Writing and Ruminating

Thoughts on writing, reading, and poetry. With the occasional diversion, bien sûr.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Sonnet 18 by William Shakespeare

Yesterday's poem, Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley, makes quite a point about human frailty and hubris. And in doing so, it makes the point that all the great works of Ozymandias have disappeared from the face of the earth, save for his broken statue bearing some of his words. Today's choice comes from Shakespeare – one of his most famous sonnets, which addresses the notion that youth may fade, but that, when done right, words last for centuries.

Sonnet 18*
by William Shakespeare

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed,
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature's changing course untrimmed:
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st,
Nor shall death brag thou wanderest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st:
  So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
  So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.


*The sonnet was actually untitled. It is given a number from a collection of his works, the sonnets he wrote (and which were preserved) numbering over 100. It is often referred to as well by its first line, "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?"


As all Shakespearian sonnets do, this follows the rhyme scheme ABABCDCDEFEFGG.

This is one of the many poems written for the "fair youth" for whom Shakespeare wrote so very many of his sonnets. It seems likely that the youth was a male, and quite possibly Shakespeare's patron. Whether Shakespeare had an actual romance with the fair youth or not remains an unresolved matter.

Sonnet 18 opens with a comparison: the youth is compared to a summer's day, and found superior. In fact, the first eight lines examine the notion that seasons come and go and sometimes their weather is unpleasant, but the youth is found entirely superior. The "turn" in this sonnet comes in the 9th line, with the word "But", which contrasts the fading away of summer with the beauty (physical and otherwise) of the youth. "But thy eternal summer shall not fade/Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st": Your youth and beauty won't fade, and you'll keep possession of the fairness that is yours (ow'st is probably a variant of the verb "to own" here). Shakespeare goes one further: Not only will the youth not fade, he will not be forgotten. The final couplet (inset a wee bit) explains why: I've written a poem about you to remind everyone through the ages.

Shakespeare's words proved prescient, in that his words continue to be read and cherished hundreds of years later. And even though the precise identity of the fair youth cannot be determined, in some ways, our continued recitations and readings of the poem keep his memory alive, I suppose - it must be so, at least, for Shakespeare said so.


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