William Shakespeare (1564-1616), English poet and playwright, recognized in much of the world as the greatest of all dramatists, is perhaps the most famous writer in the history of English literature. By writing plays, Shakespeare earned recognition from his late 16th and early 17th century contemporaries, but he may have looked to poetry for enduring fame. His poetic achievements include a series of 154 sonnets. Many of the sonnets he wrote contain lines as well known as any in his plays. One of the perennial themes of Western literaturethe brevity of lifeis given poignantly personal and highly original expression in many of these poems.
Shakespeares sonnets are arranged with three quatrains (4 lines) and a couplet (2 lines). This development was sufficiently original for the form to become known as the Shakespearean sonnet, which employs a rhyme scheme of abab cdcd efef gg. The poet is challenged to express his profound emotions and thoughts on life, death, war, and history in the condensed fourteen lines. Sonnet 18 comes from The Sonnets of Shakespeare printed in 1609:
“Shall I compare thee to a summers day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summers 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 form fair sometime declines,
By chance, or natures changing course, untrimmed.
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owst
Nor shall death brag thou wandrest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growst.
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.”
Shakespeare begins the poem with a question that proposes a comparison between his beloved and a summer season. Summer is chosen because it is the loveliest and the most pleasant season due to Englands cold weather. In the second line the comparison embarks to favor his beloved: his beloved is more beautiful and less extreme than summer. The reasons for his adoration are given in the next four lines, which describe the less pleasant aspects of summer: The wind impairs the beauty of summer, and summer is too brief. The splendor of summer is affected by the intensity of the sunlight, and as the season changes, summer becomes less beautiful. Here Shakespeare uses the word fair with a double connotation, the clear and sunny weather and the pleasing appearance of a beautiful woman, indicating that any beauty will fade one day.
Starting from the ninth line Shakespeare shifts his tone with a great passion: “Thy eternal summer shall not fade.” She, unlike summer, will never deteriorate. Summer has by now become the summer of life and beauty. In the next three lines the poets assurance becomes even firmer with promises that his beloved will neither become less beautiful nor even die, because she is immortalized through his poetry. Line ten and eleven give an answer in comparison with line six and seven: The summers fair declines, but the fairness of his beloved will be everlasting. The summers sun dims, but the life and beauty of his beloved will be eternal. In line twelve the “eternal lines to time” not only refers to lines of poetry but also implies lines of shape, the shape of beauty. Because of the eternal lines of the poem, the life and beauty of his beloved will thrive and flourish. The poem finishes with a triumphant couplet, which explains and summarizes the theme: poetry gives timeless life to beauty.
In the poem “Shall I compare thee to a summers day?” Shakespeare compares the summers imperfection with his beloveds perfection. The poet employs the step-by- step arguments, to reach the conclusion: poetry is immortal and makes beauty immortal. According to Shakespeare, the grace and effectiveness of the art of poetry is superior to nature, and thus makes it timeless and eternal, just like his beloved.