Read below our complete notes on the poem Sonnet 18 (Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?) by William Shakespeare. Our notes cover Sonnet 18 summary, themes, and literary analysis.
William Shakespeare was one of the most prominent playwrights and poets of the sixteenth century. He wrote many famous plays and sonnets. “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” is one of his most beautiful pieces of poetry. This sonnet is also referred to as “Sonnet 18.” It was written in the 1590s and was published in his collection of sonnets in 1609. In this collection, there are a total of 154 sonnets. These themes of these sonnets are usually love, beauty, time, and jealousy to mortality and infidelity.
This collection of sonnets is believed to be addressed to two different persons. On this basis, these sonnets are divided into two portions. The first portion consists of the first 126 sonnets. These sonnets are addressed to a male beloved. Some of these sonnets directly persuade the guy to marry while the rest addresses general themes like mortality, the value of poetry, and the attainment of immortality. The next portion consists of twenty-eight sonnets. These sonnets are addressed to some mysterious lady. The lady is usually referred to as the “dark lady.” These sonnets address the themes of greed, appetite, and sexual desires.
This sonnet belongs to the first part of the sonnet collection and is, therefore, considered to be addressed to the beloved male. This context specifies that the speaker is praising the beauty of a guy and comparing his beauty to the pleasant aspects of summer. The speaker tells him that there are a few downsides to the beauty of summer, but his beauty is flawless. Moreover, every beautiful thing is doomed to fade except the speaker’s beloved. The reason is that he is going to immortalize his beauty by describing it in his poetry.
As the number of this sonnet is eighteenth, it is clear that it discusses the themes of mortality, the value of poetry, and the attainment of immortality. The speaker reflects on how every worldly entity is mortal. However, he is going to use his poetry against this enemy and win immortality for his beloved by canonizing him in his poetry.
The wave of writing poetry in sonnet form reached England in the sixteenth century from Italy. Petrarch, an Italian poet and a philosopher, introduced this form for the first time in the fourteenth century in Italy. It was the time of renaissance in Italy. When the renaissance reached England in its real sense in the sixteenth century, sonnet form also came along.
Thomas Wyatt was the first English poet to introduce it to the English audience. Many other poets like Sidney and Henry Howard followed the same pattern and anglicized it by introducing quatrains in it. This sonnet confirms this tradition of the English sonnet form. It is written in the form of quatrains and is composed of fourteen lines. The first thirteen lines are divided into three quatrains, and the last two lines make a couplet.
Just like other sonnets of Shakespeare, this sonnet also deviates from the traditional sonnet form in regard to its theme. It does not, like the traditional sonnets, narrate the pursuit of a god-like female beloved. On the contrary, it describes the beauty of a male beloved and celebrates poetry as a source of achieving immortality.
Sonnet 18 Summary
The poem opens with a question asked by the speaker. The speaker asks the beloved whether he should compare him to a summer day. The next line announces the comparison and says that the beloved is lovelier than a summer day. Moreover, the summer day is extreme, while the beloved is better because he is temperate. The speaker furthers this comparison and says that the darling buds sprouting in May are shaken by the forceful winds that blow in the summer. Furthermore, the lease of summer is also not very long. It is very short-lived.
The next quatrain opens with the description of yet another flaw in summer’s beauty. During summers, the sun shines very brightly, and it is very hot. The pleasant weather does not stay. Similarly, the sunshine is sometimes very faint, and the weather gets cold.
Having described the numerous flaws in the summer’s beauty, the speaker reflects on the nature of beauty in general. He says that every beautiful thing is destined to see a decline in its charm one day. The reason for this decline may vary, but the decline is guaranteed. Sometimes, it is the bearing of luck and chance, which results in the fading of prettiness. Other times, it is the working of time and nature, which brings old age. This way, no beautiful thing escapes the clutches of future decline.
The first line of the third quatrain directly addresses the beloved and tells him that his beauty is eternal. It will never fade. The speaker tells him that you should not be afraid of losing the charm that you have now. Time will never be able to take it from you. Similarly, death will also fail in dispossessing him of his beauty. The shadows of death will never be able to take him under their control. The speaker says that you will keep on growing in the eternal lines he is saying. These lines do not come under the influence of time and will be able to remain in world till the end of time.
The last two lines of the sonnet describe the reason behind the immortality of the beloved’s beauty. The speaker says that as long as the human race remains here in this world, his lines will be read. With the reading of these lines, the beauty of the beloved described in these lines will remain in this world. This way, the speaker claims that he has given immortality to the beauty of the beloved.
Themes in Sonnet 18
Throughout the whole poem, the speaker talks about the beauty of his beloved. He admires the beauty of his beloved in different ways throughout the three quatrains. He starts by asking his beloved whether he should compare him with a summer day or not.
The comparison starts from the very next line, where the speaker mentions the limitation of summer in comparison to his beloved. He says that a summer day is either too cold or too hot, depending on the sunshine. On the other hand, his beloved is temperate and does not go to extremes. The speaker also claims that his beloved is lovelier than a summer day.
The speaker furthers his admiration by juxtaposing his beloved’s beauty with the beauty of other mortal things. He says that summer is too short and fades away into autumn. Similarly, all the other things in the world are going to lose their charm. They are either going to face some accident or fall into the arms of the inevitable death.
This admiration of the beloved’s beauty is enhanced in the poem by the use of superior metaphors. The speaker uses metaphor like “eye of heaven” in comparison with his beloved beauty to show that his beloved’s beauty is not an ordinary thing.
Cruelty of Nature
Nature is depicted as a harsh and cruel antagonist in this poem. The speaker says that the harsh winds shake the darling buds during May. This depicts that elements of nature are always bent upon damaging the beautiful objects in the world. Moreover, the two extremes of sunshine during summer deprive the humans of the pleasant weather. It is the working of the cruel nature that does not let humans have fun in this world.
Similarly, the speaker mentions how every fair thing is destined to lose its fairness in its interaction with natural cycles. Nature is filled with such dangers that can snatch the beauty of anything at any time.
Furthermore, death is depicted as a boastful antagonist in the poem. It is one of the agents of cruel nature that puts an end to the beauty of many things. It does not let humans enjoy their life and snatches it from them.
Inevitability of Death
The poem highlights the idea that no one can escape death. Everyone, no matter how powerful they are, is going to fall into this pit called grave. This idea is first developed in the poem by the description of the short-lived summer. The speaker says that summer has a very short span of time and will soon end.
This idea is then developed, and the speaker maintains that death serves as the full stop for every entity in the world. Every beautiful thing ceases to exist and turns into dust once the time of death arrives. The speaker, however, promises his beloved to protect him from such a future by immortalizing him in his poetry.
Poetry as a Source of Immortality
In the last couplet of the poem, the speaker tells his beloved about his source of achieving immortality. He tells him that he has immortalized him by writing about his beauty in his poetry. He is sure that people will read his poetry even when they are long gone from this world. When they read his poetry, they will appreciate his beloved’s beauty. In this way, his beloved will remain immortal.
Sonnet 18 Literary Analysis
The poem starts with a rhetorical question that emphasizes the worth of the beloved’s beauty. This question plays the role of informing the reader about the ensuing comparison in the rest of the poem. The speaker talks to his beloved as if his beloved is standing in front of him. This conversational style makes the message of the poem easy to grasp. It also makes it very attractive for the readers.
The second line continues with the same conversational tone. However, this time the speaker is not asking a question. Instead, he is describing the differences between his beloved and summer. He claims that his beloved is lovelier than summer. Also, he is more temperate than summer. This comparison forms the mental image of the speaker’s beloved in the mind of the reader. The effect of this image is of awe and admiration. The reader cannot help but admire the marvelous beauty of the speaker’s beloved.
The next line continues the same comparison. The speaker describes how his beloved is more temperate than summer by describing the roughness of summer. He says that the strong winds in summer shake the newly-sprouted buds on trees. Here, the epithet “darling” is used with the word “buds” to maintain the atmosphere of romance and flattery in the poem.
The last line of the quatrain describes another flaw of the summer season. The speaker says that the summer season is short-lived and is destined to fade into the clutches of the cruel autumn. He uses the phrase “all too short a date” to describe the shortness of the summer season. The use of two quantifiers before the word short emphasizes the speaker’s claim.
The next quatrain brings a few more flaws in the summer season. The speaker is weary of the two extremes of sunshine during the summer season. He uses the metaphor “the eye of heaven” to describe the sun. This use of metaphor is intended to further elevate the status of the speaker’s beloved by showing that he is even better than heavenly entities. The speaker says that the sun shines too brightly at times during the summer season. It makes the pleasant weather a bit too hot to bear.
Similarly, the speaker claims, sometimes the sunshine is too dull, and the weather becomes cold. Here, the speaker uses the metaphor “his gold complexion” to refer to sunshine. This metaphor creates the image of a beautiful person with golden complexion being compared with the golden rays of the sun in the minds of the readers.
The remaining two lines of the quatrain address the problem of mortality. The speaker says that every beautiful thing is doomed to lose its beauty at some point in time. It can happen to a person or a thing through a stroke of luck. The person or thing might face an accident that will take away all its beauty. Moreover, the inevitable death is also waiting for every entity and will prove to be the ultimate end of every type of beauty.
In the third quatrain, the speaker tells his beloved that he should not be afraid of these things. He uses the phrase “thy eternal summer” to refer to his beloved’s beauty. This metaphor serves the purpose of maintaining the image of the comparison of the summer season and the speaker’s beloved, which started in the first line. The second line continues the same thought, and the speaker tells his beloved that he should not be afraid of losing his charm. His charm will stay eternally.
In the third line of the quatrain, the speaker makes another promise with his beloved. He tells him that he should not be afraid of death. Here, death is personified and is given the human quality of bragging. The personified image of death creates the image of a boastful enemy, which is trying to bring everything under its shadows. In this way, it is portrayed as a true antagonist. The speaker tells his beloved that this antagonist will never be able to cast his shadow over him.
In the last line of the quatrain, the speaker reassures his beloved that he will go on to grow in the lines created by him. These lines will go on parallel with time and will never face death.
The last two lines of the sonnet make a couplet where the speaker talks of his arsenal in his fight against mortality and death. He says that as long as human life exists on this earth, his lines will be read. He uses the phrase “men can breathe, or eyes can see” to refer to human life on earth. Such an elaborated reference emphasizes that even when a single aspect of human life is here on earth, the speaker’s words will live. He furthers his claim by saying that the immortality of his poetry will give immortality to his beloved.
The poem is written in the form of a sonnet. It has fourteen lines, which are divided into three quatrains and a couplet. The first eight lines—the octave—discuss the same thought i.e., the comparison of the speaker’s beloved with summer. The last six lines—the sestet—bring in a new thought. These lines describe how the speaker’s beloved is unlike the summer.
The rhyme scheme of the sonnet is ababcdcdefefgg.
The words used in the sonnet are straightforward and ordinary.
The tone of the sonnet is romantic and full of flattery. The speaker speaks of his beloved beauty as there is no match for it.
The speaker of the sonnet is a person who has a lot of experience in love. He/she is very vocal about how everything is lesser in stature than his/her beloved beauty. He/she also talks about using his/her poetry to immortalize his/her beloved. This shows that he/she is a poet.
The very first line of the poem is a rhetorical question. The speaker asks his/her beloved whether he/she should compare him to a summer day. This question sets the tone and atmosphere for the rest of the discourse. It creates the air of magnificence around the personality of the speaker’s beloved.
In line number nine, death is attributed with the human quality of boasting. The personified image of death creates the image of a boastful enemy, which is trying to bring everything under its shadows. In this way, it is portrayed as a true antagonist.
- In the fifth line of the poem, the sun is described as “the eye of heaven.” Here, the sun is compared with an eye, which creates the effect of vividness. It provides the reader with a mental image of the whole scenario.
- In the sixth line of the poem, the metaphor “his gold complexion” is used to refer to sunshine. This metaphor creates the image of a beautiful person with golden complexion being compared with the golden rays of the sun in the minds of the readers.
- The metaphor “thy eternal summer” is used to refer to the beloved’s beauty. This metaphor serves the purpose of maintaining the image of the comparison of the summer season and the speaker’s beloved, which started in the first line.