Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
The summer's flow'r is to the summer sweet,
- Whoa, where did this come from? Are we in the same poem? What the heck is Shakespeare talking about here?
- If reading line 9 makes you ask questions like these, don't worry: you're not alone. Probably everybody who has ever read this poem has been just as surprised as you are at this point. With a poet as skillful as Shakespeare, you can bet that this is no accident.
- Because we trust Big Willy enough to think he knows what he's doing, we'll let him clear everything up in his own sweet time. That said, even if we don't yet know how this line fits into the rest of the poem, we can still try to understand it on its own terms, at let our understanding develop as the poem rolls along.
- Okay, so we've shifted from talking about powerful people and non-powerful people to talk about… flowers. But wait, is Shakespeare talking talking about flowers? No, he's talking about one flower, "the summer's flow'r."
- Not only is this the summer's own, personal flower, but the summer also finds it "sweet." That's because, when Shakespeare says the flower is "to the summer sweet," he is using the word "to" the way we do when we say, "to me, you're wonderful." In this context, the word "to" could be rephrased as "in my opinion," or, "as far as I can see." Thus, "to the summer sweet" really means, "sweet, in the summer's opinion."
- So, we've got a very special flower, the summer's personal favorite. How does this connect to the rest of the poem? Let's keep reading and see if we can figure it out.
Though to itself it only live and die;
- Here we run up against another one of the tricky parts of this very tricky poem. This time around, most scholars are agreed that the word "to" is being used in at least two different meanings.
- The first meaning of the word "to" here is the same as the "to" in line 9, which is the same meaning we use in everyday speech when we say something like, "to me, that movie was incredible." In this context, "to" could be rephrased as something like, "As far as I can see."
- Following this meaning of "to," you could rephrase lines 9-10 as "The summer's flower is sweet, in the summer's opinion, / Even though, as far as the flower can see, it only lives and dies." When you interpret the lines this way, the gist probably seems to be something like, "The summer knows something that the flower doesn't know: it knows that the flower is sweet, even though the flower can't see beyond the limited perspective of its own brief life." Right?
- But the word "to" here in line 9 could mean something else. It could also have the meaning it does in ordinary speech when we say, "I've got this cake all to myself," or, "Leave it to me." In these contexts, the word "to" could be rephrased as something like, "for my benefit," "in my possession," or "under my control."
- Following this meaning of the word "to," lines 9-10 could be rephrased as, "The summer's flower is sweet, in the summer's opinion, / Even though it only lives and dies for its own benefit." This time around, the gist seems to be that the summer is generous in finding the flower sweet, even though the flower is totally self-centered.
- Now, we think it is ten kinds of unclear which of these two meanings of "to" is the go-to reading in this context.
- That said, don't you think the second meaning of "to," the one where it means "for the benefit of" might help us connect this flower passage to the rest of the poem? Doesn't the self-centered flower kind of link up with the images of the self-centered powerful people we've already learned about in Lines 1-8? Is the "flow'r" the same as the "they"? And hey, flower rhymes with power, so maybe we're not totally off base here. Rhymes often indicate connections, after all.
- Let's try to connect this part of the poem to the earlier lines. If this poem is all about great and powerful people who are capable of hurting others, well then maybe these flowers are a metaphor for those people. That's going to make the next couple lines very interesting.
But if that flow'r with base infection meet,
- Uh-oh. It looks like even the summer can't protect the flower all the time. Sometimes, that "flower" is bound to encounter "base infection." We're guessing that's a fungus, or some other gross disease.
- If we're going with this whole the-flowers-are-the-powerful-people interpretation, then what might that infection be? Well, remember that early on in the poem, the speaker mentioned that he's talking here about powerful people who are capable of harming others, but don't. People who keep their powers under wraps.
- So maybe that infection is those powerful folks giving in to the temptation to hurt others, simply because they know they can.
- But wait, isn't Shakespeare kind of leaving us hanging here? Line 11 says, "But if" the flower gets infected. Well, what then? It looks like this is a cliffhanger ending. We'd better read on.
- Before we do, though, we just want to mention one last thing: remember the sexual connotations in line 4? Well, you might say they're popping up again here. As if the speaker's saying that those who give in to sexual temptation are sure to meet with infection. And hey, fair point, Shakey. That's Sex Ed 101, right there.
The basest weed outbraves his dignity.
- If you're an Olympics buff like Shmoop, you've probably heard a lot of repetition of the words "out-compete," "out-perform," and the like. Well, "outbrave"—the verb in line 12—follows exactly the same formula.
- The idea is that the "basest weed" comes off as more brave than the "dignity" of the flower. In this context, the word "brave" doesn't refer to courage, but means something like "being decked out in nice duds."
- Remember how we suggested, in talking about line 10, that the flower could be a metaphor for the powerful humans referred to in Lines 1-8 of the poem? If so, then wouldn't it make sense for the "basest weed" to have a human meaning as well? What type of person could be referenced here?
- The word "basest" certainly suggests that the image is referring to someone of a lower social class, or to someone less powerful than those, you know, powerful people we've been talking about all along.
- If so, could this match up with the "Others" mentioned in line 8, who could be described as the "servants" of the powerful people—depending on what you interpret the word "their" as referring to (see our discussion of line 8, above).
- In any case, the word "weed" had a double meaning in Shakespeare's day (no, not the one you're thinking of): it could also refer to clothing. Could this be designed to reinforce the human dimension of this image?
- So we've learned that when the most special flower of summer gets infected, the most low-class weed surpasses it in fanciness and general awesomeness.
- If that's true, then that means that when powerful people really do hurt others, and don't restrain their powers, they're outclassed by folks who used to be below them.
- Still, these lines are highly metaphorical, so they're open to a lot of possible interpretations. Let's turn to the couplet, and with any luck, it will set us straight.