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.
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.