Shall I compare thee to a Summer’s day?
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 oft’ is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d:
But thy eternal Summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wanderest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
– – –
Monsters of Poetry back again with the Monster of Poetry. This is one of those poems we all think back to from time to time; surely, it’s one of ol’ Bill’s most quotable sonnets. The lines of this poem seem to be a part of our DNA, fused over the centuries by beautiful mutation. What English speaker has never spoken that opening line? What English speaker does not still get a little ticklish feeling when they hear the phrase “the darling buds of May?” Indeed, the poem is so ingrained into our collective unconscious that it has become almost cliche, which is a true tragedy. So I propose to look at this poem with fresh eyes and appreciate it for what it is once more.
Sonnet #18 is thought by many to be one of the world’s most perfect love poems, if not one of the most perfect poems of all time. And with good reason. First off, the poem’s form is impeccable. Or nearly so. It’s a sonnet, clearly: the title “sonnet” simply indicates a rhyming pattern. In this case, abab cdcd efef gg. “Sonnet” also usually, but not always, indicates a certain format. The most traditional of sonnets are broken into three sections. The first eight lines make a statement, and the next four make a counterstatement or an addendum to the first statement. the final couplet is a resolution or conclusion. In #18, we can see this pattern: lines 1-8 tell of the beauty of summer, but also tell that summer’s beauty fades every year when autumn comes. Lines 9-12 state that “you” are not like the summer; you will never fade, because I have immortalized you in song. The couplet offers a romantic conclusion: as long as men live, breathe, and see, they will read this poem, and you will be forever young. Best pick up line ever? I think so.
The real reason for this poem’s immortality lies in its meter. Like nearly all of Shakespeare’s plays and poems, #18 is in iambic pentameter. Iambic pentameter is a bit magical for poets. An iamb is a “foot” made of one unstressed and one stressed beat: “ta-tum.” The word “compare” in the first line is an iamb. Five iambs together is a pentameter: ta-tum ta-tum ta-tum ta-tum ta-tum. Many believe it’s the meter that represents most closely the rise and fall of the English language, and thus is best suited to represent English. Shakespeare knew, however, that drama comes when the meter is broken, if ever so slightly. He uses this technique straight away: say aloud the first line. You don’t say “Shall I”, like normal iambic pentameter, you say “Shall I”. Two stressed beats in a row is called a spondee, and Shakespeare knew that to start this poem off right, he needed more force than an iamb would allow. A lesser poet may not have ever made that leap.
The beauty of Shakespeare’s language is that it plays with iambic pentameter; it dances with it. Shakespeare never draws attention to the meter; nowhere in this poem do you feel the meter instead of the words, just like you’d never see the steel beams holding up the building. Nor do the words move flatly along; they are moved by the meter without being controlled by it.
Lastly, this poem is so endearing because it is quietly enigmatic. The person immortalized is, of course, dead. What is immortal is, in fact, the poem itself, which grows with time, as Shakespeare predicted. So the poem is not just about the subject (Actually a young boy, not a woman. Bet you didn’t know that!), but about the poem itself; some would say it’s more about the poem (and the poet’s ego) than anything else. It takes a lot of guts to say your poem will last forever. Funny thing is, he was right.
So there you have it, Sonnet 18, continuing to live on as Shakespeare knew it would.