Shakespeare Sonnet 18 Essay

Shakespeare Sonnet 18 Essay

The speaker opens the poem with a question addressed to the beloved: "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" The next eleven lines are devoted to such a comparison. In line 2, the speaker stipulates what mainly differentiates the young man from the summer's day: he is "more lovely and more temperate." Summer's days tend toward extremes: they are shaken by "rough winds"; in them, the sun ("the eye of heaven") often shines "too hot," or too dim. And summer is fleeting: its date is too short, and it leads to the withering of autumn, as "every fair from fair sometime declines." The final quatrain of the sonnet tells how the beloved differs from the summer in that respect: his beauty will last forever ("Thy eternal summer shall not fade...") and never die. In the couplet, the speaker explains how the beloved's beauty will accomplish this feat, and not perish because it is preserved in the poem, which will last forever; it will live "as long as men can breathe

This sonnet is certainly the most famous in the sequence of Shakespeare's sonnets; it may be the most famous lyric poem in English. Among Shakespeare's works, only lines such as "To be or not to be" and "Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?" are better-known. This is not to say that it is at all the best or most interesting or most beautiful of the sonnets; but the simplicity and loveliness of its praise of the beloved has...

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Sonnet 18

SHall I compare thee to a Summers day?
Thou art more louely and more temperate:
Rough windes do ſhake the darling buds of Maie,
And Sommers leaſe hath all too ſhorte a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heauen ſhines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d,
And euery faire from faire ſome-time declines,
By chance, or natures changing courſe vntrimm’d:
But thy eternall Sommer ſhall not fade,
Nor looſe poſſeſſion of that faire thou ow’ſt,
Nor ſhall death brag thou wandr’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 liues this, and this giues life to thee,

The sonnet’s opening question supposes a negative answer, even if the reasons for not comparing are based on comparisons. A “Summers day” is a day of summer not metonymically the season of summer. The youth, compared to a summer’s day, is more “louely,” both more ‘beautiful’ and more ‘loving,’ and is more “temperate:” “temperate” of weather is neither too hot nor too cold and of persons is not given to extremes or equitable. A summer’s day is subject to variety and the wind’s harshness (“Rough windes do shake the darling buds of Maie”), where “darling” (dear + ling) means ‘small’ and ‘precious.’ “Maie” as a summer month is problematic: in the 16th and 17th centuries the calendar was 10/11 days in arrears and, although reformed under Pope Gregory in 1582, the recalculated dates were not fully introduced into England until 1752. The midsummer solstice in the 1590s still occurred not on June 21/22 but on June 11, the Feast of St. Barnabas, celebrated by Spenser in his Epithalamion as  “the longest day in all the yeare, / And shortest night.” Thereafter Spenser sees the sun “declining daily by degrees” as the house of Cancer progresses. 1 May, then, was a month straddling spring and summer. Moreover summer only has a lease on time, a limited contract with a short-term concluding date, “Sommers lease hath all too short a date.”

A summer day’s intemperate nature is demonstrated by the sun (“the eye of heauen”) which ‘sometimes’ or ‘at some time’ (“Sometime”) shines “too hot” and frequently, when masked by the clouds (“gold complexion dimm’d”), too coolly. 2 Although “complexion” suggests facial colouring, it was thought to result from an infusion of humours: a combination of qualities such as hot or cold in a certain proportion determined the nature of a plant or body. Because the hot and cold of the sun are not in proper proportion or degree, it is not temperate. It is also an example of the maxim that “euery faire from faire some-time declines,” as both it and its brightness decline daily to the west and seasonally after the summer solstice. The declining occurs either by accident (“By chance”) or by “natures changing course,” its seasonal change after the solstice as it loses its richness or embellishment; “vntrim’d” means ‘with its ornamentation removed’ (gold was customarily used as trim) or reduced to ruins; ‘untrimmed’ was used to translate the Latin acosmus, without order or without decoration (see Cooper’s Thesaurus, “Acosmus . . Vndecked: vntrimmed: a sloouen”). 3 A lamp untrimmed was one that was extinguished.

The poet’s argument now foresees a time when the youth will grow to time (“ when . . to time thou grow’st”). ‘To grow to’ was a legal term occuring in the law of leases which recalls Sonnet 13’s “beauty which you hold in lease,” and which should “Find no determination,” a ‘determination’ being where the lessee dies without heirs and possession of the estate reverts to the lessor. The reverting or forfeiting technically occurred under “the law of growing-to” and the estate was said to ‘grow to,’ to revert or escheat to the lessor. The “immortall lines” are either those of the poet in which the youth is engraved or engrafted (see Sonnet 15.14, “I ingraft you new”), which because immortal will forestall any ‘growing-to’ time. Or, as in Sonnet 16.9, they are the “lines of life,” the immortal lines that are the length of the “faire inheritance” or lineage that the youth will bequeath through his ever-continuing line, which will prevent any ‘growing-to’ or being ceded to time. (Compare Sidney, Ps. 39.15, “Lo, thou a spanns length mad’st my living line.”) Such poetic or generational immortality means that the youth’s non-seasonal (“eternall”) summer will not fade away. Nor will it be dispossessed (“loose possession”) of the beauty the youth owns (“ow’st”) in contrast to the lease on time which temporal summer has. Nor will death boast of or lay claim to the youth (“brag thou wandr’st in his shade,” with its echo of Ps. 23.4 “though I walke through the valley of the shadowe of death” (BB)); “shade” also evokes the shades or ghosts who wander the underworld, as well as hades or the abode of the dead. 4 Until the end of time (“So long as men can breath or eyes can see”), the poet claims, his off-spring (“this”) will prevail and will afford immortality to the young man (“this giues life to thee”).

_________________________

18.1. Edmund Spenser, Amoretti and Epithalamion (London: William Ponsonby, 1595) 271-72; compare 265-66, “This day the sunne is in his chiefest hight, / With Barnaby the bright,” or Donne, LXXX Sermons 70, Sermon VII, “That man that is blinde, or that will winke, shall see no more sunne upon S. Barnabies day, then upon S. Lucies; nor more in the summer, then in the winter solstice.” Daniel also has May as a summer month in Delia (1592) 35.1-6.

18.2. Compare R2 3.2.190-91, “Men iudge by the complexion of the Skie / The state and inclination of the day.”

18.3. See also Cooper, Thesaurus “Acosmia . . A disordered heape of thinges.”

18.4. Shakespeare elsewhere uses “shade of death” for ‘shadow of death’ see 1H6 5.4.89 & 2H6 3.2.54.

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