Study Guide

Sonnet 18 Time

By William Shakespeare

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.