By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18, beginning ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’ is one of the best-known and most widely studied poems in all of Renaissance literature. The poem is often viewed as a love lyric, but can alternatively be interpreted as a poem about the power of poetry to immortalise the human subject of the poem. But in fact, the poem takes in a variety of themes which deserve the critic’s and student’s close attention.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the most prominent themes of the ‘summer’s day’ sonnet, Sonnet 18.
Although it’s often viewed as a love poem, Sonnet 18 is more than a traditional romantic poem. Shakespeare praises the Fair Youth’s beauty as ‘more lovely’ than the beauty of a summer’s day, before going on to list all the ways in which the young man’s beauty outdoes the vagaries of summer weather (not to mention the fact that summer is over all too soon).
The word ‘fair’ is used several times in the poem. Although the ‘Fair’ in ‘Fair Youth’ – the appellation often given to the addressee of Sonnet 18 – principally refers to his blond hair and pale skin, ‘fair’ also denotes beauty, and it carries this meaning in this sonnet.
So when Shakespeare writes that ‘every fair from fair sometime declines’, he means that, in summer, every beautiful thing falls short of its true beauty from time to time. The first ‘fair’ (in ‘every fair’) is a noun, where ‘fair’ means ‘fair thing’ or ‘beautiful thing’. The second ‘fair’ is an adjective, so the line could be paraphrased as, ‘Every beautiful thing occasionally falls short of being beautiful’ or ‘Every fair thing occasionally falls short of being fair’.
By extension, every beautiful person has ‘off days’ when they do not look their best. Not so the Fair Youth, who always looks ‘fair’.
The precise addressee of the majority of the Sonnets, including Sonnet 18, is unknown, although there are several leading candidates. All of them are young men, and youth versus ageing is an important theme addressed in this sonnet. When Shakespeare turns back to considering the Fair Youth’s beauty, having discussed the flaws that might attend a typical summer’s day, he tells the young man: ‘But thine eternal summer shall not fade’.
In other words, the Fair Youth is currently in his ‘summer’: that is, his prime. He has matured into early adulthood and is not in the first full flush of his maturity. But whereas other people are destined to grow older and lose their looks, the young man, Shakespeare asserts, will not suffer this fate. He will remain forever young and beautiful.
How? Well, we’ll come to that in due course …
As well as touching briefly upon ageing and the decline of one’s looks, Sonnet 18 also addresses the topic of death. The image of someone walking in the ‘shade’ or shadow of Death – suggesting someone in old age nearing their end – is a powerful one, but Shakespeare is confident that this fate will not befall the Fair Youth. (Stephen Booth, in his Shakespeare’s Sonnets (Yale Nota Bene), makes a good case for ‘shade’ here referring to a place, such as the underworld: indeed, Hades, the underworld in classical mythology, was often referred to as ‘the shades’.)
And this is all because, for Shakespeare, the young man will be immortal. How?
Immortality is a key theme in Sonnet 18, but it’s worth putting this into context. By ‘immortality’ we don’t mean that Shakespeare believes the Fair Youth will literally mean a young man forever, like some sort of Dorian Gray figure. He will be immortalised some other way.
Short of finding a way to become Dorian Gray, there are two ways in which people can become ‘immortal’ in the extended sense of the word. The first is by having children and continuing their line. They will then ‘live on’ through their children, and their children’s children, and so on. This is relevant here, because it’s the subject of the first seventeen Sonnets as they were printed in 1609.
But then, in Sonnet 18, Shakespeare drops this argument. Rather than becoming immortal through siring an heir, the Fair Youth can be immortalised in another way. And Shakespeare is the one to take care of that, through … his writing.
There’s a common trope in Elizabethan sonnet-writing: the poet will make his beloved immortal by writing about them. By writing about the Fair Youth’s beauty, Shakespeare will preserve that beauty forever, in the form of a poem. Much the same could be said about a portraitist or miniaturist painting a portrait of someone, so that their youthful beauty would be captured on the canvas forever.
This is an act of colossal arrogance, of course: the poet is swaggeringly boasting that his words will live on forever. But here we are, more than four centuries after Shakespeare wrote those words, and we’re still reading and discussing them, so perhaps he was right.
There appears to be a clever bit of wordplay on ‘lines’ in the phrase ‘eternal lines’ (‘When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st’). Booth points out that the image conveys the idea of cords or ropes, by which someone might be bound: so the Fair Youth would be bound, or tied, to time – that is, under time’s control. There’s also the idea of ‘lines of life’: the threads spun by the Fates in classical mythology.
But when we get to the poem’s concluding couplet, we can retrospectively realise that ‘lines’ here also refers to lines of verse: that is, the poem we’re reading, Sonnet 18. In other words, ‘Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade, / When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st’ means ‘nor will death be able to brag he has you in his abode – no, not when you continue to “grow” and live in these eternal lines of poetry I’ve written for you’.