By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘O how much more doth beauty beauteous seem’: so begins the 54th sonnet in Shakespeare’s sequence of 154 poems. It’s not the most famous poem in the sequence by any means, and the sentiment it expresses is straightforward – perhaps to the point of being rather slight. But not all sonnets have to tie themselves up in knots with metaphysical conceits and complex metaphors. Before we offer some words of analysis, here’s a reminder of Sonnet 54:
O how much more doth beauty beauteous seem,
By that sweet ornament which truth doth give!
The rose looks fair, but fairer we it deem
For that sweet odour which doth in it live.
The canker-blooms have full as deep a dye
As the perfumed tincture of the roses,
Hang on such thorns and play as wantonly
When summer’s breath their masked buds discloses:
But, for their virtue only is their show,
They live unwoo’d and unrespected fade,
Die to themselves. Sweet roses do not so;
Of their sweet deaths are sweetest odours made:
And so of you, beauteous and lovely youth,
When that shall fade, my verse distills your truth.
Let’s begin with a brief summary of Sonnet 54. ‘O how much more doth beauty beauteous seem / By that sweet ornament which truth doth give!’ In other words, ‘Beautiful people who are beautiful on the inside as well as outside are much more beautiful than those whose beauty is merely on the outside.’ Shakespeare is addressing the Fair Youth, the blond-haired young man who is the subject and addressee of the majority of the Sonnets. He is praising the young man for being physically attractive but also having a nice personality, if you will.
In the third and fourth lines of the sonnet, Shakespeare uses the example of the rose: the rose is praised for its beauty – it looks pretty – but we also like it because it smells sweet too. So it is with people: if they’re physically attractive but their personality stinks, they seem less attractive to us all of a sudden.
In the second and third quatrains, lines 5-12, Shakespeare moves to contrast the rose with the ‘canker’ (or dog-rose), which has the same outward appearance (‘dye’ and ‘tincture’) as the bona fide rose, and behaves the same (playing ‘wantonly’ in the summer breeze), but their ‘show’ benefits themselves only, and not others. They die alone. But the sweet roses are sweet even when they die, releasing a sweet perfume into the world.
In the concluding couplet of the sonnet, Shakespeare explicitly likens the Fair Youth to the sweet-smelling rose, promising him that when the young man dies, Shakespeare’s verse will ‘distill’ his ‘truth’ or essence, much as the rose’s scent is released into the world when it dies.
‘O how much more doth beauty beauteous seem’ expresses a fairly straightforward idea: that inward worth or value enhances outward beauty. The comparison with the rose and the ‘canker’ is a neat analogy for the Fair Youth’s superiority to another attractive young man (represented by the canker rose in the poem), while the idea of the rose’s scent being able to live on after it dies provides the Bard with another opportunity to riff on his ‘my poetry will make you immortal’ idea, which he had already made much use of earlier in the Sonnets.
Of course, putting these two aspects of the sonnet together does lead us to a further conclusion: that poets want to immortalise people of substance, rather than mere airheads who look pretty, in their work. The inward ‘truth’ or worth of a poet’s human muse is what will inspire them to write great work. Pretty verses celebrating prettiness alone are just that: pretty, but ultimately vacuous.