1. Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day?

XVIII

1. Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?

2. Thou art more lovely and more temperate:

3. Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,

4. And summer's lease hath all too short a date:

5. Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,

6. And often is his gold complexion dimmed,

7. And every fair from fair sometime declines,

8. By chance, or nature's changing course untrimmed:

9. But thy eternal summer shall not fade,

10. Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st,

11. Nor shall death brag thou wander'st in his shade,

12. When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st,

13. So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,

14. So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

THE 1609 QUARTO VERSION

18

This is one of the most famous of all the sonnets,

justifiably so. But it would be a mistake to take it

entirely in isolation, for it links in with so many of the

other sonnets through the themes of the descriptive

power of verse; the ability of the poet to depict the

fair youth adequately, or not; and the immortality

conveyed through being hymned in these 'eternal

lines'. It is noticeable that here the poet is full of

confidence that his verse will live as long as there are

people drawing breath upon the earth, whereas later

he apologises for his poor wit and his humble lines

which are inadequate to encompass all the youth's

excellence. Now, perhaps in the early days of his

love, there is no such self-doubt and the eternal

summer of the youth is preserved forever in the

poet's lines. The poem also works at a rather curious

level of achieving its objective through dispraise. The

summer's day is found to be lacking in so many

respects (too short, too hot, too rough, sometimes

too dingy), but curiously enough one is left with the

abiding impression that 'the lovely boy' is in fact like a

summer's day at its best, fair, warm, sunny,

temperate, one of the darling buds of May, and that

all his beauty has been wonderfully highlighted by the

comparison.

S

Hall I compare thee to a Summers day?

Thou art more louely and more temperate:

Rough windes do ?hake the darling buds of Maie,

And Sommers lea?e hath all too ?horte a date:

Sometime too hot the eye of heauen ?hines,

And often is his gold complexion dimm'd,

And euery faire from faire ?ome-time declines,

By chance,or natures changing cour?e vntrimm'd:

But thy eternall Sommer ?hall not fade,

Nor loo?e po??e??ion of that faire thou ow'?t,

Nor ?hall death brag thou wandr'?t in his ?hade,

When in eternal lines to time thou grow'?t,

So long as men can breathe or eyes can ?ee,

So long liues this,and this giues life to thee,

1. Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?

1. This is taken usually to mean 'What if I were to compare thee

etc?' The stock comparisons of the loved one to all the

beauteous things in nature hover in the background throughout.

One also remembers Wordsworth's lines:

We'll talk of sunshine and of song,

And summer days when we were young,

Sweet childish days which were as long

As twenty days are now.

Such reminiscences are indeed anachronistic, but with the

recurrence of words such as 'summer', 'days', 'song', 'sweet', it

is not difficult to see the permeating influence of the Sonnets on

Wordsworth's verse.

2. Thou art more lovely and more temperate:

2. The youth's beauty is more perfect than the beauty of a

summer day. more temperate - more gentle, more restrained,

whereas the summer's day might have violent excesses in store,

such as are about to be described.

3. Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,

3. May was a summer month in Shakespeare's time, because

the calendar in use lagged behind the true sidereal calendar by at

least a fortnight.

darling buds of May - the beautiful, much loved buds of the

early summer; favourite flowers.

4. And summer's lease hath all too short a date:

4. Legal terminology. The summer holds a lease on part of the

year, but the lease is too short, and has an early termination

(date).

5. Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,

5. Sometime = on occasion, sometimes;

the eye of heaven = the sun. This links forward to a

comparison in a later sonnet:

Against that time when thou shalt strangely pass

And scarcely greet me with that sun thine eye, 49

The sun of heaven, and the beloved's sun could both scorch and

hide itself from the lover. (See the next line).

6. And often is his gold complexion dimmed,

6. his gold complexion = his (the sun's) golden face. It would

be dimmed by clouds and on overcast days generally.

7. And every fair from fair sometime declines,

7. All beautiful things (every fair) occasionally become inferior

in comparison with their essential previous state of beauty (from

fair). They all decline from perfection. See the use of fair in

Sonnet 1.

8. By chance, or nature's changing course untrimmed:

8. By chance accidents, or by the fluctuating tides of nature,

which are not subject to control, nature's changing course

untrimmed.

untrimmed - this can refer to the ballast (trimming) on a ship

which keeps it stable; or to a lack of ornament and decoration.

The greater difficulty however is to decide which noun this

adjectival participle should modify. Does it refer to nature, or

chance, or every fair in the line above, or to the effect of nature's

changing course? KDJ adds a comma after course, which

probably has the effect of directing the word towards all

possible antecedents. She points out that nature's changing

course could refer to women's monthly courses, or

menstruation, in which case every fair in the previous line would

refer to every fair woman, with the implication that the youth is

free of this cyclical curse, and is therefore more perfect.

9. But thy eternal summer shall not fade,

9. Referring forwards to the eternity promised by the ever living

poet in the next few lines, through his verse.

10. Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st,

10. Nor shall it (your eternal summer) lose its hold on that

beauty which you so richly possess. ow'st = ownest, possess.

By metonymy we understand 'nor shall you lose any of your

beauty'.

11. Nor shall death brag thou wander'st in his shade,

11. Several half echoes here. The biblical ones are probably

'Oh death where is thy sting? Or grave thy victory?' implying

that death normally boasts of his conquests over life. And

Psalms 23.3.: 'Yea though I walk through the valley of the

shadow of death I will fear no evil ' In classical literature the

shades flitted helplessly in the underworld like gibbering ghosts.

Shakespeare would have been familiar with this through Virgil's

account of Aeneas' descent into the underworld in Aeneid Bk.

VI. Death was depicted as a blustering braggart in Euripides'

play Alcestis.

12. When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st,

12. in eternal lines = in the undying lines of my verse. Perhaps

with a reference to progeny, and lines of descent, but it seems

that the procreation theme has already been abandoned.

to time thou grow'st - you keep pace with time, you grow as

time grows.

13. So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,

13. For as long as humans live and breathe upon the earth, for

as long as there are seeing eyes on the earth.

14. So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

14. That is how long these verses will live, celebrating you, and

continually renewing your life. But one is left with a slight residual

feeling that perhaps the youth's beauty will last no longer than a

summer's day, despite the poet's proud boast.

CXXX

1. My mistress' eyes are nothing like the

sun;

2. Coral is far more red, than her lips red:

3. If snow be white, why then her breasts

are dun;

4. If hairs be wires, black wires grow on

her head.

5. I have seen roses damasked, red and

white,

6. But no such roses see I in her cheeks;

7. And in some perfumes is there more

delight

8. Than in the breath that from my

mistress reeks.

9. I love to hear her speak, yet well I

know

10. That music hath a far more pleasing

sound:

11. I grant I never saw a goddess go,

12. My mistress, when she walks, treads

on the ground:

13. And yet by heaven, I think my love as

rare,

14. As any she belied with false compare.

With a deftness of touch that takes away any sting that might otherwise arise

from implied criticism of other sonneteers, the poet satirises the tradition of

comparing one's beloved to all things beautiful under the sun, and to things divine

and immortal as well. It is often said that the praise of his mistress is so negative

that the reader is left with the impression that she is almost unlovable. On the

contrary, although the octet makes many negative comparisons, the sestet

contrives to make one believe that the sound of her voice is sweeter than any

music, and that she far outdistances any goddess in her merely human beauties

and her mortal approachability.

A typical sonnet of the time which uses lofty comparisons to praise a beloved idol

is given below. There are many others, and the tradition of fulsome praise in this

vein stretches back to Petrarch and his sonnets to Laura. E.g.

The way she walked was not the way of mortals

but of angelic forms, and when she spoke

more than an earthly voice it was that sang:

a godly spirit and a living sun

was what I saw, and if she is not now,

my wound still bleeds, although the bow's unbent.

Canzoniere 90, trans. Mark Musa.

THE 1609 QUARTO VERSION

130

M

Y Mi?tres eyes are nothing like the Sunne,

Currall is farre more red,then her lips red,

If ?now be white,why then her bre?ts are dun:

If haires be wiers,black wiers grow on her head:

I haue ?eene Ro?es damaskt,red and white,

But no ?uch Ro?es ?ee I in her cheekes,

And in ?ome perfumes is there more delight,

Then in the breath that from my Mi?tres reekes.

I loue to heare her ?peake,yet well I know,

That Mu?icke hath a farre more plea?ing found:

I graunt I neuer ?aw a godde??e goe,

My Mi?tres when ?hee walkes treads on the ground.

And yet by heauen I thinke my loue as rare,

As any ?he beli'd with fal?e compare.

FROM FIDESSA

My Lady's hair is threads of beaten gold;

Her front the purest crystal eye hath seen;

Her eyes the brightest stars the heavens hold;

Her cheeks, red roses, such as seld have been;

Her pretty lips of red vermilion dye;

Her hand of ivory the purest white;

Her blush AURORA, or the morning sky.

Her breast displays two silver fountains bright;

The spheres, her voice; her grace, the Graces three; Her

body is the saint that I adore;

Her smiles and favours, sweet as honey be.

Her feet, fair THETIS praiseth evermore.

But Ah, the worst and last is yet behind :

For of a griffon she doth bear the mind!

By Bartholomew Griffin. Published 1596

1. My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;

1. A traditional comparison. Shakespeare uses it himself in the sonnets

to the youth:

Against that time when thou shalt strangely pass

And scarcely greet me with that sun thine eye, 49

2. Coral is far more red, than her lips red:

2. Coral - In Shakespeare's day only the red variety would have been

generally available. OED.1.a gives the following information:

Historically, and in earlier literature and folk-lore, the name

belongs to the beautiful red coral, an arborescent species, found in

the Red Sea and Mediterranean, prized from times of antiquity for

ornamental purposes, and often classed among precious stones. The

comparison of lips with coral was commonplace. lips here could be read

as singular or plural.

3. If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;

3. Skin and breasts were often described as whiter than snow. Breasts

were also compared to pearl and ivory. The wittiness of this line is is in

the use of the agrestunal word 'dun', which brings the reader down to

earth with a bump. OED glosses it as: Of a dull or dingy brown

colour; now esp. dull greyish brown, like the hair of the ass and

mouse. It was often used in the phrase 'The dun cow', a phrase

nowadays sometimes transformed into the name of a pub. Logically,

since snow is white, one should accept that her breasts were dun

coloured, i.e. somewhat brownish. Whether this confirms or not that his

mistress was truly dark seems doubtful, for the most likely cause of the

claim here to her darkness is that of being deliberately provocative. Skin

is never as white as snow, or as lilies, or as enchanting as Cytherea's,

therefore to countermand the extravagant claims of other poets by a