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Shakespeare's Sonnet 18: Summary and Explanation

Muhammad Rafiq is a freelance writer, blogger, and translator with a master's degree in English literature from the University of Malakand.

This article provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Shakespeare's Sonnet 18.

This article provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Shakespeare's Sonnet 18.

Introduction to Sonnet 18

Sonnet 18 is regarded as one of William Shakespeare's masterpieces. It is a sonnet that has received massive appreciation from critics with regard to its structure and theme. It is a part of the Procreation Sonnets, which includes sonnets from 1 to 126.

The Procreation Sonnets are those of Shakespeare's sonnets wherein he argues that the Fair Youth should marry and produce children. Moreover, the Fair Youth will be able to live forever through these children after his death.

The Fair Youth remains an elusive mystery. Nobody knows the Fiar Youth's name. What was his relationship with Shakespeare? The character remains an enigma. Whatever may be the case, this sonnet is one of the most beautiful sonnets in the history of English literature.

The full text of Shakespeare's Sonnet 18.

The full text of Shakespeare's Sonnet 18.

Summary of Shakespeare's Sonnet 18

In this beautiful sonnet, Shakespeare is confused as to whether he should compare the beauty of his beloved to a summer’s day or not. He is of the opinion that his beloved is more beautiful than a summer’s day, and puts forward various reasons to support his point of view.

He says that the duration of the summer is very short as it sees the dawn of winter very quickly (i.e., the end of summer). That’s one reason the poet says that his beloved is more beautiful than the summer.

Then he moves on to say that every beautiful thing has to see the end of its life. It may occur due to natural causes or by chance. Whatever may be the case, every beautiful thing will decline in this world.

Thereafter, he turns to his beloved and says that he will not lose their beauty and it will not decline like other things. Rather, he will possess this beauty forever. Death will not be able to touch Shakespeare's beloved as he has preserved them through his poetic magic.

The more the verses of Shakespeare are read, the more the beauty of his beloved will grow. As long as there are human beings and they live, his beloved will live.

A Reading of Shakespeare's Sonnet 18

Shakespeare's Sonnet 18: Lines 1-2

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate:

In these lines, the poet is asking his beloved whether he should compare his beauty to a summer’s day or not. If he were to compare his beauty, then he would really come to know that his beauty is more gorgeous, stunning and more constant than the summer’s day.

Literally, the word temperate means constant and never changning during the course of time. He says that the summer season is not an everlasting thing. It has to face its end as soon as the winter takes its place.

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If you look at the very first line of the sonnet, it appears that the poet is addressing his beloved. We don’t know whether the addressee is present at the moment or not. Yet, the word thee suggests that he is addressing his beloved who is present before him.

It is pertinent to recall here that the person he is addressing is a mystery. Nobody knows about the identity of the beloved of the poet. It is really shrouded in mystery and no one has given a satisfactory account of his beloved.

Notes:

  • Temperate: Literally, the word temperate means moderate, not going beyond limits, not excessive, but here it means constant, everlasting, consistent. The poet wants to be clear that the beauty of his beloved is not going to change unlike the summer season, which keeps on changing.
  • Summer’s Day: It means a summer season in this context.

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18: Lines 3-4

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,

And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:

In these lines, the poet goes on to explain what he means by saying the first two lines. He says that the beauty of his beloved is more beautiful and constant than the beauty of summer. We know that the beauty of summer is totally dependent upon flowers. That’s why summer looks beautiful and charming.

Suppose, we have summer without flowers! Would you enjoy it? Of course, you will never ever enjoy the summer. Thus, in these lines, darling buds, which mean flowers, are a symbol of beauty.

The gusts of rough winds shake the flowers to such an extent that they fall down on the ground, making the summer lose its beauty. That is the reason the poet is of the opinion that the beauty of summer is not everlasting. It is subject to mortality, while the beauty of his beloved is everlasting.

We know that when we hire something on a lease, we have to follow the terms and conditions of the lease (i.e., agreement for a particular period). After the expiry of that particular period, we have to return the thing to its owner.

In the same way, the summer has signed a lease with nature for a limited period. After that specific period, it will have to go, while winter will replace it. Hence, its beauty remains for a specific period as compared with the beauty of the beloved of the poet, which is constant and doesn't change with the passage of time.

Notes:

  • Buds: It means flowers, which symbolize beauty.

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18: Lines 5-6

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,

And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;

You might have observed changes in the temperature during summer. Sometimes, the temperature goes up, while other times it falls down. That’s why the summer is very hot and relatively cold during different times.

The poet calls the sun the eye of the heaven. Moreover, when there are clouds, we cannot feel the heat of the sun in its full essence. The reason is that the rays of the sun don’t fall directly on the earth as they are hindered by clouds. Thus, the sun seems to be hazy and blurred. That’s why the poet says that the sun appears to be dim.

In these lines, the poet has personified the sun by giving it human attributes. Its complexion is used to describe the facial colour of a person. It is used only for human beings and not for inanimate objects.

Notes:

  • Eye of Heaven: This phrase means Sun.
  • Complexion: It means the facial colour of a person.

Shakespeare's Sonnet 18: Lines 7-8

And every fair from fair sometime declines,

By chance, or nature’s changing course untrimm’d.

In these lines, the poet is of the opinion that everything, which is beautiful, must face its end by chance or naturally. The word decline means death, end, and elimination. Actually, the poet is referring to the death of beautiful things (i.e., living things), which occurs in two ways: by chance or naturally.

When someone dies during an accident, such a death would be termed as death by chance, but if someone dies naturally without interference of external force, then such a death is called natural death. Thus, the word untrimmed here means uninterrupted, unchanged, and spoiled.

In simple words, the poet says that every living thing, which is beautiful, will face its death either by chance or through nature’s will. Beauty is mortal and it will have to face its death at any cost. Nothing will remain here except his beloved, who is above all and is not subject to any external force.

Notes:

  • Decline: It means death, end, and elimination.
  • Untrimm’d: It means uninterrupted, unchanged, and spoiled.

Further Explanation and Analysis of Sonnet 18

Poll

Shakespeare's Sonnet 18: Lines 9-10

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,

Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,

The poet is immensely impressed with the beauty of his beloved and he is appreciating it to a great deal. He is talking about the permanence of his beauty in contrast to the beauty of summer, which is ephemeral. He says that the summer of his beloved will never come to an end. Moreover, he will not lose his beauty.

The word summer here means happy time that he is enjoying. The beloved of the poet will enjoy good time and his beauty forever. In the following lines, he explains as to why his beloved will remain beautiful forever when compared with the summer.

Notes:

  • Ow’st: It means to own, possess or have something.
  • Fair: Throughout the sonnet it means beauty.

Shakespeare's Sonnet 18: Lines 11-12

Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,

When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st;

In these lines, the poet is talking about the immortality of the beauty of his beloved. He says that nothing can take away the beauty of his beloved. So much so, death will not be able to drag him into the shadow of death. The poet has personified death as an assassin, who kills every person, who comes in his way.

The idea here is that death will not be able to drag the beloved of the poet into his grave as he is being immortalized through immortal verses of the poet. Nothing can influence the beauty of his beloved as he has been preserved into the immortal poesy of the poet. The last couplet of this sonnet will complete the meaning of these lines. So, keep on reading it.

Simple Quiz

For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets:
    • Yes
    • No.

Answer Key

  1. Yes

Shakespeare's Sonnet 18: Lines 13-14

So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,

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

In this beautiful couplet, the poet wants to convey a message to his beloved that he will enjoy his life as long as there are human beings on the surface of this earth. As the beloved of the poet is preserved in the eternal poetry of the poet, his beloved will enjoy his life each and every time people read his poetry. The more people read his poetry, the more his beloved will enjoy his life.

You might have observed that those people, who die aimlessly or without any cause, are never remembered by people. They become a part of history and are buried over by time. But those, who are having a particular characteristic or any other achievement they have made, are remembered in the annals of history. Their achievements are commemorated everywhere and every time someone reads his account.

For example, Lady Diana is remembered for her spectacular beauty. Though she is dead, yet she lives in the heart of people. In the same way, the poet wants to immortalize his beloved in his poetry. As long as humans will read his poetry, his beloved will be appreciated and commemorated.

Sources and Further Reading

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2014 Muhammad Rafiq

Comments

Arif ullah on January 16, 2019:

Sir was the 154 sonnet written by shakespear or any other,if shakespear then why he wrote about the lord?

Arif ullah on January 16, 2019:

Sir as we know that all the sonnetiers has written sonnet about their belovers women,but shakespear has written 126 sonnet about their lord,so the question is that why he wrote sonnet about lord?

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