February 6, 2023

From Gerald R. Lucas

Shall I Compare Thee? // Midjourney 2023

Shall I compare thee[2] to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.[3]
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.[4]
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,[5]5
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;[6]
And every fair from fair[7] sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimmed;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,[8]
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,10
Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,[9]
When in eternal lines[10] 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.[11]

notes and commentary

  1. This poem takes a new direction in the problem of fading youth and death: instead of procreation as an answer (see previous sonnets), here Shakespeare suggests that poetry, while perhaps ill-equipped to offer traditional comparisons about the subject, might be a better answer. Perhaps the subject, probably the “fair youth” of the previous seventeen sonnets, has dismissed the idea of having children or maybe even a wife, so the poet needs to come up with another idea to mitigate the subject’s anxiety. While summer is temporary, transient, and inconsistent, poetry can make these qualities more permanent. In other words, youth and summer might exist forever in verse, making it a suitable medium for immortality.
         This idea is not original to Shakespeare—it exists in one of the oldest extant texts, Gilgamesh, and in many other national traditions throughout history.
  2. This is likely the same “fair youth” that the poet has been addressing in the previous sonnets. That said, the language suggests that the speaker might be addressing someone to whom he is attracted. Indeed, the following “summer’s day” suggests a hot and fertile time, which he plays at likening the subject.
  3. No, unlike the weather, the subject is more lovely and more dependable or predictable. The “rough winds” in the next line support this thesis.
  4. Also, summer is over far too soon, whereas the subject endures. Summer, too, might be likened to fun days free of obligation.
  5. Continuing to count the ways that the subject is not like the summer: sometimes the sun shines too brightly, making the day too hot.
  6. And sometimes, clouds may darken the day.
  7. Beauty from beautiful; i.e., even beautiful objects have bad days. That seems to be the natural way of things, suggests line 8.
  8. Here the sonnet turns, as the summer metaphor is nuanced. Something will salve the fickle summer and the march of time so that the subject will keep his health, beauty, and vitality. This will even subdue death.
  9. Compare to Psalm 23: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.” Notice, too, that since the opening of the poem, the sun has been setting, reinforced by words like “dimmed,” “changing course,” “fade,” “declines,” and “shade.”
  10. The poet finally suggests the answer to this dilemma: “eternal lines” are of course a reference to lifelines, or the course of a life, but also to Shakespeare’s own “eternal” poetry which is made clear in the closing couplet.
  11. Ah, yes, it’s the power of poetry that lends immortality, as long as men are around to read it. While this is not a new conceit for poetry, Shakespeare’s voice lends it a bit more credence.