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Shakespeare Sonnet 54

Updated on October 16, 2018
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

The real "Shakespeare"
The real "Shakespeare" | Source

Introduction: Rose vs Rose

The speaker in Shakespeare sonnet 54 compares outer beauty with inner beauty, employing the symbol of two types of roses.

As a sonneteer, this writer has continued to take a vow to approach his work with sincerity, honesty, and unalloyed truthfulness. He has no interest in the mere baubles and tinsel of outward physical encasement for show.

This speaker/poet has chosen the goal of creating works that remain vibrantly filled with truth throughout eternity or until the last poetry reader has vanished form the Earth.

Reading of Sonnet 54

First Quatrain: "O! how much more doth beauty beauteous seem"

The first quatrain of sonnet 54 features the speaker proclaiming that beauty is only genuine when loveliness is contained inwardly, as well as outwardly, demonstrating the quality called "beautiful."

The speaker continues by exemplifying his claim as he reports that the human feeling regarding a rose is replete with the philosophical stance, on which he is now elaborating. He explains, "The rose looks fair, but fairer we it deem / For that sweet odour, which doth in it live."

The rose's odor delights the human nostrils because its petals of beauty are infused with that delightful fragrance. The fragrance symbolizes the inner beauty of the rose while the shape and color of the petals represent the outward beauty.

Second Quatrain: "The canker blooms have full as deep a dye"

The cultivated rose contrasts with "canker blooms." The latter remain the wild dog roses that grow naturally and are not cultivated to produce pleasantries.

The cultivated rose possesses "the perfumed tincture," while the canker blooms do not. The latter may look pleasant, but it lacks inner beauty, symbolized by fragrance.

Just as the canker bloom is naturally shielded by its thorns, so is the cultivated rose. Also "summer's breath" is said to play over both roses. Yet only the cultivated rose performs service for humanity while the canker rose goes unobserved.

Third Quatrain: "But, for their virtue only is their show"

The canker rose possesses only outward loveliness. Because that rose does not yield a corresponding lovely fragrance, it remains undesired. Outward beauty alone, again, is found wanting, even in roses. Lack of inner beauty causes the canker rose to remain undesired for human consumption.

Thus, the canker blooms expire "to themselves," while the sweet blooms continue to be searched out for they posses both inner and outer beauty. The rose with inner as well as outer beauty can be transformed into sweet smelling perfume after the rose itself dies: "Of their sweet deaths are sweetest odours made."

The Couplet: "And so of you, beauteous and lovely youth"

The couplet unveils the speaker's comparison that he has been constructing throughout the three quatrains: soul qualities are the eternal qualities that remain most important vs the outward garb of physical encasement beauty: "And so of you, beauteous and lovely youth, / When that shall vade, my verse distills your truth."

The speaker contends that the muse will remain everlastingly young because it functions as an instrument of the eternal soul. The muse will remain beautiful throughout eternity for that same reason; it is of the eternally youthful and beautiful soul.

Despite the natural aging process of the aging poet, the muse will be able to retain her vitality, her "beauteous and lovely." Even as the poet ages, he makes a solemn vow to his own muse and soul that he will "distill your truth" in verse.

This speaker/poet will never cave in to the satisfaction of creating outwardly beautiful sonnets; he will instead fill his works with truth eternal as he constructs his poems and bases them on all things transcendental.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes


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