Sonnet 18 is the best known and most well-loved of all 154 sonnets. It is also one of the most straightforward in language and intent. The stability of love and its power to immortalize the subject of the poet’s verse is the theme.
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 owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee.
The poet starts the praise of his dear friend without ostentation, but he slowly builds the image of his friend into that of a perfect being. His friend is first compared to summer in the octave, but, at the start of the third quatrain (9), he is summer, and thus, he has metamorphosed into the standard by which true beauty can and should be judged. The poet’s only answer to such profound joy and beauty is to ensure that his friend be forever in human memory, saved from the oblivion that accompanies death. He achieves this through his verse, believing that, as history writes itself, his friend will become one with time. The final couplet reaffirms the poet’s hope that as long as there is breath in mankind, his poetry too will live on, and ensure the immortality of his muse.
Interestingly, not everyone is willing to accept the role of Sonnet 18 as the ultimate English love poem. As James Boyd-White puts it:
What kind of love does ‘this’ in fact give to ‘thee’? We know nothing of the beloved’s form or height or hair or eyes or bearing, nothing of her character or mind, nothing of her at all, really. This ‘love poem’ is actually written not in praise of the beloved, as it seems, but in praise of itself. Death shall not brag, says the poet; the poet shall brag. This famous sonnet is on this view one long exercise in self-glorification, not a love poem at all; surely not suitable for earnest recitation at a wedding or anniversary party, or in a Valentine.
Note that James Boyd-White refers to the beloved as “her”, but it is almost universally accepted by scholars that the poet’s love interest is a young man in sonnets 1-126.
Did You Know? …
A sonnet is in verse form and has fourteen lines of iambic pentameter. Shakespeare’s sonnets follow the pattern “abab cdcd efef gg”, and Petrarch’s sonnets follow the pattern “abba abba cdecde.” All the lines in iambic pentameter have five feet, consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one.