A Literary Criticism of Shakespeare's Sonnet 18
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 dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature's changing course untrimmed.
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st;
Nor shall death brag thou wand'rest 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.
This sonnet is an example of typical Shakespearean style, comprising three quatrains in iambic pentameter ending in a heroic couplet, following a rhyming scheme of abab cdcd efef gg. It follows the tradition of dividing the sonnet into two parts. In the octave, Time is shown as the enemy of the transitory nature of beauty and there are references to different passages of time, “day”, “May”, “date”, “summer”. After the volta, highlighted by “But”, the sestet introduces Time as the solution: the youth’s beauty will be everlasting as long as the sonnet exists and the references are to the “eternal” and “So long as”. The final couplet, although part of the sestet, could stand alone and provides a strong closing point.
It is significant that there is only one enjambment – every line except line 9 finishes with punctuation. This is a poem of stated facts rather than rambling musings.
Repetition (“more lovely and more temperate”, “every fair from fair”) and anaphora (lines 6 and 7, lines 10 and 11, lines 13 and 14) are used heavily throughout the sonnet. These techniques are used for emphasis, to accentuate the point being made. Contrasts are emphasised by antithesis, “more temperate./Rough winds” and the last word of lines 5 and 6, opposing “shines” with “dimmed”.
Alliteration, a linking device, is lightly used which makes it more effective when it does appear, “chance, or nature’s changing course”, used at the end of the octave. The next use is in the final line, “long lives this, and this gives life to thee” where the double alliteration of the “l” and “t” force the line into prominence.
The object of the sonnet
The poem begins with a rhetorical question to “thee” (commonly assumed to be a youth) (The Norton Anthology, 2006) so it seems as though the poem is going to be about the young man. However, the stressed “I” of the first line contrasts with the unstressed “Thou” of the second, foreshadowing the theme of the poem; it is less a tribute to the youth’s beauty than a proclamation of the writer’s skill and his assurance that his poem will be a future classic. This suggestion is furthered in the 12th line, “in eternal lines”, referring to the lines of the poem. Shakespeare has broken the fourth wall by acknowledging the poem and the existence of readers.
Use of Metaphor
Personification occurs throughout the poem in the form of Summer (“summer’s lease”), the Sun (“his gold complexion”), Nature (“nature’s changing course”) and Death (“shall death brag”). Summer and Death are personified to suggest a human relationship: Death is a rival for the poet’s love. The “summer’s lease” is echoed in line 8 at “thou ow’st”, extending the metaphor further.
From the first line, Shakespeare invites a comparison with summer and this continues through to the final couplet. Summer, generally presented as the perfect season, falls short of the youth’s perfection and is unworthy to be compared to him. Summer has “Rough winds”, and “too short a lease” while the youth’s “eternal summer” is reinforced at the beginning of the sestet.
The sun is represented as “the eye of heaven”. The “gold complexion dimmed” can be interpreted both as the sun’s strength and beauty tarnished by clouds, just as the youth’s beauty will be tarnished by time, but also “complexion” can be read as “temperament” (i.e. a combination of the four humours). This latter interpretation echoes “temperate” of line 2 effectively. (Ray, 1994)
Nature’s “untrimmed” has a double meaning. It can mean either unadorned, indicating that Nature will strip the youth of his “fair” beauty but can also refer to the sails of a ship, suggesting that Nature’s course is unadjusted. However, Jungman (2003) has suggested that the “untrimmed” may actually mean “unadjusted” and therefore Shakespeare is saying that the thing that remains unchanged is Nature’s changing, “mutability is eternal”. This interpretation strengthens the structure of the sonnet with the octave representing change and the sestet reinforcing the endurance of the written words.
Jungman, R.E., 2003. Trimming Shakespeare's Sonnet 18. ANQ, Winter. pp.18-19.
The Norton Anthology of English Literature Eighth Edition Vol 1, , ed. Stephen Greenblatt, Norton & Co New York 2006.
Ray, R.H., 1994. Shakespeare's Sonnet 18. Explicator, Fall. p.10.