By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’ is one of the most famous opening lines in all of literature. In this post, we’re going to look beyond that opening line, and the poem’s reputation, and attempt a short summary and analysis of Sonnet 18 in terms of its language, meaning, and themes. The poem represents a bold and decisive step forward in the sequence of Sonnets as we read them.
For the first time, the key to the Fair Youth’s immortality lies not in procreation (as it had been in the previous 17 sonnets) but in Shakespeare’s own verse. But what is William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 actually saying? And did the poet have personal experience of the young man to whom the sonnet is addressed, or is the poem a mere product of the imagination, a fine conceit?
Most of the poems we write about here on Interesting Literature involve introducing the unfamiliar: we take a poem that we think has something curious and little-known about it, and try to highlight that feature, or interpretation.
But with ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’ we have almost the opposite problem: we’re trying to take a very well-known poem and de-familiarise it, and try to see it as though we’re coming across it for the first time. This is by no means an easy task, so we’ll begin with a summary.
Sonnet 18: summary
First, then, that summary of Sonnet 18, beginning with that opening question, which sounds almost like a dare or a challenge, nonchalantly offered up: ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’
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:
Shakespeare asks the addressee of the sonnet – who is probably the same young man, or ‘Fair Youth’, to whom the other early sonnets are also addressed – whether he should compare him to a summery day. He goes on to remark that the young man is lovelier, and more gentle and dependably constant.
After all, in May (which, in Shakespeare’s time, was considered a bona fide part of summer) rough winds often shake the beloved flowers of the season (thus proving the Bard’s point that summer is less ‘temperate’ than the young man).
What’s more, summer is over all too quickly: its ‘lease’ – a legal term – soon runs out. We all know this to be true, when September rolls round, the nights start drawing in, and we get that sinking ‘back to school’ feeling.
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:
In lines 5-8, Shakespeare continues his analysis of the ways in which the young man is better than a summer’s day: sometimes the sun (‘the eye of heaven’) shines too brightly (i.e. the weather is just too hot, unbearably so), and, conversely, sometimes the sun is ‘dimmed’ or hidden by clouds.
And every lovely or beautiful thing (‘fair’ here in ‘every fair’ is used as a noun, i.e. ‘every fair thing’), even the summer, sometimes drops a little below its best, either randomly or through the march of nature (which changes and in time ages every living thing).
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 lines 9-12, Shakespeare continues the ‘Youth vs. summer’ motif, arguing that the young man’s ‘eternal summer’, or prime, will not fade; nor will the Youth’s ‘eternal summer’ lose its hold on the beauty the young man owns (‘ow’st’).
Nor will Death, the Grim Reaper, be able to boast that the young man walks in the shadow of death, not when the youth grows, not towards death (like a growing or lengthening shadow) but towards immortality, thanks to the ‘eternal lines’ of Shakespeare’s verse which will guarantee that he will live forever.
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
In his concluding couplet, Shakespeare states that as long as the human race continues to exist, and read poetry, Shakespeare’s poem (‘this’) survives, and continues to ‘give life’ to the young man through keeping his memory alive.
Sonnet 18: analysis
Sonnet 18 is a curious poem to analyse when it’s set in the context of the previous sonnets. It’s the first poem that doesn’t exhort the Fair Youth to marry and have children: we’ve left the ‘Procreation Sonnets’ behind.
In the last few sonnets, Shakespeare has begun to introduce the idea that his poetry might provide an alternative ‘immortality’ for the young man, though in those earlier sonnets Shakespeare’s verse has been deemed an inferior way of securing the young man’s immortality when placed next to the idea of leaving offspring.
In Sonnet 18, right from the confident strut of ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’ onwards, Shakespeare is sure that his poetry will guarantee the young man his immortality after all.
There is an easy music to the poem, set up by that opening line: look at repetition of ‘summer’ and ‘some’, which strikes us as natural and not contrived, unlike some of the effects Shakespeare had created in the earlier sonnets: ‘summer’s day’, ‘summer’s lease’, ‘Sometime too hot’, ‘sometime declines’, ‘eternal summer’.
This reinforces the inferiority of the summer with its changeability but also its brevity (‘sometime’ in Shakespeare’s time meant not only ‘sometimes’, suggesting variability and inconstancy, but also ‘once’ or ‘formerly’, suggesting something that is over).
In terms of imagery, the reference to Death bragging ‘thou wander’st in his shade’, as well as calling up the words from the 23rd Psalm (‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death’), also fits neatly into the poem’s broader use of summer/sun imagery.
As Stephen Booth points out in the detailed notes to this sonnet in his indispensable edition Shakespeare’s Sonnets (Yale Nota Bene), the brightness of that all-too-fleeting summer’s day has been declining ever since the poem’s opening line: ‘dimmed’, ‘declines’, ‘fade’, ‘shade’.
‘When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st’: it’s worth observing the suggestion of self-referentiality here, with ‘lines’ summoning the lines of Shakespeare’s verse. In such an analysis, then, ‘eternal lines’ prefigure Shakespeare’s own immortal lines of poetry, designed to give immortality to the poem’s addressee, the Fair Youth.
However, as Booth notes, this is probably also an allusion to the lines of life, the threads spun by the Fates in classical mythology. Everyone’s life span was decided by the Fates, who cut a thread of corresponding length, i.e. a long thread would mean a long life, and a short thread would mean you’d be cut down in your prime. So, as Booth points out, ‘eternal lines’ are threads that are never cut. It’s worth bearing in mind that Shakespeare had referred to these lines of life in Sonnet 16.
This is significant, following Booth, if we wish to analysis Sonnet 18 (or ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’ if you’d prefer) in the context of the preceding sonnets, which had been concerned with procreation.
We cannot be sure who arranged the sonnets into the order in which they were printed in 1609 (in the first full printing of the poems, featuring that enigmatic dedication to ‘Mr W. H.’), but it is suggestive that Sonnet 18, in which Shakespeare proudly announces his intention of immortalising the Fair Youth with his pen, follows a series of sonnets in which Shakespeare’s pen had urged the Fair Youth to marry and sire offspring as his one chance of immortality.
Now, through the power of his poetry, William Shakespeare the writer is offering the young man another way of becoming immortal.
Sonnet 18 has undoubtedly become a favourite love poem in the language because its message and meaning are relatively easy to decipher and analyse.
Its opening line has perhaps eclipsed the rest of the poem to the degree that we have lost sight of the precise argument Shakespeare is making in seeking to compare the Youth to a summer’s day, as well as the broader context of the rest of the Sonnets and the implications this has for our interpretation of Sonnet 18.
The poem reveals a new confidence in Shakespeare’s approach to the Sonnets, and in the ensuing sonnets he will take this even further.
Continue your exploration of Shakespeare’s Sonnets with our summary and analysis of Sonnet 19 – or, if you’d prefer, skip ahead to the more famous Sonnet 20 or even the much-quoted Sonnet 116. Alternatively, discover some curious facts behind some of Shakespeare’s greatest plays, our list of misconceptions about Shakespeare’s life, or check out our top tips for essay-writing.
If you’re studying Shakespeare’s sonnets and looking for a detailed and helpful guide to the poems, we recommend Stephen Booth’s hugely informative edition, Shakespeare’s Sonnets (Yale Nota Bene). It includes all 154 sonnets, a facsimile of the original 1609 edition, and helpful line-by-line notes on the poems.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.