Study Guide

Sonnet 18 Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay

By William Shakespeare

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.