A Sonnet for the First Day of Summer. Rereading Shakespeare
This is a wonderful sonnet to celebrate the first day of summer. Enjoy!
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? (Sonnet 18)
William Shakespeare, 1564 – 1616
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.
The Sonnets are Shakespeare’s most popular works, and Sonnet 18, Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day, is easily the most widely read poem in English literature.
Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets, probably between 1592 and 1598, between Shakespeare’s 18th and 45th birthdays. They were published in 1609 by the unscrupulous Thomas Thorpe, probably without the author’s permission.
The sonnets were dedicated to a W. H., whose identity remains a mystery, although William Herbert, the Earl of Pembroke, is frequently suggested because Shakespeare’s First Folio (1623) was also dedicated to him.
‘You are more beautiful than summer. When summer’s over you’ll still be beautiful, and after you are no longer here, people will still remember your beauty because they’ll be reading this poem about how much I love you and how beautiful you are.’
Sonnets were very popular form of entertainment in the 1590’s. Although it was imported from Italy, the Shakespearean sonnet took on a distinctive English style with three distinctively rhymed quatrains, building an argument, and ending with a denouement in the final rhymed couplet.
The first quatrain introduces the question of whether the loved person’s beauty is comparable to a summer’s day. Of course, the object of his love is more ‘temperate’ and lasting than the ephemeral summer. The second quatrain extends the same idea, concluding that summer is too hot and will decline. The third quatrain affirms that the addressee’s beauty will outlive the summer. Finally, he predicts that the person will live on as long as his poem is read. The poet concludes that beauty, love, and literature, will all outlive the ephemeral summer.
The Plagues and Prestige
There are many theories regarding his purpose in writing the sonnets, and whether they are autobiographical, or imaginative literary creations.
We have the plagues which were so frequent in London to thank for Shakespeare’s sonnets.
In the summer of 1592, an episodic outbreak of the plague swept through London, and theatres were among the public gathering places which were shut down.
Shakespeare probably wrote sonnets at this time for two reasons. Firstly, he needed finance while the theatres reopened, so writing under commission may have been a good option for a well-known playwright.
Secondly, he also wanted to be taken seriously as a writer. Playwrights of the era were considered little more than popular ‘showmen’, and Shakespeare wanted to earn both money and literary praise through noble patronage and sonnet writing.
A narrative in Shakespeare’s Sonnets
Most scholars have identified a narrative in Shakespeare’s sonnet sequence. The first seventeen sonnets, These are the so-called “procreation sonnets“, were probably commissioned in order to urge a young nobleman, probably William Herbert, Earl of Southampton, to marry and have children. William Herbert’s mother, Mary, was one of the most important patrons of literature in the sixteenth-century, and herself a poet. She may have commissioned Shakespeare, a highly successful playwright, to write the sonnets for her son’s seventeenth birthday in 1597, to encourage him to put away youthful pursuits and get married.
Other scholars identify William Wriothesly, Earl of Pembroke, who was a generous patron of the theatre and learning in general.
Much has been discussed as to whether the sonnets have a homosexual intention. We will never know, and in any case, the gender of the addressee is irrelevant. The main theme of the poem is romantic love, and the pervalence of love over time.
Our sonnet, number 18, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” no longer insists on marriage and procreation. This sonnet is heavily hedonistic, the poet admits his love for and praises the addressee, trying to persuade her that he will immortalize him/her through his verses.
The following sequence of 108 sonnets may be addressed to the same Young Man with whom the poet now has an intense romantic relationship.
Another group of the sonnets, (76-86, maybe 100-103), the poet obliquely mentions a rival poet for either the patronage or the affections of the Young Man, a situation which arouses jealousy, as this poet has “a worthier pen” and “a better spirit.” Again, much has been speculated about the ‘real’ identity of this ‘rival poet’, who may have been Christopher Marlowe or Ben Jonson.
The final group of sonnets (127-154) is devoted to the poet’s ‘dark’ mistress, promiscuous and scheming woman: the Dark Lady Sonnets. Again, there are many possible candidates, such as noblewomen, other poets’ mistresses, and Lucy, an African prostitute. The poet’s tone here is sensual, sinful, and distressed.