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Shakespeare's Sonnet 18: Shall I Compare thee to a Summer’s Day?

Updated on November 17, 2015
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Muhammad Rafiq is a freelance writer, blogger, and translator with a Master's Degree in English literature from the University of Malakand.

Sonnet 18
Sonnet 18 | Source

Introduction to Sonnet 18

Sonnet 18 is regarded as one of the masterpieces of William Shakespeare. It is a sonnet, which has received massive appreciation from the critics with regard to its structure and theme. It is a part of Procreation Sonnets, which includes sonnets from 1 to 126. Procreation sonnets are those sonnets of Shakespeare wherein he argues that the Fair Youth should marry and produce children. Moreover, the Fair Youth will be able to live forever through these children after his death. It is a mystery to know about the Fair Youth. Nobody Knows, “Who was Fair Youth? What was his name? What was his relationship with Shakespeare?” It is an enigma, and will remain an enigma forever. Whatever may be the case, this sonnet is one of the most beautiful sonnets in the history of English literature.

Shakespeare's Sonnet 18
Shakespeare's Sonnet 18 | Source

Summary of Shakespeare's Sonnet 18

In this beautiful sonnet, Shakespeare, the poet, is confused as to whether he should compare the beauty of his beloved to a summer’s day or not. He is of the opinion that his beloved is more beautiful than the summer’s day. He puts forward various reasons to support his point of view. He says that the duration of the summer is very short as it sees the dawn of winter very quickly i.e., the end of summer. That’s why; the poet says that his beloved is more beautiful than the summer.

Then he moves forward and says that every beautiful thing has to see the end of its life. It may occur due to natural causes or by chance. Whatever may be the case, every beautiful thing will decline in this world. Thereafter, he turns to his beloved and says that he will not lose his beauty and he will not decline like other things. Rather, he will possess his beauty forever. Death will not be able to touch the beloved of Shakespeare as he has preserved him through his poetic magic. The more the verses of Shakespeare are read, the more the beauty of his beloved will grow. As long as there are human beings and they live, his beloved will live.

Sonnet 18
Sonnet 18 | Source

Shakespeare's Sonnet 18: Lines 1-2

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate:

In these lines, the poet is asking his beloved as to whether he should compare his beauty to a summer’s day or not. If he were to compare his beauty, then he would really come to know that his beauty is more gorgeous, stunning and more constant than the summer’s day. Literally, the word temperate means something, which is constant and never changes during the course of time. He says that the summer season is not an everlasting thing. It has to face its end as soon as the winter takes its place.

If you look at the very first line of the sonnet, it appears that the poet is addressing his beloved. We don’t know whether the addressee is present at the moment or not. Yet, the word thee suggests that he is addressing his beloved who is present before him. It is pertinent to mention here that the person he is addressing is a mystery. Nobody knows about the identity of the beloved of the poet. It is really shrouded in mystery and no one has given a satisfactory account of his beloved.

Notes:

  • Temperate: Literally, the word temperate means moderate, not going beyond limits, not excessive, but here it means constant, everlasting, consistent. The poet wants to clear it that the beauty of his beloved is not going to change unlike the summer season, which keeps on changing.
  • Summer’s Day: It means a summer season in this context.

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18: Lines 3-4

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,

And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:

In these lines, the poet goes forward to explain what he means by saying the first two lines. He says that the beauty of his beloved is more beautiful and constant than the beauty of summer. We know that the beauty of summer is totally dependent upon flowers. That’s why; summer looks beautiful and charming. Suppose, we have summer without flowers! Would you enjoy it? Of course, you will never ever enjoy the summer. Thus, in these lines, darling buds, which mean flowers, are a symbol of beauty. The gusts of rough winds shake the flowers to such an extent that they fall down on the ground, making the summer lose its beauty. That is the reason; the poet is of the opinion that the beauty of summer is not everlasting. It is subject to mortality, while the beauty of his beloved is everlasting. We know that when we hire something on a lease, we have to follow the terms and conditions of the lease i.e., agreement for a particular period. After the expiry of that particular period, we have to return the thing to its owner. Exactly in the same way, the summer has signed a lease with the nature for a limited period. After that specific period, it will have to go, while winter will replace it. Hence, its beauty remains for a specific period as compared with beauty of the beloved of the poet, which is constant and doesn't change with the passage of time.

Notes:

  • Buds: It means flowers, which symbolize beauty.

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18: Lines 5-6

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,

And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;

You might have observed changes in the temperature during summer. Sometimes, the temperature goes up, while other times it falls down. That’s why; the summer is very hot and relatively cold during different times. The poet calls the sun as eye of the heaven. Moreover, when there are clouds, we cannot feel the heat of the sun in its full essence. The reason is that the rays of the sun don’t fall directly on the earth as they are hindered by clouds. Thus, the sun seems to be hazy and blurred. That’s why; the poet says that the sun appears to be dim. In these lines, the poet has personified the sun by giving it human attributes. Complexion is used to describe the facial colour of a person. It is used only for human beings and not for inanimate objects.

Notes:

  • Eye of Heaven: This phrase means Sun.
  • Complexion: It means facial colour of a person.


Shakespeare's Sonnet 18: Lines 7-8

And every fair from fair sometime declines,

By chance, or nature’s changing course untrimm’d.

In these lines, the poet is of the opinion that everything, which is beautiful, must face its end by chance or naturally. The word decline means death, end, and elimination. Actually, the poet is referring to the death of beautiful things i.e., living things, which occurs in two ways: by chance or naturally. When someone dies during an accident, such a death would be termed as death by chance, but if someone dies naturally without interference of external force, then such a death is called natural death. Thus, the word untrimmed here means uninterrupted, unchanged, and spoiled. In simple words, the poet says that every living thing, which is beautiful, will face its death either by chance or through nature’s will. Beauty is mortal and it will have to face its death at any cost. Nothing will remain here except his beloved, who is above all and is not subject to any external force.

Notes:


  • Decline: It means death, end, and elimination.
  • Untrimm’d: It means uninterrupted, unchanged, and spoiled.

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Shakespeare's Sonnet 18 : Lines 9-10

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,

Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,

The poet is immensely impressed with the beauty of his beloved and he is appreciating it to a great deal. He is talking about the permanence of his beauty in contrast to the beauty of summer, which is ephemeral. He says that the summer of his beloved will never come to an end. Moreover, he will not lose his beauty. The word summer here means happy time that he is enjoying. The beloved of the poet will enjoy good time and his beauty forever. In the following lines, he explains as to why his beloved will remain beautiful forever when compared with the summer.

Notes:

  • Ow’st: It means to own, possess or have something.
  • Fair: Throughout the sonnet it means beauty.

Shakespeare's Sonnet 18: Lines 11-12

Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,

When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st;

In these lines, the poet is talking about immortality of beauty of his beloved. He says that nothing can take away the beauty of his beloved. So much so, death will not be able to drag him into the shadow of death. The poet has personified death as an assassin, who kills every person, who comes in his way. The idea here is that death will not be able to drag the beloved of the poet into his grave as he is being immortalized through immortal verses of the poet. Nothing can influence the beauty of his beloved as he has been preserved into immortal poesy of the poet. The last couplet of this sonnet will complete the meaning of these lines. So, keep on reading it.

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Shakespeare's Sonnet 18: Lines 13-14

So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,

So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

In this beautiful couplet, the poet wants to convey a message to his beloved that he will enjoy his life as long as there are human beings on the surface of this earth. As the beloved of the poet is preserved in the eternal poetry of the poet, his beloved will enjoy his life each and every time people read his poetry. The more people read his poetry, the more his beloved will enjoy his life. You might have observed that those people, who die aimlessly or without any cause, are never remembered by people. They become a part of the history and are buried over there in the annals of history. But those, who are having a particular characteristic or any other achievement they have made, are remembered in the annals of history. Their achievements are commemorated everywhere and every time someone reads his account. For example, Lady Diana is remembered for her spectacular beauty. Though, she is dead, yet she lives in the heart of people. Exactly in the same way, the poet wants to immortalize his beloved in his poetry. As long as humans will read his poetry, his beloved will be appreciated and commemorated.

© 2014 Muhammad Rafiq

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