Study Guide

Sonnet 18 Quotes

  • Love

    Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
    Thou art more lovely and more temperate (1-2)

    At first glance, the poem seems to start like a really awkward little love poem, doesn’t it? It feels like the poet is almost awkward in professing his love. He has to ask whether he ought to go ahead with the comparison (couldn’t he just make the comparison without all the anxiety?), and the best compliments he can come up with are "lovely" and "temperate." This isn’t high-flown language, and there’s nothing particularly inspiring here. If we didn’t have the rest of the poem to go on, we’d think this poem was by some sad sap who had no idea how to express himself poetically. Instead, though, once we get to the end of the poem, we realize that these lines sound awkward because the speaker’s heart isn’t really in it. He’s into himself and the idea of writing a poem, and it’s only there where his language can shine.

    But thy eternal summer shall not fade (9)

    In line 9 we come to realize that this whole comparison with the summer is bizarre. Check out this line: "thy eternal summer shall not fade." That’s like saying "thy unbreakable armor shall not be broken." Duh, his/her eternal summer won’t fade, because it’s eternal. Plus, there’s the added issue that the comparison of real summer to the beloved’s "summer" doesn’t fully make sense. The speaker is claiming that the real summer is temporary, while the beloved’s metaphorical summer is eternal. But the problem is, even the real summer is eternal, because it happens every year. The line "summer’s lease hath all too short a date" doesn’t entirely make sense, because even if each individual summer is limited, summer itself is eternal. To us, all of this just helps torpedo the thought that this is a legitimate love poem for anyone other than the poet.

    Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
    When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st (11-12)

    In the thoughts accompanying lines 1-2 above, we mentioned how the "love poem" feels a bit hollow and falls flat in the first two lines, as the poet just doesn’t seem to be able to turn his love into beautiful language. Well, we see in lines 11-12 that he is fully capable of turning his love into beautiful, richly imagistic language. The thing is, he reveals his true love here: himself, or the guy who can fend off death.

    So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
    So long lives this, and this gives life to thee (13-14)

    Remember when we thought this might be a love poem? Well, the last two lines seal it: this is a poem about living, not loving. Note the repetition of "lives" and "life" in the final line. There’s nothing here about love, except for implied self-love on the part of the speaker.

  • Literature and Writing

    Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? (1)

    From the get-go, we can tell that this is going to be a poem about writing poems. In most other poems you read, the poet’s just going to go ahead and tell you what he wants to tell you, but here the speaker feels compelled to ask if he should go ahead with the whole thing. It’s almost as if he’s including the beloved and (since we read the poem) the audience in the construction of the poem, asking for our input. Then, of course, there’s the fact that this is an empty offer of a question – neither the beloved nor we in the audience can possibly change the course of the poem, and we might even see this opening line as a bit of arrogance.

    Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
    When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st (11-12)

    Here’s where the poem starts to move into more meta territory, bringing out that central issue of immortality through artistic representation. First we get to see a real-life example of artistic immortality, as lots of readers will recognize the "death" through whose "shade" we wander from another famous work of literature: the Bible (and specifically Psalm 23:4). Here’s a character who seems to have gained some literary immortality, since so many people read the Bible. Then the speaker gets even more assertive, contending that the beloved will "grow" in "eternal lines to time." That phrase "lines to time" is definitely a description of poetry, since poems are lines of words set to a rhythm, or time, so the poet’s pointing toward eternal life through poetry.

    So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
    So long lives this, and this gives life to thee. (13-14)

    Well, these are some of the most famous lines in all of Shakespeare, and for good reason. Here’s the poet’s deserved arrogance in all of its glory: as long as people keep reading, this poem will stay alive, and, in turn, so will the object of the poem, the beloved. Note here he makes the tacit assumption that as long as people are reading, they’ll be reading his poem. Cocky stuff.

  • Time

    And summer’s lease hath all too short a date (4)

    The basic idea here is simple: the time summer occupies during the year is too short, as it has to give way to the other seasons. But "during the year" isn’t the only time frame one can look at. In fact, the bigger the span of time you look at, the more summer there is, since summer happens every year. In a sense, then, summer actually is immortal, even though the poet will go on to contrast his beloved’s "eternal summer" with the natural summer.

    And every fair from fair sometime declines,
    By chance, or nature’s changing course untrimm’d (7-8)

    We considered calling this theme "Fate and Free Will," because the main issue the poet has with time is that it imposes a fate on people, just as it does nature. Like summer, which can’t last all year, beauty can’t last an entire lifetime, as time will eventually catch up with you (or you could go the plastic surgery route). It is only through something eternal like poetry that man can escape, to any extent, the fate imposed by time.

    But thy eternal summer shall not fade,

    When in eternal lines to time though grow’st (9 and 12)

    Nothing new here, but it’s worth noting the repetition of "eternal." This isn’t a poem that tosses words around lightly, so repeating a word means it’s very, very important.

    So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
    So long lives this, and this gives life to thee. (13-14)

    These lines sound really spot-on, don’t they? Tough to argue with lines as forceful and neat as these are. Plus the idea is cool: the poet can grant immortality. But it’s crucial that we treat these lines critically and not just accept them as drops of Shakespearean life-wisdom. First of all, how come he assumes that as long as men breathe or eyes can see (note the "or" – what if eyes could see but men couldn’t breathe?), this poem will continue to be read? We do still read it, but there’s no guarantee that people will keep reading these sonnets, and once they stop, the beloved would cease to exist. It seems like his or her immortality is pretty tenuous. Plus, we’ve got to wonder what kind of "life" he thinks the beloved will have. He or she certainly won’t be conscious, and will only be recognized as how the poet describes him or her. All we’ve got to go there is "more lovely and more temperate" than the summer. If that’s all the beloved reduces to, it’s really not much of a life.

  • Man and the Natural World

    Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
    Thou art more lovely and more temperate (1-2)

    At the start, we’re told that this will be a poem putting man and the natural world side by side for comparison, and apparently an attempt to favor man over the summer’s day. Let’s see how that develops:

    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 dimm’d (2-6)

    At first glance, these lines look like the poet is bashing summer, in favor of "thee," who is "more lovely and more temperate." That’s true enough, as he’s definitely complaining about summer, but pay close attention to how he words these complaints. He says that winds "shake" "darling buds," that summer has a "lease," that heaven has an "eye," and that that eye, the sun, has a "complexion," which implies a face. What do all of those quoted words have in common? They’re all ways of describing humans or their actions. In other words, he can only describe nature by personifying it. This is especially pointed in the words "temperate" and "complexion," since they can both describe states of human health (at least as understood in Shakespeare’s time). If you had a good temperament and complexion, your internal humours, or various liquids, were in good proportions. So basically, even if nature is a little less lovely than a human, they clearly are made of the same things and subject to the same rules.

    And every fair from fair sometime declines,
    By chance, or nature’s changing course untrimm’d (7-8)

    Here the poet makes the similarities even more clear. He’s stopped trying to differentiate between man and nature at all, and instead points toward their universal similarity: they’re both slaves to time.

    But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
    Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
    Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
    When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st (9-12)

    While the opening lines suggested that the poet would pit man and the natural world in competition, here we realize that the poet is placing man and the natural world together against time. It turns out, as we saw in all of the previous lines, that man and nature actually have tons in common, and even if the poet set up the comparison to find differences, he mainly finds similarities. Changing tack, then, he groups man and nature together in a fight against fate and time.

    So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
    So long lives this, and this gives life to thee (13-14)

    By the end of the poem, poetry itself has become part of the natural world, as the poem’s continued "life" is the key to keeping "thee" alive.