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

Updated on December 29, 2017
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Shakespeare Sonnet Titles

The Shakespeare Sonnet sequence does not feature titles for each sonnet; therefore, each sonnet's first line becomes the title. According to the MLA Style Manuel:

"When the first line of a poem serves as the title of the poem, reproduce the line exactly as it appears in the text."

APA does not address this issue.

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

The real "Shakespeare"
The real "Shakespeare" | Source

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 18

The Second Thematic Group: "The Muse Sonnets"

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.

As might be expected, the speaker even muses on writer's block in some of the installments.

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: "ShallI compare thee to a summer’s day?"

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:
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

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 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, speaker caps his argument with finality completing his argument with a flourish: “So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, / So long lives this, and this gives life to thee."

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 continue to demonstrate adverse temperatures and then come to a close, his poem/sonnet will always remain "temperate" and it will remain eternally.

A Brief Overview of the 154-Sonnet Sequence

Marriage Sonnets 1-17

The speaker in the Shakespeare “Marriage Sonnets” pursues a single goal: to persuade a young man to marry and produce beautiful offspring. It is likely that the young man is Henry Wriothesley, the third earl of Southampton, who is being urged to marry Elizabeth de Vere, the oldest daughter of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.

Many scholars and critics now argue persuasively that Edward de Vere is the writer of the works attributed to the nom de plume, "William Shakespeare."

For more information regarding Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, as the real writer of the Shakespearean canon, please visit The De Vere Society, an organization that is "dedicated to the proposition that the works of Shakespeare were written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford."

Muse Sonnets 18-126 (Erroneously "Fair Youth")

The speaker in this section of sonnets is exploring his talent, his dedication to his art, and his own soul power. In some sonnets, the speaker addresses his muse, in others he addresses himself, and in others he even addresses the poem itself.

Even though many scholars and critics have traditionally categorized this group of sonnets as the "Fair Youth Sonnets," there is no "fair youth," that is "young man," in these sonnets. There is no person at all in this sequence, with exception of the two problematic sonnets, 108 and 126.

Dark Lady Sonnets 127-154

The final sequence targets an adulterous romance with a woman of questionable character; the term “dark” likely modifies the woman’s character flaws, not her skin tone.

Two Problematic Sonnets: 108 and 126

Sonnet 108 and 126 present a problem in categorization. While most of the sonnets in the "Muse Sonnets" do focus on the poet's musings about his writing talent and do not focus on a human being, sonnets 108 and 126 are speaking to a young man, respectively calling him "sweet boy" and "lovely boy."

Sonnet 126 presents an additional problem: it is not technically a "sonnet," because it features six couplets, instead of the traditional three quatrains and a couplet.

The themes of sonnets 108 and 126 would better categorize with the "Marriage Sonnets" because they do address a "young man." It is likely that sonnets 108 and 126 are at least partially responsible for the erroneous labeling of the "Muse Sonnets" as the "Fair Youth Sonnets" along with the claim that those sonnets address a young man.

While most scholars and critics tend to categorize the sonnets into the three-themed schema, others combine the "Marriage Sonnets" and the "Fair Youth Sonnets" into one group of "Young Man Sonnets." This categorization strategy would be accurate if the "Muse Sonnets" actually addressed a young man, as only the "Marriage Sonnets" do.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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