Shakespeare Sonnet 18: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?" - Owlcation - Education
Updated date:

Shakespeare Sonnet 18: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?"

The Shakespeare 154-sonnet sequence remains essential in my poetry tool kit. Masterfully crafted, they dramatize love, beauty, and truth.

The real "Shakespeare": Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

The real "Shakespeare": Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 18: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?"

The second thematic group,"The Muse Sonnets," from the classic Shakespeare 154-sonnet sequence, begins with sonnet 18; the Shakespeare speaker shifts his focus from persuading a young man to marry and produce lovely offspring to addressing his own important issues regarding his writing talent. Sonnets 18-126, which make up the bulk of the classic 154-sonnet sequence, finds the speaker addressing his muse, his own frailties, and often the poem itself in his quest to guarantee that he always has some profound issue to address in his creative writings .

The first installment, Sonnet 18: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?," from the second thematic group of the Shakespeare sonnets finds the speaker comparing the sonnet to a day in summer. As with the other sonnets in this group, this poem has been widely misunderstood to be comparing a paramour to a summer’s day. However, it will become obvious that there is no human being in this poem or in any of the others that make up this thematic group.

This group has been widely mischaracterized as speaking to a young man and thus wrongly titled as "The Fair Youth" sonnets. But readers will come to realize that there is no person, let alone a young man, in this group of sonnets. Sonnet 18, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day,” represents the typical English sonnet, which is also labeled Shakespearean or Elizabethan sonnet. This form plays out in three quatrains with the rime scheme ABAB CDCD EFEF and a couplet with the rime GG.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

Sonnet 18: “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 dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;
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.

Reading of Sonnet 18

Commentary

Comparing his sonnet to a summer day, the speaker finds his own creation to possess advantages over that beautiful seasonal wonder.

First Quatrain: A Poem Outlasts Summer

ShallI 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:

The first quatrain opens with the speaker musing on whether he should compare his poem to a warm summer's day. He then continues to make that comparison. He finds that his poem is, in fact, more beautiful and more even tempered than one of those lovely days in summer. The conclusion that his poem is more beautiful would remain just the speaker's opinion; so he proceeds to prove his opinion correct. He then claims that the early flowers in May are sometimes shaken by "rough winds," a fact that demonstrates that a summer day may be not at all "temperate."

Plus he adds the fact that summer just does not last long. It comes and goes quickly. The poem, on the other hand, may last forever once its written. Its beauty will remain mild, not shaking any buds in its wake. Of course, the reader is aware that summer does not actually begin until the middle of June. But the speaker by demonstrating that even in May the weather may be violent and disagreeable, therefore, one can expect at least the equal for summer proper.

Second Quatrain: No Fickle Weather in a Poem

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;

The speaker then complains that summer can also be too hot; this heaven's eye can pour down miserable weather in the summer season. But that same sun can also be obscured by a cloud cover. Thus that summer's day can be hampered in ways that the poem will not. No hot sunshine can spoil that poem, and no cloud can glide along to obscure it. Its loveliness stands unscathed, while a summer day can be molested simply by the extremes of the sun. The speaker has chosen the most agreeable season to which to compare his poem. If he had chosen to compare it to a day in winter, he would have taken an unfair advantage in his argument.

The speaker admits that most natural creations will diminish with time—even people. Some things will tarnish "by chance" while most things will be lessened through the changing of the course of nature. However, as the speaker has been comparing the poem to the summer day, the summer's day is already in the deficit with rough winds shaking the early flowers, the sun sometimes too hot, sometimes shaded by clouds. He makes it clear that such natural diminishing cannot happen to the poem.

Third Quatrain: Existence in Perpetuity

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;

In the third stanza, the speaker delineates the advantages that the sonnet demonstrates in contrast to the summer's day. Unlike the summer day that must end, the sonnet will remain forever, defying the ravages of time that the day must undergo. The sonnet's summer will not fade as the natural summer day inevitably will. The sonnet will never lose its loveliness. It will not die as people do but instead will exist in perpetuity as the poet has created "eternal lines."

The Couplet: Temperate Throughout Eternity

So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

In the couplet, the speaker caps his argument with finality, completing his argument with a flourish. As long as humanity exists and continues to read, the speaker's sonnets will continue to live and demonstrate their beauty. Unlike that summer's day that will go on demonstrating adverse temperatures and then come to a close, his poem/sonnet will always remain "temperate," and it will remain throughout eternity.

Michael Dudley - Bard Identity: Becoming an Oxfordian

The De Vere Society

The De Vere Society

Questions & Answers

Question: How is the speaker able to effectively compare the beauty of nature to the beauty of a person in Shakespeare's "Sonnet 18"?

Answer: This poem is one of the bard’s most widely anthologized, and most widely misunderstood, sonnets. Hint: there is no person in this poem. He is not comparing "beauty of nature" to "beauty of a person." Sonnet 18 begins the second thematic group which focuses on the speaker's writing skills as he addresses his muse. The speaker also addresses his own ability, and the power of his skill, and at times even speaks to the poem, as in sonnet 18, in which he dramatizes a comparison of the poem to a day in summer.

Question:

Can you compare sonnet 18 to other literary works?

Answer: Yes. You can compare that sonnet and the other sonnets to other literary works, especially in terms of theme, use of imagery, and metaphor.

Question: What sonnet style is used in Shakespeare's Sonnet 18?

Answer: Sonnet 18 represents the traditional English sonnet, also labeled Shakespearean or Elizabethan. This form features three quatrains with the rime scheme ABAB CDCD EFEF and a couplet with the rime GG.

Question: Does Shakespeare's Sonnet 18 have anything to do with unrequited love?

Answer: No, the theme has nothing to do with unrequited love. Sonnet 18 begins the second thematic group which focuses on the speaker's writing skills as he addresses his muse. The speaker also addresses his own ability, and the power of his skill, and at times even speaks to the poem, as in sonnet 18, in which he dramatizes a comparison of the poem to a day in summer.

Question: In Shakespeare's Sonnet 18, to whom is the speaker addressing?

Answer: In Shakespeare Sonnet 18, the speaker is addressing his sonnet.

Question: What is the purpose of each quatrain?

Answer: First Quatrain: The first quatrain opens with the speaker musing on whether he should compare his poem to a warm summer's day. He then continues to make that comparison. He finds that his poem is, in fact, more beautiful and more even-tempered than one of those lovely days in summer.

Second Quatrain: The speaker then complains that summer can also be too hot; this heaven's eye can pour down miserable weather in the summer season.

Third Quatrain: In the third quatrain, the speaker delineates the advantages that the sonnet demonstrates in contrast to the summer's day. Unlike the summer day that must end, the sonnet will remain forever, defying the ravages of time that the day must undergo.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

Related Articles