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Poetry Classroom: Sonnet 18 by William Shakespeare (1609)

20 Comments

Classic Art Lovers Painting Fragonard

Welcome to this month’s poetry classroom, with author and literature professor Karen Swallow Prior. Karen specializes in classics and will be treating us to a discussion of classic love poetry. We invite you to respond to the poems—their forms, images, sounds, meanings, surprises—ask questions of Karen and each other, and write your own poems along the way.

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This is perhaps the most famous of Shakespeare’s sonnets, made so because it is often taken as a loving monument to the beauty of the speaker’s beloved. After all, the beloved here is compared to one of the loveliest of things—a summer’s day—and comes out the winner for she is deemed “more lovely and more temperate” than that harsh, changing, and ever-declining season. Indeed, the poet says, the beloved’s brightness is “eternal” and “shall not fade.” What more powerful expression of love could there be than this, the steadfast belief in a lover’s eternal beauty and grace.

Ah, but there’s a catch. An “if,” a “not quite,” or rather a “so long as …” in this poem. It is found there in the last two lines, the couplet, the very place where all Shakespearean sonnets offer a turn in thought, a punch line, a “gotcha.”

In this case, the catch is that the beloved’s eternal beauty will not fade so as long as “this”—“this” being the poem itself—lives and “gives life to thee.” It is the poem that makes the beloved’s beauty immortal, not her beauty itself that is immortal.

And where does this poem come from? Why from the poet, of course.

As is too case often in love, it turns out to be all about the lover rather than the beloved.

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 often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimmed;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to Time thou grow’st.
      So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
      So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Painting by Jean-Honore Fragonard (1732-1806). Post by Karen Swallow Prior, author of Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me.

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Your Comments

20 Comments so far

  1. Lauren says:

    I love this! I admit with shame that I’ve always had a hard time with Shakespeare, though I do love his (or her) poetry. What really interests me in this sonnet, and what you say of it here, comes from the fact that I was watching “The Bachelor” tonight. I actually despise that show and how shallow it is, so I don’t know what drew me in tonight. I think the more ridiculous and un-founded professions of affection they made to each other the more I had to watch. It’s like a train wreck waiting to happen. So, that being said – I like the distinction you make between a lover and a beloved. A beloved is someone who is cherished, known, loved – and above all – has a commitment to the other beloved. When I was watching the bachelor, I saw how fast minds changed. A particularly steamy beach scene caused me, naturally, to reflect on my relationship with my husband and I currently feel. It would be nice to have an all expenses paid romantic beach getaway with him, but the reality is – he is working tonight and I am doing the dishes. And he will probably barely mumble a hello to me in the morning before he crashes to sleep all day. Luckily, I can see through the marketed romanticism of the bachelor (thanks to good teachers and good literature), and other sappy reality tv, and I don’t let it steal the joy I have in this life with my beloved. Dishes or steamy beach scene – I can be content in either knowing I have a man who would work 7 pm to 7 am to provide for our family. That speaks more than any sonnet. Those are just some of the thoughts that went through my head as I read this. I do have some questions, though. I wonder what all the poet meant by saying her beauty was eternal so long as the poem gave life to it. Was it that he was under-handedly saying “you will get ugly someday, but this poem will bring me back to a time when I thought you were smoking hot” or what was Shakespeare trying to do? Maybe that is a stupid question, but I feel like if he is doing what I think he is doing, that is a snarky sonnet!

    • L. L. Barkat says:

      If Shakespeare were here now, (he or she ;-) ) would most certainly be the Royal One of Snark.

      Would love to hear what the source of the hard time with Shakespeare is… maybe the old language?

      Well, I need to come back and talk about the poem tomorrow, but your comment tickled me through and through, so I got lost in this instead.

  2. Lauren says:

    I think I have a hard time with his poetry because I want to read fast. I rush when I read (it is not something I’m proud of), and it often causes me to miss important details. When it comes to poetry, rushing can be severely detrimental to my final understanding of the poem. I’ve become a much better reader over the few years, but I find myself having to slow down even MORE than normal with old poetry. It may be because of the language.

    • L. L. Barkat says:

      So poetry is slowing. And maybe good poetry is even more slowing.

      I know that people who get our Every Day Poems often use it almost like a meditative morning moment. Perhaps because of just this? To really enjoy, they must slow?

      Very cool that you could pinpoint that, Lauren.

      • Karen Swallow Prior says:

        I just had to take time out of my class today to do some remedial work with my students on reading poetry. I wish I’d had this quote from L L. “Poetry is slowing. And maybe good poetry is more slowing.” I will be using that. And quoting it. For a long time.

  3. Donna says:

    ….and this gives life to thee. I never really paid such close attention to this poem (probably because at one time someone suggested I should, and so I didn’t out of spite). This last line hits on how magical (as in POWERFUL) writing is… how it gives life to what is now, is long gone, and sometimes never was, and how it is a force within itself. It makes me think, too, of how it not only keeps love and youth and tenderness alive, but pain and deceit and evidence of cruel thoughtlessness. Maybe this is why I have thrown away so many old journals and why I worry about the ones still in my possession. There is great power in the pen, and the keystroke. People not only save love letters, but Dear John/Joan farewells no matter how eloquent or harsh. As humans we seem cling to what moves us, sometimes to our own delight and sometimes to our own detriment. Of course I have flown way off topic here…

  4. Karen says:

    Lauren,

    I never thought of the idea you suggest: that the life given to the beloved might serve the lover when her beauty has passed. That is a nicely deconstructive reading of the poem that has great merit, I think!

    And, of course, the traditional reading–that the poem has accomplished this as evidenced in our still reading it today–works, too.

    Yes, poems are to be read slowly, savored, sipped not slugged. Our culture today does not really know how (or want) to do that ….

  5. Karen says:

    Donna,

    Oh, I hear you! Words are so powerful and I have the same love/fear relationship with journals and other personal written records … such power. Users (writers and readers) beware!

    • Donna says:

      Really? What do YOU do with them? How do you reconcile with that? I always wonder how other writers handle this. What do others think and do? I want to put a note on the top of the stack that says “PRIVATE: DO NOT READ, EVEN if I’m DEAD… ESPECIALLY IF I’M DEAD! and IF you can’t help yourself remember this… maybe you should have been nicer”. But I probably won’t. But I want to. :)

  6. When we studied this poem in college, a student asked how Shakespeare could have used a word like “temperate” to describe summer. Of course, we were Central Texas, where it’s usually over 100 degrees for 30-60 days, unlike England. True story!

  7. Shelah says:

    I have to say, I am with Donna on this one. I use this sonnet in my writing courses to introduce the idea of the permanence of writing to the class for their input and discussion. I interpret the poem as Shakespeare wishing to immortalize her beauty in writing so others may know, for centuries past their own lives, how beautiful she was to him. And the poem has done just what he promised. We go on to discuss in class why writing is so binding (used for legal documents, etc.) I have never pictured this sonnet as snarky, rude, or self-centered, but I can now see how it may be interpreted that way. I think I still prefer the other way, but multiple interpretations is part of what makes Shakespeare’s writing great!

    • L. L. Barkat says:

      Shelah, that is such an interesting reason to use the sonnet. I wonder… is some writing more permanent than others? And, if so, what makes it so?

  8. Karen says:

    Shelah,

    I don’t think our views differ! I’m saying that this poem is really about ART (writing) not LOVE as so many tend to take it.


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