Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18

27 08 2009

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

                                                            -Shakespeare

 One of the great maxims of our age* should be: when in doubt, quote Shakespeare. It’s not one, at least that I’m aware of, but in the busy storm of life, or in a lack of inspiration, Shakespeare is a safe harbour to sail into…

 Any Poet in a storm? **

 Yes? No. No, sorry. Forget I said that. *cough*

 Anyway, enough has already been written about the romantically titled Sonnet 18 (above) such that adding my meagre voice to the mix is hardly going to contribute to the overall understanding of the poem. In short, however,  the poem asks whether it should compare the subject to a summer’s day, and then describes why the subject is much ‘fairer’ than that, as a summers day is shorter, rougher, and more likely to decline than the person that it is being compared to. In the same way that a person may be flattered with faint praise the poem has the effect of praising the subject through the fact that a summers day compares unfavourably to them, though it is perhaps fairer to say that the person compares to the ideal summers day, one that is not rough, or brief, or intemperate.

Sonnet 18

Sonnet 18

The poem is, ostensibly, as much about writing poetry as it is about the subjects ‘fairness’. Where the first half denigrates the act of poetic comparison, and the poet’s ability to find an apt symbol, the second half of the poem brags that by expressing the subject in poetry they have essentially immortalised them.

 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,

This may be a bit of ‘street’ poetry criticism. But with this sonnet I feel like there are serviceable lines, for eg. ‘But thy eternal summer shall not fade’, and then there are the ‘Money Quotes’ like ‘Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade’. Oh yeah. That’s the good stuff. It’s all great, don’t get me wrong. This is Shakespeare, the man had a skill. But some phrases are more… transcendent than others. ‘Rough winds do shake the darling buds of may,’ is another one. Rhythm, rhyme, and meaning all come together into one finely tuned phrase. The beauty nearly obscures the actual meaning of the line.

 Neither sentiments – that the person being described is too beautiful to be described aptly, and the immortalisation in poetry of said beauty – are original to Shakespeare. Ovid’s Tristia is the much cited [suspected] inspiration for the second theme.

 What is more interesting is the gentle battleground being drawn across this poem as it relates to the subject of Shakespeare’s sexuality. Actually, it’s not really a battleground. It’s more of a vague musing on the part of those Shakespeare scholars who have plainly exhausted all other possible avenues of speculation. The matter breaks down, more or less, into the order of the Sonnets as they were published.

 Sonnet 18 is clearly a poem of intense adoration, to the point where it is very often used as an example of classical love poetry. On the other hand, the poem is traditionally understood as being part of a series of sonnets called ‘The Fair Youth Sequence’ which are dedicated to a male friend of Shakespeare. This leads some scholars to think that, mayhap, the Bard preferred a bit o’ the ‘love that dare not speak its name.’ the counter argument is, of course, fuck it, Shakespeare was married. Then again, he ran away from his wife to live amidst the merry thespians of London. All in all, it’s fairly inconclusive. The other complication is the suggestion that the order of the poems was arbitrarily changed by the publisher who just threw number 18 in after 17 because, hell, it seemed to fit. No one’s going to read too much into it, right?

 This is, very possibly, the least important question in Shakespeare scholarship. You can also tell that this is one of his earlier sonnets. As time went on, Shakey*** became less fond of the end stopping he uses frequently in this poem and gets more into the use of enjambment. It is said, though I’ve put almost negative effort thus far into verifying the claim, that REAL Shakespeare scholars can date his plays and sonnets by how heavily enjambed they are. Cool, eh?

 ~Chris.

  *What ARE the great maxims of our age? I have no idea. Don’t spit into the wind? No, that’s more a maxim for EVERY age. I know: Don’t go up against a Sicilian when DEATH is on the line! and stay out of the Fire Swamp. Also, you can’t be told what the Matrix is; you have to see it for yourself. 

 ** I Ought to be Bard.

 *** Otherwise known as The Bard, or DJ Spears.

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