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Shakespeare's Summer Sonnet

Guest Author - Jessica Smith

Poets love to write about seasons. The seasons surround us, whether living in the country or the city, whether in primeval, medieval, or modern ages. They affect our thoughts, our moods, our dreams, our plans for going outside. In short, they are a large part of our life, and therefore a constant subject for poetry.

Let’s take a look at a famous summer poem.

Inarguably, one of Shakespeare’s most famous sonnets is Sonnet 18, which begins “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” A sonnet is a poem of 14 lines, with 12 lines rhyming alternately (ABAB, etc.) and ending with a pair of rhyming lines called a couplet. Traditionally, sonnets are written in iambic pentameter, which means they have a rhythm of five beats per line, which are particularly noted when read aloud (the rhythm will go da-Dum da-Dum da-Dum da-Dum da-Dum). Sonnet 18 is one of the Fair Youth sonnets, and compares the speaker’s beloved with the beauty of a summer day.

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.


The first line introduces the theme of the poem, in which the poet will now compare the subject of the poem, with a beautiful object- in this case, a day in summer. By the second line, we can see that the speaker is praising his beloved, by saying she is “more lovely and more temperate” than a summer’s day.

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 dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimmed;


Next, the speaker explains how summer is lacking in ways his beloved is not. There are “rough winds”, the summer cannot last and goes by too quickly, the sun is too hot or not bright enough. So the speaker is taking something that everyone agrees is pleasant and beautiful, and then pointing out its flaws and weaknesses, explaining that “chance” or “nature’s changing course” make such “declines” inevitable, especially for beautiful and fair things. Yet the next lines mark a shift.

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to Time thou grow’st.


Here the speaker turns from summer days and speaks directly of his beloved, who is different, separate. Though summer’s beauty fades away, hers will not. Yet as he goes on, it becomes clear that what he means is not that she will stay unchanging and un-wrinkling like a statue, but that her beauty shall be preserved into time immemorial, even beyond her own death. The final couplet explains his meaning fully.

So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.


“This” is the sonnet, written about his beloved and preserved on paper. So as long as anyone reads this sonnet, dedicated to the beauty of his beloved, the beautiful beloved will live on as an image, an ideal, a picture as fresh and pretty as the day it was written. And the fact that this poem originated in the 1600s, and still persists today, proves the truth of the poet’s words.
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Content copyright © 2014 by Jessica Smith. All rights reserved.
This content was written by Jessica Smith. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Karena Andrusyshyn for details.

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