What metaphors and symbols are used in Sonnet 18 by Shakespeare? Is the summer a symbol for youth?

Shakespeare's Sonnet 18 is one extended metaphor in which the speaker compares his lover to a summer's day. There are a few symbols in the sonnet, such as summer, which is a symbol of youth and beauty, as well as nature and the rest of the seasons, which symbolize life and death.

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Shakespeare wrote "Sonnet 18" to commemorate and preserve his lover's youth and beauty and make them last forever; by comparing his lover to a warm and pleasant summer's day, Shakespeare showcases that his beloved is gentler and much more beautiful than summer. In this context, summer symbolizes the fair youth's incredible beauty and his gentle character. Shakespeare extends this metaphor throughout the sonnet and uses several nature references and allusions to symbolically portray the passage of time, as well as life and death.

For instance, the line "Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May” invokes images of late spring and early summer; this line symbolizes birth or the beginning of the life cycle, as everything blooms in spring and gets ready for summer.

"And summer’s lease hath all too short a date”: in this line, summer refers to the lover's youth. "Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines, And often is his gold complexion dimm’d": with these two lines, Shakespeare uses the symbol of the sun—"the eye of heaven" and its "gold complexion"—to point out that youth and beauty are not eternal and that they fade, perhaps a bit too quickly.

“And every fair from fair sometime declines, By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d": these lines symbolize autumn and change; as leaves turn red and brown, people turn old and gray and their appearance and character are not as vibrant or as lively as before.

The line "Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade" symbolizes death and mortality.

Shakespeare's lover, however, defies nature and transcends natural law; his beauty and youth, more captivating than a summer's day, will never fade and will live on forever, as Shakespeare immortalizes his lover with his words, enabling him to live forever and be eternally young and beautiful in his verse.

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My colleagues have answered this very well. I'd like to add a few comments.

Summer traditionally represents the time in life when we are fully blooming. Spring is the virtuous youth. The metaphor he is playing with is the traditional notion that we all live the seasons of man, and that we have the most promise in the spring and are at our hottest (ripest) in the summer. As my colleagues have pointed out, the metaphor breaks down: it is too hot in the summer, while she is temperate. He can't compare her to a rosebud either, because they are vulnerable and apt to be destroyed. These two metaphors refer to physical and spiritual qualities: the summer is the full realization of her beauty (and also, possibly, includes a sexual awakening); the spring speaks of virtue (buds=virgins) as well as promise. Just as the summer is too hot to work as a metaphor, there are problems with the use of the spring/bud metaphor: rough winds. The problem is that in nature, no virtue lasts forever, and every promise of perfection ends in destruction. So the nature metaphor is rejected. He also uses the metaphor of Death's shade to show the possibility that she could be eclipsed by death, that death could hide her or that she would fall into his shadow and be forgotten. The final metaphor compares the eternal spirit (or essence) of a person to the eternal power of the written word and, implicitly, the poet to a god: she lives forever in lines that he writes, after all.

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Shakespeare is being quite clever here. Yes, summer is traditioinlly associated with youth, but look at what he's saying (metaphors and symbols are highlighted; explains follow):

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
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:

**First the speaker praises the lover, saying she is more lovely than the most pleaseant summer day, but soon the cool winds of autumn will fell the flowers...summer doesn't last long, nor does one's youth.


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;

**Fair skin was prized in Shakespeare's day.  The speaker anticipates the loss of this attribute through aging. 


But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee. 

**Finally, the speaker concludes that the beloved is blessed with 'eternal summer' in his eyes, and that even Death won't be able to take away the memory of their love. 
 

 

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The speaker announces his first simile--a comparison-- in the first line:  Shall I compare thee to a summer's day--and then shows the ways in which his love is even lovelier than this comparison allows. When he says "thy eternal summer shall not fade," he uses a metaphor that suggests she will always be young to him, that she has a glow and vitality that will be everlasting. He personifies Death, claiming "he" will never claim his lover, that she will never die but always live (metaphorically) in his heart. He then says his poetry will give "life" to her, by "life" meaning she will remain immortal on the page, thus comparing physical life to the thoughts created by beautiful words of poetry.

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