Sonnet 18, Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day?” is a poem written by William Shakespeare (1564-1616), an English poet and playwright who is recognized as the greatest of all dramatists in much of the world. He is perhaps the most famous writer in the history of English literature. Shakespeare earned recognition from his late 16th and early 17th century contemporaries by writing plays, but he may have looked to poetry for enduring fame. His poetic achievements include a series of 154 sonnets, many of which contain lines as well known as any in his plays. The brevity of life, one of the perennial themes of Western literature, is given poignantly personal and highly original expression in many of these poems. Shakespeare’s sonnets are arranged with three quatrains (4 lines) and a couplet (2 lines).
This development was original enough for the form to be known as the Shakespearean sonnet, which employs a rhyme scheme of ababcdcd efef gg. The poet is challenged to express 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 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 form 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 wand’rest 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.”
Shakespeare begins the poem with a question proposing a comparison between his beloved and the summer season. Summer is chosen because it is the loveliest and most pleasant season due to England’s cold weather. In the second line, the comparison favors his beloved, who 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 sunlight, and as the season changes, summer becomes less beautiful. Shakespeare uses the word fair” with a double connotation, referring to both 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 great passion: “Thy eternal summer shall not fade.” She, unlike summer, will never deteriorate. Summer has now become the summer of life and beauty.
In the next three lines, the poet’s assurance becomes even firmer with promises that his beloved will neither become less beautiful nor die because she is immortalized through his poetry. Line ten and eleven give an answer in comparison with line six and seven: The summer’s fair declines, but the fairness of his beloved will be everlasting. The summer’s sun dims, but the life and beauty of his beloved will be eternal. In line twelve, the eternal lines to time” not only refer to lines of poetry but also imply 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 that explains and summarizes the theme: poetry gives timeless life to beauty.
In the poem Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” Shakespeare compares the imperfection of summer with his beloved’s perfection. The poet employs step-by-step arguments to reach the conclusion that poetry is immortal and makes beauty immortal. According to Shakespeare, the grace and effectiveness of the art of poetry are superior to nature and thus make it timeless and eternal, just like his beloved.