William Shakespeare and the English Sonnet: An Explicative Essay
During the 16th century, command of the poetic verse form the sonnet was well respected and admired by the poets and nobility of England. Through its eloquent language, strict meter, and specific rhyme schemes, writers such as Shakespeare expressed deep feelings of love in profound ways. The sonnet, being a traditional love poem, became the formula followed when writing “worthwhile” poetry. Conformity to the sonnet form, which is seen in Shakespeare’s famous Sonnet 18, was crucial to become a renowned poet, as poetry was thought of as an art form strictly enjoyed by the wealthy and educated. A tastefully composed sonnet would earn its share of praise, being adopted into the collection of worthy poems which generations of scholars and readers could enjoy. Thus, Shakespeare interweaves rhyme, apostrophe, and imagery within the structure of the sonnet form to describe the timeless beauty of his lover, utilizing the timeless sonnet form to immortalize his passion for her, her beauty, and his written art.
In Sonnet 18, Shakespeare means to describe the unwavering beauty of his lover in a carefully constructed love sonnet where he compares her to summer’s day. He makes a distinct point throughout the course of the sonnet that a summer’s day is not eternally beautiful, even sometimes unpleasant in its intensity or lack thereof; “Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines, / And often is his gold complexion dimm’d.” This depiction of the sun is uncommon; typically, in a love poem, it is complimentary for a woman to be described in terms of nature’s beauty. Shakespeare challenges that cliché comparison, and in doing so begins to develop a second purpose to the sonnet: immortality. Themes of eternity and immortality play various roles in the sonnet, as the mistress’s looks are unwavering in their expression, and through the heralded sonnet form Shakespeare means to eternalize that beauty, simultaneously immortalizing his own talent as a poet. Essentially, Shakespeare denounces the cliché metaphor of a summer’s day because it is ill-fitting to the magnitude of his lover’s beauty, and he believes that through such a sonnet, he can further eternalize his feelings for her, long after they both are gone.
Analysis of Sonnet 18 requires careful attention to diction, rhyme scheme, and the use of apostrophe, which are all ways Shakespeare translates his message to his audience. His use of apostrophe is intentional, and it makes the sentiment direct, calling out the limitations of the metaphor of a summer’s day. Shakespeare isn’t hiding his feelings but speaking his truest thoughts about his lady, and how she cannot be accurately described by the popular metaphor. The lines, “But thy eternal sunshine shall not fade, / Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;” gives a definite direction of the speaker’s feelings, which in their abrasion are meant to flatter and to convince the addressee of the truth– that her beauty is everlasting, even more lovely than the fleeting summer. “Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May, / And summer’s lease hath all too short a date;” shows that the metaphor of a summer’s day is inadequate to the poet, as it can never maintain perfection for very long, unlike his darling lover, who maintains beauty through every aspect of life and death.
Shakespeare’s diction reinforces the idea that his lover’s beauty is timeless. In a comparison of poetic voice, diction is imperative for the speaker, –as now he is speaking directly to his lover, and Shakespeare, who means to preserve his sentiment and talent. Again, looking at the line “Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines/ And often is his gold complexion dimm’d,” Shakespeare uses the words “too hot” and “dimm’d” to denounce the summer, setting the stage for the far more magnificent beauty of his lover. Despite the sun being a common metaphor to describe the glow of beauty, Shakespeare means to dismiss it, and to show his lover that a summer’s day is inconsistent, fluctuating in its beauty and its harsh intensities. This diction develops specific imagery, which instead of focusing on summer’s brilliance, focuses on the fact that summer is fading, and no perfect scene exists that could accurately describe how he feels about his lover. Along those lines it becomes significant that the poet tells the addressee “Thou art more lovely and more temperate.” Again, even though the summer has beautiful moments, they are fleeting, and lead into other unpleasant moments. For the poet, his lover’s beauty never has an unpleasant moment. Additionally, Shakespeare believes that even in death, her beauty will not cease, saying “Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade, / When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st.” This line also serves to develop the theme of the sonnet’s power to immortalize; death cannot diminish her glow when it lives and grows within the sonnet for all of eternity.
The sonnet form is characterized by its rhyme scheme, which Shakespeare conforms to by means of ensuring his poem is considered a proper sonnet. The rhyme scheme is that of a traditional English sonnet (abab/cdcd/efef/gg), and Shakespeare utilizes masculine rhyme, being single syllable rhyming words. Though he takes an unconventional view on love (in terms of the sonnet) he strictly follows the appropriate syllable count and rhyme scheme of the English sonnet. His conformity to the sonnet rhyme/syllable characteristics was intentional; he strove to compose a sonnet with formality and an artistic touch that would be praised for its craftsmanship. The notion that literature could transcend time and death to lead the poet into a form of immortality was something Shakespeare craved. This perfect blend required a meticulous balance of convention and creativity, and so holding true to a rhyme scheme and syllable count gave his sonnet a formal portrayal but with deeper artistic meaning, thus fulfilling his aim to craft poetry worth of remembrance so he could “live forever.”
As said in the final couplet, “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, / So long lives this, and this gives life to thee,” reveals that major motivation regarding why Shakespeare crafted Sonnet 18 using the devices and imagery he did. The sonnet is focused around comparing an everlastingly beautiful woman to an imperfect summer day, and it is concluded with the thought that so long as mankind lives and can read his poem, the beauty of the addressee shall live on. Shakespeare was concerned with crafting a poem that both flattered his lover and earned the praise to make him famous– to be worth reading. Some of Shakespeare’s sonnets feel more complex or substantial compared to Sonnet 18, and that is because of the direct message he wishes to translate. His clarity can also be viewed as transparency; he doesn’t have anything to hide from the addressee, and he does not hold back truth. He doesn’t opt for the overused metaphors which he knows will charm her, but instead chooses to cast them away to show his passion and his heart, which believes the metaphor of a summer’s day is insufficient. Apostrophe and the imagery chosen blend effectively to achieve those goals. Even though he is writing a “traditional love sonnet” and conforming to the structural components, the way he is ultimately expressing his affection is entirely his own. Shakespeare wasn’t interested in making copycat poetry, but rather being regarded as a true craftsman who could build the sonnet to flow and ebb precisely in his own way. Shakespeare’s poetry is immortalized for its ability to expertly weave apostrophe, diction and rhyme to convey his unique thoughts about love.