Shakespeare for a summer’s day

And now, a little Shakespeare for a summer’s day.

Shakespeare’s Sonnet #18

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 wand’rest 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.

A quick word about Shakespeare’s sonnet sequence: Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets. Yeah, that’s a lot. The sonnets have often been subdivided into two groups: sonnets 1-126 (about a lovely young man) and sonnets 127-54 (about a “Dark Lady”). The first group also contains various subdivisions, mostly thematically based. Sonnet 18 is one of the so-called “eternizing” or “immortalizing” sonnets, variations on the theme of the power of writing to preserve that which eventually will fade and die, most notably the beauty of the beloved. One of the things so interesting about these eternizing sonnets is that they end up being as much about the poetry as they are about the beloved. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

(Tangent: because of the literary predominance of William Shakespeare, more nonsense has been written about him than all other writers in English combined. I cannot say how many gallons of ink and forests of trees have been expended in the search for the “true” identities of the handsome youth and the dark lady of these sonnets. I think this is a waste of time for one simple reason: we have no reason to accept unchallenged the premise that the sonnets are autobiographical. Could they be? Sure. Are they, beyond a reasonable doubt? Absolutely not. Further, even if the sonnets were autobiographical and if we could somehow unearth these true identities, what difference would it make? Would we really read the sonnets all that differently if we knew exactly to and about whom they were written? Maybe, but I don’t really think so.)

Sorry. Back to Sonnet #18. One of the things I love most about this sonnet: the answer to the question in line 1 is, ultimately, “not so much.” Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Well, summer is less attractive than the beloved, less temperate, shorter, hotter, more variable, and finite. Summer always ends. The beloved’s summer (the young man at his peak of strength and beauty), on the other hand, shall last forever, preserved in the lines of this poem for all time (or, at least, as long as people live to read it). According to the persona there’s really no comparison. True to form for an immortalizing sonnet, by the end #18 has become as much about itself as the love object. The beloved’s “eternal summer” shall never fade, but only because of the “eternal lines” of this sonnet, the repetition of “eternal” being quite deliberate. The final line is brilliantly constructed, the chiasmus (words repeated in reverse order: lives / this : this / life) emphasizing that, although the beloved inspires the sonnet, the real power lies in this (the sonnet) to bestow eternal life upon the beloved:

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

Some folks think Sonnet #18 is Shakespeare’s finest love poem. I disagree. For testaments to the true power of love, I’ll take Sonnet #29 or #116, thank you. But if nothing else, #18 does serve as a powerful reminder this August day to gather ye rosebuds while ye may (Robert Herrick; you can look him up), for summer’s lease has all too short a date.

2 thoughts on “Shakespeare for a summer’s day

  1. Susan Kuzia

    I thoroughlly enjoyed your comments, and I now need to look up the other two sonnets that you mentioned! You make me want to be an English major again, Dave. You must be an awesome professor, and I would love to take one of your classes. I think that you have surpassed Mark Benbow!

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