even death, who has as little power over the poet’s beloved as over the resurrected Christ (1 Corinthians 15:55-58).* The androgynous undertones of such a comparison between the poet’s beloved and Christ are certainly worth noting.
The final two lines of the sonnet are marked by the anaphora of their first two words “so long,” which bracket their parallel structure. Until men lack the ability to breathe or see, “so long lives this” and “this” “gives life to thee.” What is the referent of “this” which appears twice in the final line of the poem? Is it the poem itself? That would be a curious claim, because poetry is an art that utilizes language, not images (mostly), as a medium. How could visual beauty be contained within its lines? What does it mean to suggest that “this” gives immortal life to the poet’s beloved? Does this mean that one’s immortality is joined to one’s story or perhaps to the intangible aspects of one, mitigated by language, which do not deteriorate over time according to the same entropic rules as a body does? This interpretation seems more plausible than to suggest that the poet’s love or adoration gives eternity to his lover, particularly because he said nothing of himself. Thus, insofar as the beloved is poetically rendered the immortal object of his desire, so is the poet “give[n] life” as the author of the poem which contains his immortalized description of his desire, his beloved.
Shakespeare, William. "Sonnet 18." The Sonnets. Lit2Go Edition. 1609. Web. <https://etc.usf.edu/lit2go/179/the-sonnets/3257/sonnet-18/>. May 29, 2023.
*“O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 15:55-58, King James Version (KJV))