Study Guide

Sonnet 18 Analysis

  • Sound Check

    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.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    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.

  • Setting

    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.

  • Speaker

    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.

  • Tough-O-Meter

    (4) Base Camp

    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.

  • Calling Card

    Artistic Self-reference

    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."

  • Form and Meter

    A Shakespearean Sonnet in Iambic Pentameter

    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.

  • Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay

    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.

    Change, Fate, and Eternity

    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.

    • Line 4: This is where the speaker starts pointing to how short summer feels. Using personification and metaphor, the speaker suggests that summer has taken out a lease on the weather, which must be returned at the end of the summer. Summer is treated like a home-renter, while the weather is treated like a real-estate property.
    • Lines 7-8: These lines give us the problem (everything’s going to fade away) that the poet is going to work against.
    • Lines 9-12: These lines are full of all sorts of figurative language, all pointing to how the speaker is going to save the beloved from the fate of fading away. The beloved’s life is described in a metaphor as a "summer," and then his or her beauty is described in another metaphor as a commodity than can be owned or owed. Death is then personified, as the overseer of the shade (a metaphor itself for an afterlife). Finally the "lines to time" are a metaphor for poetry, which will ultimately save the beloved, and "eternal" is a parallel with "eternal summer" in line 9.
    • Lines 13-14: What’s so interesting about these lines is that it’s hard to tell whether the speaker is using figurative language or not. Does he actually mean that the poem is alive, and that it will keep the beloved alive? Well, it depends what we mean by "alive." If we read alive scientifically, as in breathing and thinking, well then alive is definitely a metaphor. But if we read it as describing a continued existence of some kind, well then maybe he does mean it literally, since surely the poem and the beloved exist for us in some sense.

    Poetry

    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.

    • Line 1: This rhetorical question accomplishes a lot, including setting down the main axis of comparison in the poem, and also implying that the speaker is only making a show of caring what we readers or the beloved actually think (since he clearly can’t care how or whether we answer him). In addition to these roles, though, the word "compare" gives this line a special charge, since it is a word that is so closely tied up with the role of poetry. If you were to try to define poetry, one thing you might say is that poets really like to compare things that are really dissimilar and show they can be connected. In a sense, then, we can read this line as "should I write a poem about you?" In that way, the speaker has already made the act of writing poetry an issue in this poem, and, as we’ll see, his answer to this question is obviously, "heck yeah I should write a poem about you, since I can make you immortal!"
    • Lines 12-14: These lines are where the poet finally begins to talk about poetry more clearly. The phrase "lines to time," creates a metaphor for poetry, since poetry is lines of words set to a time, or meter. Then, using a parallel in the last two lines, he asserts that as long as humans live, his poetry will survive, and, in turn, so too will the beloved. The question, of course, is what he means by the poem giving "life" to the beloved. It’s in some sense a metaphor, at least, since the poem isn’t about to perform CPR on the beloved’s corpse every time the poem is read. But if "life" just means having someone think about you, then sure, the poem could give life to the beloved.

    Personified Nature

    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.

    • Line 1: This is a rhetorical question, as the speaker definitely doesn’t care how or whether we answer him, and it also introduces what will be the main metaphor of the poem, as the summer’s day will be discussed using concepts more literally applicable to the beloved than to summer itself.
    • Line 2: "Temperate" is a pun, since it carries two important meanings here. When applied to the beloved, it means "showing moderation or self-restraint," but when applied to the summer’s day it means, "having mild temperatures."
    • Lines 3-4: This is all personification here. Even if winds might really be able to "shake" things, and buds could be described as "darling," these are both words more often applied to human actions. The next line is a much more obvious case of personification, as summer can’t literally take out a lease on anything. Note also that this implies a metaphor of the weather as a rentable property. Also, the "darling buds" introduce an extended metaphor of plant life and the conditions needed to sustain life that runs through the rest of the poem
    • Lines 5-6: There’s the apparent opposition here, in that sometimes the weather is too hot, and sometimes it’s too cold. But there’s also personification with "eye" and "complexion." What’s more, "complexion" doesn’t just mean the appearance of the face, but also had a second meaning in Shakespeare’s time, referring to someone’s general internal well-being. Note also that the plant life extended metaphor is continued in "shines" and "dimm’d," since plants need light in order to flourish.
    • Line 9: Here the personification is inverted: instead of describing nature in human terms, the speaker is describing the beloved in the terms of nature, giving him or her an "eternal summer" which could not literally apply.
    • Line 11: "Shade" makes for a continuation of the plant life extended metaphor, since if you’re a plant stuck in the shade, that’s some bad news. "Shade" is also a pun, because it can mean "ghost."
    • Line 12: The plant life extended metaphor is completed, as the speaker finally points out a way that plants can "grow," instead of all of these problems they faced in previous lines of the poem. Now what is this way? Well, perhaps aside from suggesting poetry, "lines to time" could also conjure up an image of plants lined up in rows in a farm. In other words, plants need to be organized and cultivated by humans in order to survive. This works really well with the main theme in the rest of the poem: that the beloved needs to be organized and developed by the poet in order to survive.

    Leases and Debt

    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.

    • Line 4: He describes summer as having a "lease" over the weather. This is, of course, personification, since summer couldn’t hold a lease, but for the purposes of this theme, it’s also a metaphor, since the weather isn’t actually a product that can be bought, sold, or rented.
    • Line 10: Here the speaker jumps back into the economics lingo, using both a metaphor and a pun. The metaphor is similar to what we saw in line 4: here beauty, instead of the weather, is what can be bought, sold, and rented. But here there’s also a cool pun with the word "ow’st," as it could mean both "owest" and "ownest." Either way, he’s still playing with the property metaphor, but we can wonder whether the beloved’s beauty is something he or she owns, or something that he or she has only borrowed, and would have to return if not for the speaker’s poetry.
    • Sex Rating

      PG

      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.

    • Shout Outs

      Religion

      • The Bible: In line 11, the speaker refers to the 23rd psalm, when he speaks of Death’s "shade."