Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day? (Sonnet 18): Summary

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? (Sonnet 18): About the poem

Sonnet 18 or “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day” is one of the most acclaimed of all 154 sonnets written by William Shakespeare. First published in 1609, Sonnet 18 is a typical English sonnet and one of the most famous lyric poems in English.

This sonnet should not be taken entirely in isolation as it has been linked to the previous 17 sonnets, also called as the procreation sonnets, believed to be addressed to a young man named W.H. whose identity remains a mystery. The quest for having a child in an attempt to preserve the beauty of the young man which Shakespeare argued to have in the previous sonnets has been abandoned in this sonnet. Here the poet seems to have got a better idea in preserving his friend’s beauty through his verse.

Eternity is the general theme of the poem. The tone of the sonnet is endearing and the poet is trying to convince the readers of the eternal beauty of his young friend.

Written in typical Shakespearean sonnet format, Sonnet 18 has 14 lines of iambic pentameter with a rhymed couplet at the end. Iambic pentameter is type of metrical line most commonly used in traditional English poetry and verse drama. Consisting of three quatrains, it has a rhyme scheme of abab cdcd efef gg like all the other Shakespearean sonnets.

Figurative language is used throughout the sonnet to give an in-depth view of the speaker’s feelings and love for his beloved. Metaphor is the main literary device used in the sonnet 18. The poet has compared his beloved’s beauty with that of the summer in different ways. He has also personified objects of nature and death for poetic effect.

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? – Line by Line Explanation

Shall I compare Thee to a Summers day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:

William Shakespeare opens the poem with a question addressing his friend: “Shall I compare thee to a Summer’s day?”  The speaker is in confusion whether he should compare the young man’s beauty with that of summer or not. And then he drops the idea as he believes that his friend is too perfect to be compared with the summer. In the next line he emphasizes that his dear friend is more lovely and temperate than the summer. Whereas the summer is extreme with its harsh days, his love’s beauty is gentler and more restrained than the summer.

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And Summer’s lease hath all too short a date:

The speaker has personified summer here. He says that the violent summer winds are a threat to the beautiful new flower buds that popped up in the early summer. He argues that summer doesn’t last very long; it will end and is only for a short lease. The summer must abide by the agreements made to the weather.

Sometimes too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;

Further explaining, using personification of nature, the poet says that sometimes the sun (the eye of heaven) is too hot and sometimes too dimmed due to clouds. So, the poet refers the sun as the “eye of heaven” and the golden face of the sun as “his gold complexion”. The poet is praising the beauty of his beloved friend indirectly by showing us the shortcomings of the otherwise-beautiful summer season.

And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimmed;

Here the speaker says that everything changes with time. Even the most beautiful things fade and lose their charm. He says that all the beautiful things (every fair) will eventually become less beautiful (declines) from the previous state of beauty (from fair). This degradation happens by chance or by the rule of nature (nature’s changing course) which remains unmodified (untrimmed). Here the word “untrimmed” may also be taken as untrimmed sails on a ship. It explains that nature is a ship with sails which aren’t adjusted according to the course of the wind for a better course.

But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;

Though the beauty of things declines with time, the beauty of youth i.e. his beloved friend will not degrade. The beloved’s summer, i.e. his happy summer days, is eternal and will never fade of its charm nor will the beauty of his friend (fair thou owest). ‘Owest’ or otherwise interpreted by many as ‘ownest’, conveys the idea that beauty is something which is borrowed from nature and it must be paid back as the time goes by.

From this line the tone of the poem has changed. Through lines 1-8, the poet has been pointing out the limitations of the summer and now he has started praising his friend’s beauty directly.

Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st,

Death will not be able to boast (brag) seeing the lover wandering under its shade. The speaker personifies death here. He opines that although death has always had an upper hand over life, the beauty of his friend will live in his poem (eternal lines) through eternity (to time thou grow’st). The death will never be able to lay hands on his beloved as he is immortal. Death is shown as someone who can ‘brag’ about the souls he has taken to the darkness i.e. underworld (in his shade).

So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

These two last lines are couplets and here William Shakespeare makes a prediction that this poem about his beloved’s beauty will be acclaimed throughout the ages till men live on this earth. As long as life will go on, his poem will be read by men and women and through his poem, his love will also live.

This sonnet is the first in which the poet has mentioned the longevity of youth’s beauty as eternal. Another important theme here is the power of the speaker’s poem to defy time – the immortality of art.