When we read this poem out loud, the first thing that strikes us is how neat the whole thing is. It’s so perfectly tied up. Every single line bounces along in perfect iambic pentameter, with no enjambment (lines running on into the next lines with no pause at the end of the line). Basically, the sound of this poem is perfect. Now on one hand that’s cool, because it’s really elegant poetry, but on the other hand there’s something weird about it, and it works well with the dominant themes of the poem.
Basically, the poem is almost too perfect. If the speaker were truly enraptured in love and completely obsessed with his beloved, we might suspect his words to come out a bit awkwardly as he tries to organize his intensely emotional thoughts into symbols. Instead, this poem is really crafted and sounds planned. In fact, the poem is so carefully put together that it gives us readers almost no leeway in how we choose to read it. Check out those last two lines: "So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, / So long lives this, and this gives life to thee." Just try to read that in any way other than a really straightforward iambic pentameter. The speaker has completely locked us into his way of reading the poem. In sum, then, the sound helps us notice that this poet is more of a schemer than a lover.
Not much to say about the title here. This is indeed a sonnet, and the "Form and Meter" section describes how Shakespeare made the sonnet form his own. As far as the number eighteen is concerned, it’s only important in that this is the first of the sonnets in which the speaker starts to address "thee" (often referred to by scholars as "the fair youth") more romantically, where previously he had been more of a father figure.
Imagine a poet sitting out in a field on a warm but breezy summer day, contemplating the nature of existence and jotting down some poetic philosophy. We imagine it’s kind of like the weather when Newton sat under a tree and an apple fell on his head. This is thinkin’ weather. Anyway, even if the weather can get annoying, with bursts of heat and moments of shade, the sun eventually shines through the clouds.
Generally, it’s a good rule of thumb to avoid calling the speaker of a poem by the name of the author. The idea is that the speaker in a work of literature, describing the subject matter, could very well be (and often is) another kind of character created by the author.
But Shakespeare makes things tricky: what if that speaker acknowledges that he’s writing a poem? Doesn’t that mean he is Shakespeare, the writer of this poem? Well, this certainly makes the speaker look a lot more like the Bard, since this is a poem in a book of poems by William Shakespeare. Still, we have to keep in mind that they’re not necessarily the same, since we can easily imagine Shakespeare inventing a character who writes poems. For that reason, we’ll keep calling him the speaker instead of Shakespeare.
Now, this speaker is one cocky son of a gun. You can tell that he’s the kind of guy who says annoying things out loud to pump himself up, like, "You’re damn right you look good in this new blazer" while posing in front of a mirror. The fun for him is seeing how great he is.
The poem is an ego trip from start to finish. That rhetorical question to open things up? It’s just that: rhetorical. He knows we’re not about to say, "No, you shan’t compare anyone to a summer’s day." If he said, "Shall I go abuse my adorable puppy?" we’d have no way of stopping him. He’s got us right where he wants us, and by asking a question we can’t possibly answer, he’s already on a power trip, since we’re not about to quit reading this little 14-line poem.
In the second line he makes his one and only concession to "thee," recognizing that he or she is "lovely" and "temperate," but check out the stresses in these first two lines: "I" is a stressed syllable but "thee" and "thou" aren’t! And from then on it’s even more brazen self-congratulation. He goes into a bit of indulgent, very poetry-ish personification of summer and nature, and then swoops in for his grand entrance as God, announcing: "Behold my power, for I have made you, unlike summer, immortal."
And here’s what makes it extra irritating: he’s right. He thinks he’s a stud and he’s spot on – if you’re reading the poem (which you just did), he’s given "thee" new life, or at least "life" as he defines it, which is being analyzed and admired. But give that a second thought: has he really given the beloved something summer doesn’t have? Isn’t he tooting his own horn a bit? The summer is discussed and admired eternally, since it comes around every year, and so isn’t all that different than the beloved as presented in the poem. You could, then, see the speaker as a delusional self-flatterer, strutting his stuff on the stage.
Here’s a poem that isn’t particularly hard to get through. In fact, if we were just judging on difficulty of comprehending the meaning of the words on the page, this might be a 2. "Sonnet 18," though, gets a major bump because of the hours, days, or years you could spend trying to work out some of the issues it raises with regard to reality and fiction, immortality, and the general role of art. The issues couldn’t be meatier, so prepare for a serious encounter.
Some people like to say that all art is ultimately about two things: love and death. Shakespeare, though, never one to be complacent, noticed that it’s silly to reduce art to two things that don’t take into account the medium through which they’re presented. In other words, a big theme for Shakespeare is artistic self-reference – the Bard is never going to let you forget that what you’re reading or seeing performed isn’t the same thing as real life. You can see this all over the place in his major plays. Check out the play-within-a-play in Hamlet, the epilogue of As You Like It, or the entire The Tempest for a couple of examples.
Shakespeare completely refuses to let you feel comfortable in a world of fiction. He’s going to remind you, over and over again, that what happens on stage, or, in this case, in a poem, is an artistically created world, and so works differently than our world. Still, though, this fake world is a really important part of our world, and he knows it. In other words, the world of fiction isn’t the same thing as our world, but it’s really important to understanding how our world works. And Sonnet 18, as you might have noticed, is basically the epitome of this kind of thinking. Shakespeare basically says, "this isn’t a love letter, it’s a poem, and you’re going to like it. In fact you’re reading it right now. Checkmate."
This is a classic Shakespearean sonnet with fourteen lines in very regular iambic pentameter. With the exception of a couple relatively strong first syllables (and even these are debatable), there are basically no deviations from the meter. There aren’t even any lines that flow over into the next line – every single line is end-stopped. There are two quatrains (groups of four lines), followed by a third quatrain in which the tone of the poem shifts a bit, which is in turn followed by a rhyming couplet (two lines) that wraps the poem up. The rhyme scheme is ABAB CDCD EFEF GG.
The form of this sonnet is also notable for being a perfect model of the Shakespearean sonnet form. Just as in older Italian sonnets by which the English sonnets (later to be called Shakespearean sonnets) were inspired, the ninth line introduces a significant change in tone or position. Here Shakespeare switches from bashing the summer to describing the immortality of his beloved. This poem also has the uniquely English twist of a concluding rhyming couplet that partially sums up and partially redefines what came before it. In this case, the closing lines have the feel of a cute little poem of their own, making it clear that the poet’s abilities were the subject of this poem all along.
Don’t be fooled, though: beyond the form, this is not your stereotypical sonnet. The main reason is that sonnets, at least before Shakespeare was writing, were almost exclusively love poems. Certainly this poem has some of the qualities of a love poem, but, to say the least, this poem isn’t just a poet’s outpouring of love for someone else. Check out the "Love" theme for more on that.
Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.
However much it might look he’s praising a beloved, this poet is definitely more concerned with tooting his own horn. Really, you could sum up the poem like this: "Dear Beloved: You’re better than a summer’s day. But only because I can make you eternal by writing about you. Love, Shakespeare." That message is why images and symbols of time, decay, and eternity are all over this poem. Whether or not we think the beloved is actually made immortal (or just more immortal than the summer’s day) is up in the air, but it’s certainly what the speaker wants you to think.
If the major question of this poem is how to become immortal, and thus more wonderful than a summer’s day, the speaker’s answer is poetry. For that reason, poetry takes on an inflated importance in the poem, and is attended by dramatic, powerful language.
From the beginning of the poem, the speaker tries to set up a contrast between the beloved and a summer’s day. He tries really hard to distinguish them, ultimately arguing that the beloved, unlike nature, will be saved by the force and permanence of his poetry. The thing is, the contrast doesn’t really work, since summer, if anything, seems much more eternal than the beloved. If being written about preserves immortality, then the summer ought to be immortal because the speaker’s writing about it as well. And then there’s the fact that summer actually is, in some sense, immortal, since it returns in full force every year.
The speaker of "Sonnet 18" is really trying to simplify nature and fate, since he’s trying to hurdle over their limitations with his poetry. One way he does it is to reduce them to economic transactions – something simple, easy to understand, and most importantly, work around.
This sonnet in particular really doesn’t have anything in the way of sex, but if you read the poem in the context of all of Shakespeare's sonnets, it’d be hard to get away with a G rating. The whole series is intensely sexual, and the poems about the "fair youth," of which this is often considered a part, feature homoerotic romance between the speaker and a younger man. On its own, though, the poem is just kind of cute.