Summary and Full Analysis of Sonnet 18 by William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare and Sonnet 18
Sonnet 18 is perhaps the best known of all sonnets. Shakespeare wrote 154 of them but this one tends to top most popular lists, mainly due to the opening line which every romantic knows off by heart.
But there is much more to this line than meets the eye, as you'll find out later in the analysis. And please be aware that not every line of every Shakespeare sonnet is written in pure iambic pentameter - a mistake made by many a supposed authority.
William Shakespeare's sonnets are world renowned and are said to been written for a 'fair youth' (1 - 126) and a 'dark lady' (127 - 154), but no one is 100% certain. There are no definite names and no written evidence. Shakespeare may have been well known in his lifetime but he was also very good at keeping secrets.
The sonnets were first published in 1609, seven years before his death, and their remarkable quality has kept them in the public eye ever since. Their depth and range set Shakespeare apart from all other sonneteers.
His sonnet 18 focuses on the loveliness of a friend or lover, the speaker initially asking a rhetorical question comparing them to a summer's day. He then goes on to introduce the pros and cons of the weather, from an idyllic English summer's day to a less welcome dimmed sun and rough winds.
In the end, it is the poetry that will keep the lover alive for ever, defying even death.
Analysis Of Sonnet 18
Sonnet 18 is devoted to praising a friend or lover, traditionally known as the 'fair youth', the sonnet itself a guarantee that this person's beauty will be sustained. Even death will be silenced because the lines of verse will be read by future generations, when speaker and poet and lover are no more, keeping the fair image alive through the power of verse.
- The opening line is almost a tease, reflecting the speaker's uncertainty as he attempts to compare his lover with a summer's day. The rhetorical question is posed for both speaker and reader and even the metrical stance of this first line is open to conjecture. Is it pure iambic pentameter? This comparison will not be straightforward.
This image of the perfect English summer's day is then surpassed as the second line reveals that the lover is more lovely and more temperate. Lovely is still quite commonly used in England and carries the same meaning (attractive, nice, beautiful) whilst temperate in Shakespeare's time meant gentle-natured, restrained, moderate and composed.
- The second line refers directly to the lover with the use of the second person pronoun Thou, now archaic. As the sonnet progresses however, lines 3 - 8 concentrate on the ups and downs of the weather, and are distanced, taken along on a steady iambic rhythm (except for line 5, see later).
Summer time in England is a hit and miss affair weather-wise. Winds blow, rain clouds gather and before you know where you are, summer has come and gone in a week.The season seems all too short - that's true for today as it was in Shakespeare's time - and people tend to moan when it's too hot, and grumble when it's overcast.
- The speaker is suggesting that for most people, summer will pass all too quickly and they will grow old, as is natural, their beauty fading with the passing of the season.
With repetition, alliteration and internal and end rhyme, the reader is taken along through this uncertain, changing, fateful time. Note the language of these lines: rough, shake, too short, Sometimes, too hot, often, dimmed, declines, chance, changing, untrimmed.
And there are interesting combinations within each line, which add to the texture and soundscape: Rough/buds, shake/May, hot/heaven, eye/shines, often/gold/complexion, fair from fair, sometimes/declines, chance/nature/changing, nature/course.
Life is not an easy passage through Time for most, if not all people. Random events can radically alter who we are, and we are all subject to Time's effects.
In the meantime the vagaries of the English summer weather are called up again and again as the speaker attempts to put everything into perspective. Finally, the lover's beauty, metaphorically an eternal summer, will be preserved forever in the poet's immmortal lines.
And those final two lines, 13 and 14, are harmony itself. Following twelve lines without any punctuated caesura (a pause or break in the delivery of the line), line 13 has a 6/4 caesura and the last line a 4/6. The humble comma sorts out the syntax, leaving everything in balance, giving life.
Perhaps only someone of genius could claim to have such literary powers, strong enough to preserve the beauty of a lover, beyond even death.
Sonnet 18 Language and Tone
Note the use of the verb shall and the different tone it brings to separate lines. In the first line it refers to the uncertainty the speaker feels. In line nine there is the sense of some kind of definite promise, whilst line eleven conveys the idea of a command for death to remain silent.
The word beauty does not appear in this sonnet. Both summer and fair are used instead.
Thou, thee and thy are used throughout and refer directly to the lover, the fair youth.
And/Nor/So long repeat, reinforce
Further Analysis of Sonnet 18
Sonnet 18 is an English or Shakespearean sonnet, 14 lines in length, made up of 3 quatrains and a couplet. It has a regular rhyme scheme: abab cdcd efef gg. All the end rhymes are full, the exceptions being temperate/date.
Sonnet 18 is written in traditional iambic pentameter but it has to be remembered that this is the overall dominant metre (meter in USA). Certain lines contain trochees, spondees and possibly anapaests.
- Whilst some lines are pure iambic, following the pattern of daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM, no stress syllable followed by a stressed syllable, others are not.
Why is this an important issue? Well, the metre helps dictate the rhythm of a line and also how it should be read. Take that first line for example:
Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
There's no doubting that this is a question so therefore the stress would normally fall on the first word, Shall. Say it quietly to yourself and you'll find the natural thing to do is place a little more emphasis on that opening word, because it is a question being asked. If the emphasis was on the second word, I, the sense would be lost. So it is no longer an iamb in the first foot, but a trochee, an inverted iamb.
Shall I / compare / thee to / a sum / mer's day? (trochee, iamb x4)
- But, there is an alternative analysis of this first line, which focuses on the mild caesura (pause, after thee) and scans an amphibrach and an anapaest in a tetrameter line:
Shall I / compare thee / to a sum / mer's day?
Here we have an interesting mix, the stress still on the opening word in the first foot, with the second foot of non stressed, stressed, non stressed, which makes an amphibrach. The third foot is the anapaest, the fourth the lonely iamb. There are four feet so the line is in tetrameter.
Both scans are valid because of the flexible way in which English can be read and certain words only partially stressed. For me, when I read this opening line, the second version seems more natural because of that faint pause after the word thee. I cannot read the opening line whilst sticking to the daDUM daDUM iambic pentameter beat. It just doesn't ring true. You try it and find out for yourself.
More Analysis - Lines That Are Not Iambic Pentameter
Again, the iambic pentameter rhythm is altered by the use of a spondee at the start, two stressed single syllable words:
Rough winds / do shake / the dar / ling buds / of May,
This places emphasis on the meaning and gives extra weight to the rough weather.
Again an inversion occurs, the opening trochee replacing the iamb:
Sometimes too hot the eye of heaven shines,
The stress is on the first syllable, after which the iambic pattern continues to the end. Note the metaphor (eye of heaven) for the sun, and the inversion of the line grammatically, where too hot ordinarily would be at the end of the line. This is called anastrophe, the change of order in a sentence.
Note the spondee, this time in the middle of the line. And a trochee opens:
Nor shall death brag thou wand'rest in his shade,
The emphasis is on death brag, the double stress reinforcing the initial trochee to make quite a powerful negation.