How does Shakespeare compare his friend's beauty with the summer's day in Sonnet 18?

In Sonnet 18, Shakespeare compares the beloved's beauty to a summer's day by explaining how he's livelier and warmer than summer and that, even though summer will eventually pass, the beloved's beauty won't ever fade, as the poem will celebrate it forever.

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In Sonnet 18, Shakespeare compares the beloved's beauty to a summer's day, much to the beloved's advantage. Although a summer's day may be very bright and beautiful, it won't last. Nor will the summer, for that matter. Like all the seasons, the summer will eventually fade away and die, to be replaced by another season.

The same, however, cannot be said of the beloved's beauty. His beauty is eternal; it will last forever. And that's because it has been immortalized in a lovely sonnet written by a great poet and playwright whose works will live on so long as people exist to read and enjoy them.

Sonnet 18 presents us with a contrast between mortal and immortal beauty. A summer's day, or indeed any form of earthly beauty, is a prime example of the former. It is mortal in that it will eventually die. The beloved's beauty, on the other hand, is immortal; it will never die.

That being the case, the speaker not unreasonably concludes that it would be inappropriate for him to compare the beloved's beauty with that of a summer's day. The two are simply not the same thing at all. They occupy entirely different realms of existence.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on January 26, 2021
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Shakespeare's intention when writing Sonnet 18 wasn't only to compare his friend's (or rather, his lover's) beauty to a summer's day, but to also point out that, in his eyes, the man's beauty and his gentleness transcend the beauty of summer, which might be unmatched in the eyes of many, but it is also fleeting. He describes his beloved as "more livelier and more temperate" than summer and insinuates that even summer, the loveliest of seasons, is not as beautiful and as magnificent as his lover.

Summer can be too hot and too unpleasant at times, as this is how nature operates, and it's not too long before it passes and thus loses its beauty.

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 dimm'd;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm'd;

However, there are also days when everything is simply perfect—and it is these days that best describe his lover. Thus, Shakespeare compares his lover's beauty to one of these all too wonderful and all too lovely days and calls it "eternal summer"—one that is endlessly pleasing and wonderful, and one that will last forever.

The reason he wrote the sonnet is essentially to commemorate and immortalize his lover's beauty and existence in general; neither his beloved lover nor his beauty will die or be forgotten, because he will live eternally in Shakespeare's lines. As long as people continue to read this poem, as long as this poem "lives," so will his lover.

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,

Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;

Nor shall death brag thou wander’st 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

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on January 20, 2021
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Interestingly, although Shakespeare begins this sonnet with the question, "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?," the thrust of the poem is ultimately that, in fact, such a comparison would be inappropriate. Shakespeare is identifying an easy comparison typical of courtly romantic discourse and determining that, as far as he is concerned, to compare a beautiful person to a summer's day would be to do them a disservice.

The poet makes this argument by challenging the idea that a "summer's day" is, in fact, something to be envied. His lover, he says, is both "more lovely and more temperate," and does not suffer from the many and varied drawbacks of summer. Summer can, indeed, have many downsides: "sometimes too hot the eye of heaven shines," and "summer's lease hath all too short a date." Summer is fleeting, and its weather can be uncomfortable when "rough winds do shake the darling buds of May." Shakespeare's lover, on the contrary, has an advantage over a summer's day in that his "eternal beauty shall not fade." Where summer can last only for a season, the poet's beloved will be forever young, in that he will be immortalized in the poet's verse—"So long as men can breathe or eyes can see / So long lives this, and this gives life to thee."

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"Sonnet 18" is a Shakespearean sonnet, a genre typically used for love poetry. It is usually structured to set up a major theme in the first three quatrain and then to have a surprising or paradoxical twist in the couplet.

Shakespeare begins by arguing that his lover is in every way superior to a summer day. One should note that the poem is set in England, which tends to have cool, rainy summers. The narrator points out that summer days are inconsistent; they can be windy or hot and humid or cloudy. The beloved's characteristics are more constant, though. Also,  the summer will eventually fade into autumn.

In the third quatrain, the narrator suggests the beauty of the beloved is eternal, suggesting: "But thy eternal summer shall not fade." At first, this statement appears paradoxical, as all humans are mortal, but the couplet resolves the paradox by saying that as long as people continue to read this sonnet, the lover will be remembered.

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