Shakespeare’s sonnets require time and effort to appreciate. Understanding the numerous meanings of the lines, the crisply made references, the brilliance of the images, and the complexity of the sound, rhythm and structure of the verse demands attention and experience. The rewards are plentiful as few writers have ever approached the richness of Shakespeare’s prose and poetry.
“Sonnet XVIII” is also known as, “Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day?” It was written around 1599 and published with over 150 other sonnets in 1609 by Thomas Thorpe.
The first 126 sonnets are written to a youth, a boy, probably about 19, and perhaps specifically, William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke. His initials, W.H., appear in Thorpe’s dedication, and the first volume of Shakespeare’s plays, published by two of his fellow actors, Herminge and Condell, after Shakespeare’s death, was dedicated to William Herbert.
“Sonnet XVIII” is one of the most famous of all of Shakespeare’s sonnets. It is written in the sonnet style that Shakespeare preferred, 14 lines long with three quatrains (four rhymed lines) and a couplet (a pair of rhymed lines).
The Sonnet praises the youth’s beauty and disposition, comparing and contrasting the youth to a summer day. Then the sonnet immortalizes the youth through the “eternal lines” of the sonnet.
The first line announces the comparison of the youth with a summer day. But the second line says that the youth is more perfect than a summer day. “More temperate” can be interpreted as more gentle. A summer day can have excesses such as rough winds. In Shakespeare’s time May was considered a summer month, a reference in the third line. The fourth line contains the metaphor that summer holds a lease on the year, but the lease is of a short duration.
This quatrain details how the summer can be imperfect, traits that the youth does not possess. The fifth line personifies the sun as “the eye of heaven” which is sometimes too scorchingly hot. On the other hand, “his gold complexion,” the face of the sun, can be dimmed by overcast and clouds. According to line 7, all beautiful things (fair means beautiful) sometimes decline from their state of beauty or perfection by chance accidents or by natural events. “Untrimmed” in line 8 means a lack of decoration and perhaps refers to every beauty from line 7.
This quatrain explains that the youth will possess eternal beauty and perfection. In line 10 “ow’st” is short for ownest, meaning possess. In other words, the youth “shall not lose any of your beauty.” Line 11 says that death will not conquer life and may refer to the shades of classical literature (Virgil’s Aeneid) who wander helplessly in the underworld. In line 12 “eternal lines” refers to the undying lines of the sonnet. Shakespeare realized that the sonnet is able to achieve an eternal status, and that one could be immortalized within it.
The Final Couplet
The couplet is easy to interpret. For as long as humans live and breathe on earth with eyes that can see, this is how long these verses will live. And these verses celebrate the youth and continually renew the youth’s life.
“Shall I Compare Thee” is one of the most often quoted sonnets of Shakespeare. It is complex, yet elegant and memorable, and can be quoted by men and women alike. It has been enjoyed by all generations since Shakespeare and will continue to be enjoyed “so long as men can breathe, or eyes can see.”
Sonnet XVIII, Shall I Compare Thee?
By William Shakespeare
Shall I compare thee to a Summer’s day?
Thou are 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 ow’st;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st 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.