Poetry Explication: Sonnet 18 (William Shakespeare)
Shakespeare uses Sonnet 18 to praise his beloved’s beauty and describe all the ways in which their beauty is preferable to a summer day. The stability of love and its power to immortalize someone is the overarching theme of this poem. The poet begins with an opening question: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” and spends the rest of the poem answering that question. The poem is straightforward in language and intent. Several poetic devices enhance the poem’s meaning through the use of form, imagery, and figurative language to express how his beloved possesses an eternal beauty that far surpasses the brightness of that all-too-fleeting summer day. Shakespeare uses these devices to also ensure the permanence of his poem, ensuring that it is everlasting and never succumbs to death like his beloved.
The poet starts the praise of his beloved without ostentation and slowly builds the image of his beloved into that perfect being. His beloved is compared to summer in the first 8 lines as “more lovely and more temperate” than a summer’s day, but at the start of the 9th line, his beloved becomes summer as the poet states, “but thy eternal summer shall not fade.” With the 9th line of a sonnet often being the volta or the “turn” of the poem, this may be relevant. The beloved has become the very standard by which true beauty can and should be judged. The latter part of the poem is marked by a more expansive tone exploring deeper feelings. The poet responds to such joy and beauty by ensuring that his beloved will last forever, saved from the oblivion that accompanies death. The easy music of the poem may also work to reinforce the inferiority of summer compared to the beloved.
Shakespeare primarily uses imagery of nature throughout the poem to proclaim his feelings about the beauty of his beloved. He describes summer in a way that contrasts the kind of summer we usually picture. “Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May” shows that the poet sees the summer climate as a blow to the spring flowers. He wants to show just how much better his beloved’s beauty is compared to that of summer. Shakespeare works to tear down all positive thoughts of summer so that the reader can recognize just how much he lifts up the image of his beloved. In addition, when the poet describes the sun, he uses the words “gold complexion dimmed.” The poet again downplays the familiar brightness of the warm, comforting sun, referring to its ray as “dimmed.” As a result of describing the season’s climate, the poet wants readers to see that his beloved has looks that will never change and that summer pales greatly in comparison to his beloved.
Sonnet 18 contains the elements of a classic sonnet. It is written in 14 lines and contains the rhyme scheme ababcdcdefefgg. The first and third lines and second and fourth lines rhyme, and the pattern continues until the last two lines, both of which rhyme. In addition, the poem is written in iambic pentameter. Each line has 10 syllables, with the first unaccented and the second accented. As a unit of writing, the sonnet has an organic beauty that depends on the balance of symmetrical and asymmetrical form and melody. And historically, sonnets have contained strong themes of love. As a result, Shakespeare uses the sonnet form to highlight his message about his beloved and their magnificent appearance.
Something striking about this poem is how neat and perfectly tied up it is. Every single line is in perfect iambic pentameter and there is no enjambment. While the poetry is elegant and written in high and elevated language, the poem is still easy to read. The perfect adherence to the classic sonnet form may work to demonstrate the perfection of the beloved being described. This works well with the dominant theme of the poem.
Shakespeare also uses figurative language to bring his message home. Shakespeare personifies the sun, calling it “the eye of heaven” with “his gold complexion dimmed” – the sun’s complexion dimmed in comparison to the beloved’s. Giving the sun a human quality begins to degrade what we normally consider the powerful, untouchable sun. This helps introduce Shakespeare’s theme of emphasizing his beloved’s lasting beauty. Another personification appears in line 11 when the poet writes “Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade.” Here, the poet portrays death as a figure who meanders around his “shade.” The act of equating death to a human being shows that his beloved transcends all living creatures and even acts of nature. The beloved is the ideal figure not only in the poet’s eyes but also in others who will eventually read this poem. The poet’s use of figurative language makes his beloved a superior being whose beauty forever shines and whose power can conquer death itself.
An instrumental part of making this poem work is that the poet makes it clear of his ability, as a poet, to eternalize words. The poet makes this known particularly in the lines “So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see / so long lives this, and this gives life to thee.” While the poet is saying that his beloved’s beauty will last for as long as this poem exists, he is also saying that his poetry will be eternal. The entire poem up until this point expresses great sentiment about his beloved but in these last two lines, there seems to be a change in the poem’s own estimate of his writing. These lines ultimately show that the poet is well aware of his skill. Overall, the use of imagery, form, and figurative language allows the poet to skillfully get his message across that his beloved’s beauty exceeds that of a summer’s day and even transcends time. Shakespeare’s methods also secure the everlasting nature of his poem.