Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.
What Is the Meaning of "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?"
"Sonnet 18" is perhaps the best known of all of Shakespeare's 154 sonnets, primarily due to the opening line, "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day," which every true romantic knows by heart. But there is much more to this line than meets the eye, as you'll find out later in this analysis.
William Shakespeare's sonnets are world-renowned and are said to have been written for a "fair youth" (1–126) and a "dark lady" (127–54), but no one is totally certain for whom they were penned, as they include 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 the Bard's 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.
"Sonnet 18" focuses on the loveliness of a friend or lover, with the speaker initially asking a rhetorical question about comparing their subject to a summer's day. He then goes on to introduce the pros and cons of the weather, mentioning both an idyllic English summer's day and the less-welcome dim sun and rough winds of autumn. In the end, it is insinuated this very piece of poetry will keep the lover—the poem's subject—alive forever and allow them to defy even death.
"Sonnet 18" in Full
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.
"Sonnet 18" is devoted to praising a friend or lover, traditionally known as the "fair youth." The sonnet itself serves as a guarantee that this person's beauty will be sustained. Even death will be silenced because the lines of the poem will be read by future generations, when speaker/poet and lover are no more, keeping their 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 to 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 then as it does now (attractive, nice, beautiful), while 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, which is now archaic.
As the sonnet progresses, lines three through eight concentrate on the ups and downs of the weather and are distanced, taken along on a steady iambic rhythm (except for line five as discussed later).
Summertime in England is a hit-and-miss affair weather-wise. Winds blow, rainclouds gather and before you know where you are, summer has come and gone in a week. The season seems all too short—that's as true 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.
Lines nine through twelve turn the argument for aging on its head. The speaker states with a renewed assurance that "thy eternal summer shall not fade" and that his lover shall stay fair and even cheat death and time by becoming eternal.
Lines 13 and 14
Lines 13 and 14 reinforce the idea that the speaker's (poet's) poem will guarantee that the lover remains young, the written word becoming their breath and vital energy and ensuring their life continues.
Between repetition, assonance, alliteration and internal and end rhyme, readers of "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" are certainly treated to a range of devices that create texture, music, and interest.
Assonance and Repetition
Note the language of these lines: rough, shake, too short, Sometimes, too hot, often, dimmed, declines, chance, changing, untrimmed. There are interesting combinations within each line that 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 immortal lines.
And those final two lines, 13 and 14, are harmony itself. Following 12 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 and 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.
Language and Tone
Note the use of the verb shall and the different tones it brings to different lines. In the first line, it refers to the uncertainty the speaker feels. In line nine, there is a sense of some kind of definite promise, while 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. The words and, nor and so long serve to repeat and reinforce the poem's ideas.
Rhyme Scheme Metre of "Sonnet 18"
It's important to be aware that not every line of every one of Shakespeare's sonnets is written in pure iambic pentameter as is assumed by many a supposed authority. There may be metrical variations, but the form of "Sonnet 18" is that of a classic English or Shakespearean sonnet—three quatrains (four-line stanzas) rounded off with a rhyming couplet (the final two lines), adding up to 14 lines in total.
The sonnet has the regular rhyme scheme ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. All of the end-of-line rhymes are full with the exception of 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 the USA). Certain lines contain trochees, spondees and possibly anapaests.
While some lines are pure iambic, following the pattern of daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM (an unstressed 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 the first line for example:
Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
There's no doubting that this is a question, so 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 the first foot is no longer an iamb but a trochee—an inverted iamb. Let's take a look:
Shall I / compare / thee to / a sum / mer's day?
The line now comprises one trochee followed by four iambs. But there is also an alternative analysis of this first line that focuses on the mild caesura (pause after thee) and scans an amphibrach and an anapaest in a tetrameter line. Take another look:
Shall I / compare thee / to a sum / mer's day?
Here we have an interesting mix; the stress is still on the opening word in the first foot. The second foot now comprises three syllables—non-stressed, stressed and non-stressed—making it an amphibrach. The third foot is an anapaest, and the fourth a 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. 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 while sticking to the daDUM daDUM of the iambic pentameter beat. It just doesn't ring true. Try it and find out for yourself.
Lines That Are Not in Iambic Pentameter
Again, in line three, the iambic pentameter rhythm is altered by the use of a spondee (two stressed single-syllable words at the start):
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, in line five, an inversion occurs, with 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. Ordinarily, too hot would be at the end of the line. This is called anastrophe, the change of order in a sentence.
Note the spondee in line 11, this time in the middle of the line. It also opens with a trochee:
Nor shall death brag thou wand'rest in his shade,
Here, the emphasis is on death brag, the double stress reinforcing the initial trochee to make quite a powerful negation.
- The Kingsway Shakespeare, 1937, George Harrap.
- An Introduction to Shakespeare's Sonnets, www.bl.uk.
- About the Sonnet, www.english.illinois.edu.
© 2017 Andrew Spacey