What is the theme of Shakespeare's Sonnet 18?

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In Sonnet 18, the speaker expresses their belief that while natural beauty—such as that of a person—fades, poetry is eternal. The speaker is thus assured that their sonnets and the beauty that their sonnets describe will last long after they die. 


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Suman Chakraborty eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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The above commentators rightly argue that ‘Sonnet 18’ is about the eternity of Shakespearean “lines”. This interpretation, however, can be extended a little further. The sonnet is not only about Shakespeare’s “eternal lines”, but it is also about how in time Shakespeare’s observations grow. In the final line of the third quatrain Shakespeare notes “in eternal lines to time thou gorw’st”. The beloved’s beauty not only remains unchanged in perpetuity, but it also grows parallel to time. In the couplet Shakespeare confirms this observation: “this gives life to thee”. Shakespeare’s observations will not only be read “so long as men can breathe”, but they will also offer life to the object which Shakespeare appreciates and this life giving force will give the object the potential to live in perpetuity. As the object grows eternally Shakespeare’s observations too receives perpetual growth from within—critics even today continuously enrich Shakespearean “eternal lines” with new interpretations.

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blacksheepunite eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Nature fades but art is immortal. Though beautiful at moments in time, everything in nature enjoys but a moment of perfection. In time every virtue will be destroyed, every potential beauty ravaged by the elements, and every perfection will come to contain imperfections. In art, however, the essence of perfection will be captured. Though everything in the world dies and fades, the subject of poetry enjoys eternal life.

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cmcqueeney eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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The general theme of the sonnet is that what is written about in poetry is eternal - specifically in this poem, Shakespeare is admiring a woman, and saying that her beauty will never fade because he is putting it into verse.  He begins by comparing her to a summer day, and then saying she is much more beautiful.  He continues comparing the details of the summer day to his subject showing how she is much fairer.  He ends the poem by focusing on the subject, her beauty, and her qualities which will be made eternal by the poet putting them into poetry.

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lella27 | Student

Shakespeare's theme in Sonnet 18 is that when love is true, it is rare and eternal. The reader is immediately clued into Shakespeare's intent when he begins his poem with the suggestion of a common poetic comparison, "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" He then protests such a clichè comparison by explaining why this true love cannot be reduced to the mundane, "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;" In short, Shakespeare resists the clichè explanation for the depth of his feeling by denying each quality of comparison. The beauty of summer relies on its destruction of spring through its "rough winds," and summer is too short as it is only a lease (or rental) on time. In doing this, Shakespeare is able to impart to his reader that his true love is uncommon and therefore cannot be explained as others before him have done. This theme continues to build through elaboration on the inadequacies of this comparison until the final couplet of the sonnet, "So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, So long lives this, and this gives life to thee." Here, Shakespeare settles on the eternal quality of true love, stating that his poem is love, and it exists as long as men can see and read it. Therefore, in creating the poem, he gives his love the greatest gift- the eternal life of their love. It is as if love itself is a rare force of nature, separate from the seasons, and the very expression of their love grants it eternal life.

lyric-wizzy | Student

The poem may be said to centre around the immortality of art and the artist. In order words, Shakespeare has delineated his love for art, it's being immortal and its ability to render artists immortal. Images for this motif are well drawn through personification and apostrophe—personifying art as 'you' and alluding to it as if present.

Taken at face value, it seems the persona is referring to an androgenous lover. In the literary sense, the professed lover might as well be 'art', the more reason why he(Shakespeare) might have made the sex unknown, considering that art as a neutral gender.

Shakespeare's metaphorical argument for his loved one (art) is founded, for it immortalises him, as it does any other creative beings.

Shakespeare is no longer alive literally, but literarily he is very much alive as his timeless themes have rendered him indelible in the literary world.

Similarly, Shakespeare's logical premises for the immortality of art may thus be justified by his conclusion in the couplet—'So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, /So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.'

As long as the world exist, art (the persona's assumed beloved) will continue to exist in eternal lines (poetry); and as long as art exists, Shakespeare will literarily keep existing in his timeless themes.
Thus, suffice it to say 'Shakespeare's Shall I Compare thee to a Summer's Day' is not only a celebration of the immortality of art but also that of the artist.

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The whole verse is Shakespeare about the verse itself surely? We are led to think it is intended for a loved one, but Shakespeare is declaring that his own creation will remain eternal, note how he spends more time describing the actual summer and not his intended. The beauty he is describing is the poem itself.

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