Shakespeare’s Sonnet XVIII – “Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day?”

William Shakespeare (1564-1616) has often been considered as the greatest writer in the English language. His major works include 38 plays and 154 sonnets and they have been translated into every major modern language. However, his writing is not read nearly as much as his worldwide acclaim should call for. The purpose of Litchatte.com is to focus attention on important classic and new works of literature and poetry. Dedicated to this goal, I will attempt to shine new light on some of the notable poetry Shakespeare,”The Bard of Avon.”  After a brief literary biography , I will  start with a discussion of “Sonnet XVIII” (18), sometimes referred to by its opening line, “Shall I compare thee to summer?”

Shakespeare had a successful career in London as an actor, writer, and part-owner of a playing company called the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. There are very few records of his personal life. There is much speculation about his appearance, his personal views,  and whether some of the works credited to him may have been written by others. We do know that “He produced most of his known writings between 1589 and 1613. His early plays were mainly comedies and histories, genres he raised to the peak of sophistication and artistry by the end of the 16th century. He then wrote mainly tragedies, including Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, and Macbeth, considered some of the finest works in the English language. In his last phase, he wrote tragicomedies, also known as romances, and collaborated with other playwrights. Shakespeare was a respected poet and playwright in his own day, but his reputation did not rise to its present heights until the 19th century. The Romantics, in particular, acclaimed Shakespeare’s genius, and the Victorians worshipped Shakespeare with a reverence (poemhunter.com). Sonnet XVIII is one of Shakespeare’s most well-known and most quoted poems. I am discussing it in this column because I have noted that much of the poetry being presented in the popular social media is self-produced and without enough awareness of the works of the earlier generations of fine poets. Although I am delighted that the internet is helping to facilitate a renewed interest among writers in creating poetry, I also think it is also essential for poets and others artists to study the styles, themes, and techniques of the former masters to help enhance their own artistic creations.

The majority of Shakespeare’s poems were written in the form of a Sonnet, which Poemhunter.com defines as “a 14-line poem with a variable rhyme scheme originating in Italy and brought to England” in the early seventeenth century. “The sonnet traditionally reflects upon a single sentiment, with a clarification or turn of thought in its concluding lines. There are many different types of sonnets. The Petrarchan sonnet, perfected by the Italian poet Petrarch, divides the 14 lines into two sections: an eight-line stanza [octave] rhyming ABBAABBA, and a six-line stanza [sestet] rhyming CDCDCD. John Milton’s ‘When I Consider How My Light is Spent’ and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s ‘How Do I Love Thee?’ employ this form. The Italian sonnet is an English variation on the traditional Petrarchan version. The octave’s rhyme scheme is preserved, but the sestet rhymes CDDCEE. Wyatt and Surrey developed the English (or Shakespearean) sonnet, which condenses the 14 lines into one stanza of three quatrains [verses of four lines] and a concluding couplet, with a rhyme scheme of ABABCDCDEFEFGG” (www.poemhunter.com). Most of Shakespeare’s poems that we read today have been converted from Shakespeare’s original 1609 Quarto  format to language that is more recognisable to modern readers. However, we still have to work at deciphering some words of the older language.I have included numbers at the end of each line as reference points for the discussion, which follows Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18:

 Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?                                         ( 1 )
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.                                      ( 2 )
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,                              ( 3 )
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.                                   ( 4 )
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,                                      ( 5 )
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;                                       ( 6 )
And every fair from fair sometime declines,                                      ( 7 )
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimmed;                     ( 8 )
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,                                              ( 9 )
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,                                      ( 10 )
Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,                           ( 11 )
When in eternal lines to Time thou grow’st.                                    ( 12 )
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,                                   ( 13 )
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.                                     ( 14 )

Commentary 
As the warm and long sunlit days of summer are approaching on the East Coast of the United States, many people are starting to think of the wonderful outdoor sights, experiences, and  their warm memories of the late spring days in May. In the opening line of Sonnet XVIII, the poet considers how his love would compare to a summer day. Shakespeare uses May as a symbol for the time of year when the cycle of seasons is approaching its greatest power. The poet is also using May as a metaphor representing the time in a man or woman’s life when he or she is approaching his or her greatest productivity and potency. Is this poem, then, about a season, a man or woman, or something else? Shakespeare requires us to guess about this question from the beginning to the end since there is never any direct mention in Sonnet 18 whether he is writing about a romantic love interest or another object of his affection. In the first line, he asks, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” Much of the rest of the poem attempts to compare his love to the summer. On the positive side, it is  lovelier, “more temperate,” and gentler than the days of May, which may produce “rough winds that shake the darling buds” of flowers. Lines 4-8 argue about other limitations of summer. The poet uses the metaphor of a  short-term lease to symbolize that summer’s enjoyment is only temporary. As the days of summer advance, the sun shines “too hot in the eye of heaven.” At other times, the brightness of the sun may be “dimmed” by passing clouds and other elements of “nature’s changing courses.” The rhyme pattern of the last words of the first octave maintains the ABABABAB pattern of most sonnets. For example, “day” in line 1 is rhymed with “May” in line 3, and “temperate” in line 2 is rhymed with “date” in line 4. The alternating rhyming patterns continue through line 12 until the last two lines where “see” is rhymed with “thee.”
In lines 9- 12 the poet considers other advantages of his love. He writes, “Thy eternal summer shall not fade” or lose the beauty or admiration that is owed to it. By this time, readers may suspect that Shakespeare may not be writing about Romantic love, which ultimately must fade with the passing of human life. Instead, he may be declaring that his writing will last for an eternity and that the power of his poetry will increase with time. In line 11, he writes that his love will have the power to overcome “death, ” as thou “wand’rest in his shade.” This line appears to be a Biblical reference to the 23rd Psalm, where the psalmist writes about overcoming  fear while walking through the “valley of the shadow of death.”  The last two lines of sonnets often give theme twists that decide where the poet is attempting to take his readers. Thus, in line 13, he  proclaims that his love will increase in Time as long as “men can breathe,”or  “eyes can see.” He believes his works will endure beyond lifetimes. In the last line, he writes,”So long lives this,” concluding that his works will be read forever by those who have discriminating tastes. Most people who have appreciated fine poetry for the last four centuries have needed need little convincing that Shakespeare’s works will endure as long people live and have eyes to perceive beauty. In the next Litchatte.com, blog, I will discuss Shakespeare’s Sonnet XCIV (94), which discusses the advantages and pitfalls of those who have power.

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Murray Ellison received an M.A. in Education from Temple University (1973), an M.A. in English Literature from Virginia Commonwealth University (2015), and a Doctorate in Education  from Virginia Tech in 1987. He is married and has three adult employed daughters. He retired as the Virginia Director of Community Corrections for the Department of Correctional Education in 2009. Currently, he serves as a literature teacher, board member, and curriculum advisor for the Lifelong Learning Institute in Chesterfield, Virginia. He is the Chief Editor of  www.LitChatte.com,  an editor for the “Correctional Education Magazine,” and editing a book of poetry written by an Indian mystic. He also serves as a board member and volunteer tour guide at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond Virginia. You can write to Murray by leaving a Comment on this Blog, or at ellisonms2@vcu.edu. You can also receive automatic postings from www.Litchatte.com by submitting your email address on the dialogue tab to the right of this Blog.

Murray Ellison at the Poe Museum
Murray  at the Poe Museum

 

 

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