This sonnet certainly speaks of the poet’s beloved, but it speaks of his own poetry more than that.
Sonnet 18: Analysis
In this sonnet, Shakespeare praises the beauty of his beloved but does so in the service of his poetic craft. He knows that the individual human body cannot survive the passage of time and eventually fade away. As a result of the process of aging, this body will die and decay, for man is mortal. It is said that to be born is to die. Thus no man can literally escape death. However, the death of a single man does not spell the death of the species. Man as a species will live on. And because of that, man’s art will also live on. The poet knows that there is only one way to become immortal: through the creation of timeless art. He is confident that his poetry will be read and held in high esteem for many generations to come. That is why the people with whom he speaks in his poetry will also live on. In this way, future readers of his poetry will get to know that there was once a beautiful woman who was the poet’s muse and inspiration. Hence her beauty may not literally survive, but the praise of that beauty in the poet’s words can never fade away entirely.
Sonnet 18: Annotation
Please note: N= noun, V=verb, Adj=Adjective, Adv=Adverb, P=Preposition, Pr=Pronoun
Thee (Pr): An older form of the word “you.”
Thou (Pr): An older form of the word “you.”
Art (V): An older form of the word “are.”
Temperate (Adj): Relating to or denoting a region or climate characterized by mild temperatures
Rough (Adj): (Of weather or the sea) wild and Stormy
Buds (N): Plural form of the word “bud,” that is, a compact knob-like growth on a plant which develops into a leaf, flower, or shoots
Lease (N): A contract by which one party conveys land, property, services, etc. to another for a specified time, usually in return for a periodic payment
Hath (V): An older form of the word “has.”
Complexion (N): The natural color, texture, and appearance of a person’s skin, especially of the face
Dimmed (V): Past participle form of the word “dim,” that is, make or become less bright or distinct
Fair (Adj): Beautiful
Declines (V): Third person present tense of the word “decline,” that is, (typically of something regarded as good) to become smaller, fewer, or less; decrease
Course (N): The way in which something progresses or develops
Untrimmed (Adj): Not having been trimmed or cutaway
Thy (Pr): An older form of the word “your.”
Eternal (Adj): Lasting or existing forever; without end
Fade (V): Gradually grow faint and disappear
Possession (N): The state of having, owning, or controlling something
Ow’st (V): Short form of the word “owest,” which is, in turn, an older form of the word “owe.”
Brag (V): Say something in a boastful manner
Wand’rest (V): Short form of the word “wanderest,” which is, in turn, an older form of the word “wander.”
Grow’st (V): Short form of the word “growest,” which is, in turn, an older form of the word “grow.”
Sonnet 18: Poetic Devices
Sonnets typically occur in two types of rhyme schemes – in the pattern ABBA ABBA CDE CDE, known as the Petrarchan sonnet, or in the pattern ABAB CDCD EFEF GG, known as the Shakespearian sonnet. This sonnet is a typical Shakespearean one, as it follows the rhyme scheme mentioned above in its entirety without the slightest of deviation.
This rhetorical device is used when a poet addresses his or her poem to an absent audience. In this poem, the poet uses the device of an apostrophe when he addresses all his words to his beloved, whom we never see responding at any point in the poem.
This rhetorical device is used when an overt comparison is made between two different things. In this poem, the poet uses the device of simile in line 1 itself when he makes a comparison between his beloved and a summer’s day and then says it is not an appropriate comparison to make.
This rhetorical device is used when a covert comparison is made between two different things or ideas. In this poem, the poet uses the device of metaphor in line 4 when he compares summer with a landlord who leases out his property only for a short time. Again in line 5, he compares the sun with the eye of heaven. In line 6, he compares the color of the sun with that of gold. Finally, in line 9, he compares the youth and beauty of his beloved with the summer season.
This rhetorical device is used to bestow human qualities on something that is not human. In this poem, the poet uses the device of personification with respect to death in line 11, when he endows death with the human ability to brag.
Sonnet 18: Central Idea
Nature is beautiful, but it is subject to change. On the other hand, the beauty of the poet’s beloved is unchanging. However, that beauty is liable to disappear with the death of his beloved. That is why the poet composes a poem whose subject is that very beauty in order to immortalize it. He is sure that future generations will read this poem and appreciate the beauty of which it speaks.
Sonnet 18: Themes
The mutability of nature:
The poet begins this sonnet by asking whether he should compare his beloved to a summer’s day but does not wait for an answer. This is because he knows that his beloved’s beauty is unchanging and timeless, whereas nature can be both beautiful and terrifying, and that the change from one state to the other can occur at any point in time. One day the sun’s light can illuminate and invigorate the earth, while the next, this light may fade away completely, filling the sky with clouds and the possibility of precipitation. Both of these faces of nature are described aptly by the poet here.
Aging is a natural process:
While the poet clearly expresses his desire to immortalize the beauty of his beloved, he does not deny that she will age with time. The poet knows that the course of nature cannot be stopped and that Time is a natural progression. Hence, the ravages that time commits on the human race are also inescapable. Therefore, he cannot stop his beloved from growing old or her physical body from decaying. However, one death or two does not mean that the entire human species will come to an end. Man will live on, and so will art. That is precisely why the poet chooses to immortalize his beloved through the medium of poetry.
Self-reflexivity is the process by which an artist refers to his own art. That is exactly what the poet does in the last line of this sonnet by referring to his poem as “this.” He is intensely aware of the value that his own poetry can accord to something. He knows that his poetry can, in fact, make his beloved immortal. This kind of self-awareness is a sign of reflexivity, and it is very rare in works dating back prior to the 21st century. Hence this shows how modern Shakespeare was as a writer and how he has influenced all later generations of writers as well.
Sonnet 18: Tone
The tone of this poem vacillates between pessimism and optimism. On the one hand, the poet talks about how nothing is permanent – how the weather changes, how the earth goes through various seasons one after the other, and how the human body must age and die. On the other hand, the poet also asserts the immortality of art. Art is, for Shakespeare, eternal. He knows that long after he is gone, his poetry will continue to be read and appreciated.
Sonnet 18 is one of the best-known sonnets of Shakespeare. This is because it upholds many of the themes that are found in his other sonnets as well – the changing course of nature, the brevity of human life, and the permanence of great art. These themes are even echoed in the best-known of his plays. These themes make Shakespeare the great writer he is, for these themes are relatable to all his readers.