Summary of Sonnet 18 by Shakespeare

About the poet:

William Shakespeare is best known as the greatest dramatist of all time. However, he is also considered the first national poet of England, who brought his country much prestige at a time when nations such as France and Italy had led the rise of the European Renaissance. He is remembered as the ‘Bard of Avon’, for his place of residence was Stratford-upon-Avon.

Shakespeare was baptized on 26th April 1564. From roughly 1594 onward he was an important member of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men – an eminent company of theatrical players. After the crowning of King James I, in 1603, this company changed its name to the King’s Men. The King’s Men company was very popular, and records show that Shakespeare’s works were published and sold as popular literature. Over the course of 20 years, Shakespeare wrote plays that capture the complete range of human emotion and conflict.

In the 16th century, many of the nobility were good patrons of the performing arts and friends of the actors. Early in his career, Shakespeare was able to attract the attention of Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton, to whom he also dedicated his first – and second – published poems: “Venus and Adonis” (in 1593) and “The Rape of Lucrece” (in 1594).

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Tradition has it that Shakespeare died on his birthday, 23rd April, 1616, though many scholars believe that this is a myth. However, church records show he was interred at Trinity Church on 25th April 1616.

About Sonnet 18:

“Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day?” is the eighteenth sonnet in a collection of sonnets entitled Shakespeare’s Sonnets. This is a collection of 154 sonnets accredited to William Shakespeare. All of the sonnets deal with themes such as the passage of time, love, beauty and mortality. The collection was first published in a 1609 quarto with the full stylised title: SHAKE-SPEARES SONNETS. Never before imprinted. (although sonnets 138 and 144 had in fact previously been published in the 1599 miscellany The Passionate Pilgrim).

The subjects of the sonnets are usually referred to as the Fair Youth, the Rival Poet, and the Dark Lady. The poet expresses admiration for the Fair Youth’s beauty, and later has an affair with the Dark Lady. It is not known whether the poems and their characters are fictional or autobiographical.

Sonnets 1 – 17 in the sequence recommend the benefits of marriage and children. With Sonnet 18 the tone changes dramatically towards romantic intimacy, and this tone persists throughout the rest of the collection.

The Setting of Sonnet 18:

This poem is set on the very page on which the poet is writing. It is on this page that the beauty of his beloved is described and immortalized. It is also this page that he thinks will survive when both he and his beloved are long gone.

Summary 0f Sonnet 18:

This poem, as the title shows, is a sonnet. A sonnet consists of fourteen lines divided into an eight-line unit known as an octave, and a six-line unit known as a sestet. The octave and sestet can together form a single stanza (which is the case in ‘Sonnet to the Pupils of the Hindu College’), or appear as two separate stanzas. Since the fourteen lines of this sonnet are not divided into stanzas, they are divided into meaningful segments for the purposes of this summary in order to make this poem easier to follow and understand. This poem is written in the first person, hence we can assume that the speaker of the poem is the poet himself.

Lines 1 – 2:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate.

In these lines, the poet asks his beloved whether he should compare her with a day in summer, for both appeal to him equally. Immediately after this though, the poet withdraws his question, for he knows that such a comparison would be inappropriate. The poet knows that a summer’s day can be scorching and unpleasant sometimes, but that his beloved’s beauty is not so extreme. She is more temperate he feels, and this is what makes her lovelier than a day in summer.

Lines 3 – 4:

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,

And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.

In these lines, the poet says that the month of May sees the first stage of growth in a new plant’s life. With summer, buds begin to appear that will later grow into flowers. Spring is thus invigorating. However, summer is closely followed by the monsoon. Hence, one will often find strong winds blowing over the trees and shaking all the buds. The poet imagines summer to be a landlord, who loans out her lovely weather conditions to us once a year. However, the contract that summer signs are only for a short time, and soon its pleasures are taken away from us.

Lines 5 – 6:

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,

And often is his gold complexion dimmed;

In these lines, the poet talks about the unpredictability of the weather in general. He says that on some days, the sun shines too brightly. He imagines the sky to be a human figure and the sun to be its eyes. This metaphor is constructed on the fact that both the sun and one’s eyes do shine from time to time. Both these occasions are associated with joy. However, because the weather is not always constant, one can also see the sun’s light fading away at times. Thus the poet hints that rains, storms, and snowfall are also a part of human life on earth.

Lines 7 – 8:

And every fair from fair sometime declines,

By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimmed;

In these lines, the poet comes to the conclusion that everything that is beautiful ceases to be beautiful at some point of time or another. This usually happens for two reasons. The first reason is simply that of chance. Sometimes an unlucky incident, such as an accident, can lead to disfigurement and loss of beauty. The second reason is as a result of changes in nature, such as what the poet has described in lines 7 and 8. Because of changes in nature, a glorious summer day full of sunshine can be easily followed by a gloomy and stormy day full of cloud cover and rainfall.

Lines 9 – 10:

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,

Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,

In these lines, the poet says that the beauty of his beloved is similar to the beauty of summer, but that this summer is never-ending. That is to say, his beloved’s beauty will never fade away. She will always be beautiful in his eyes. She will always be his fair maiden.

Lines 11 – 12:

Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,

When in eternal lines to Time thou grow’st.

In these lines, the poet asserts that his beloved will never die. He imagines death to be a towering figure and says that she will never fall under the shade of his immense body. Death can never claim her, nor brag about having done so. Time is a long progression, and one cannot stop it from moving forward in its course. In other words, the poet cannot deny that his beloved will grow old. All he can say is that her aging will not matter in the end.

Lines 13 – 14:

So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,

So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

In these lines, the poet says that as long as a man as a species inhabits the earth and has the ability to see with his eyes, his poetry shall be read, and within that poetry will his beloved live. That is to say, the poet believes that by playing such a large role in his poetry, his beloved will gain immortality.

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