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WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE: SHALL I COMPARE THEE TO A SUMMERS DAY?

Updated on April 18, 2008

'SHALL I COMPARE THEE TO A SUMMER'S DAY?'

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 dimmed;

And every fair from fair sometime declines,

By chance or nature's changing course untrimmed:

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.

Form

The basic structure of most Shakespearean sonnets can be represented in this way:

ABAB CDCD EFEF GG

There are fourteen rhymed lines in the poem, each consisting of ten syllables. This is the basic form of the sonnet. The poem has a variety of rhymes - seven pairs altogether.

Identifying a turn may at first sight have seemed tricky: Shakespeare's sonnet is printed as an unbroken fourteen-line poem rather than as two sections of eight lines and six lines. Even so, we can still observe an octave and a sestet in the poem, with a definite turn between them, introduced by the word 'But'.

Most English sonnets are divided into lines of roughly ten syllables with five stresses - a measure or metre known as pentameter. You have seen that Sonnet 18 follows this metre strictly, and the arrangement of its stresses or marks of emphasis can be represented as follows, with accents to indicate the stressed syllables:

'Shall I compa´re thee to´ asu´mmer's da´y?

A line of poetry that repeatedly uses an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable is called an iambic line. Sonnet 18, then, is written in iambic pentameter - lines of ten syllables with five alternating stresses. Iambic pentameter is the most common measure used in English poetry, but you might hear it almost everywhere in everyday English speech, since its rhythm slips easily into those of ordinary conversation.

Like rhythm, the rhyme scheme in Shakespeare's sonnets is extremely important: it often conditions the way in which we read the poems, and it can shape the meanings we derive from them. Sonnet 18, for instance, can be read not just as an octave and sestet (eight lines followed by six), but as three quatrains (three units of four lines) followed by a closing couplet of two rhymed lines. The rhymed couplet, which Thomas Wyatt brought to the English sonnet, is a very distinctive feature of Shakespeare's sonnets, so strongly marked that it might even be considered an additional turn: it appears to 'clinch' the argument or offer the reader/listener a summarizing statement that has the force and authority of a proverb or epigram (a condensed or pointed statement, usually witty or surprising).

Meaning

The opening of Sonnet 18 immediately makes a comparison between the poet's friend and the beauty of a summer's day. This technique of presenting one thing as being similar to another is known as simile. Line 5, however, makes use of metaphor, not just likening but substituting one thing for another, so that the sun becomes 'the eye of heaven'. The metaphor is extended into line 6, where the sun becomes a human face with a 'gold complexion'. The imagery of light is continued in line 8, which refers both to the decline of natural beauty when left uncultivated or 'untrimmed' and also to the guttering light of a candle left 'untrimmed'. It has also been suggested that the line contains a subtle linking of 'nature's changing course' and the 'untrimmed' sails of a boat ('trimming' in all of these instances implying an act of neatness and order). Finally, the words 'fade' and 'shade' also hint at conditions of light (or the loss of light). Imagery, then, can be seen as a way of giving shape and coherence to the form or structure of a poem.

The repetition of the word 'summer' develops the ideas and arguments of the poem. The speaker says that his friend will grow 'to time' (he will reach as far as time can go) in 'eternal lines'. Here, the speaker is using a pun or double-meaning, suggesting both 'lines' of descent, from one family to the next, and 'lines' of poetry. In contrast to the brevity of summer, his friend's beauty will be celebrated eternally in the lines of the poem.

The word fair is also repeated several time. Line seven of the poem asserts that 'every fair from fair sometime declines', perhaps suggesting that every fair thing (in the sense of every beautiful thing) eventually loses its fairness. The line seems to gain strength from its compression and also from the repeated 'f' sound. Then the word 'fair' reappears, again in a rather odd way, in line 10: 'Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st.' Here, 'ow'st' is an abbreviated form of 'ownest'. Summer is 'leased' for a short period of time, but the 'fair' friend of the poet will never lose possession of his beauty, because it will always be celebrated and remembered in the poem itself.

A simple device of repetition - repeating 'summer', 'eternal' and 'fair' - can help to shape or develop ideas and arguments. One of the familiar 'building blocks' of poetry is imagery, a set of words that evokes strong sense impressions (usually visual). So, for instance, 'a summer's day' is an image that evokes impressions of sunshine and warmth. The purpose of imagery is to make some vague or abstract idea, such as love, seem more concrete through likening it to something vivid and perceptible. Shakespeare's sonnets make extensive use of particular images; in fact, these images are a major structuring device.

A little Controversy Perhaps?

We might assume that the sonnet is addressed to a beautiful woman, but it is now generally accepted that both the speaker and the imagined listener are male. This sonnet is one of a sequence of 154 poems, first published together in 1609. The first 126 sonnets record and celebrate the poet’s friendship with a young man, referred to in one sonnet as ‘my lovely boy’, while the later sonnets reveal the presence of a ‘dark lady’. One of the most unusual features of Shakespeare’s sonnet sequence is this intense concentration on a friendship between two men. The speaker addresses the young man in Sonnet 18 with passionate and extravagant words. The nature of the friendship between the two men is never explicitly stated, though it is possible that Shakespeare is addressing a patron and using praise and flattery to seal what is essentially an economic relationship. The suggestion of gay love in Shakespeare’s sonnets has been alluded to by later writers, including Oscar Wilde, and there are certainly instances of a more explicit homo-eroticism in the writings of Shakespeare’s contemporaries.

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