What are some literary devices used in Sonnet 18 by William Shakespeare? Is it an example of the pathetic fallacy?

Literary devices used in Shakespeare's Sonnet 18, "Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day?," include extended metaphor, personification, and rhetorical questions. There is some debate over whether or not this sonnet also employs pathetic fallacy.

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William Shakespeare's Sonnet 18, "Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day?" begins with a rhetorical question that the poet nevertheless proceeds to answer. The nature of the question is a clue to the true focus of the poem, which isn't necessarily the person who is being compared...

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William Shakespeare's Sonnet 18, "Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day?" begins with a rhetorical question that the poet nevertheless proceeds to answer. The nature of the question is a clue to the true focus of the poem, which isn't necessarily the person who is being compared to a summer's day.

A pathetic fallacy is a poetic device in which human emotions are assigned to objects, animals, or elements in nature. A pathetic fallacy is similar to personification, in which human qualities or characteristics, but not necessarily human emotions, are assigned to an object, animal, or elements in nature, such as "The eye of heaven" and it's "gold complexion" (lines 5-6), and perhaps "death brag" (line 11).

Some scholars contend that the entirety of Sonnet 18 is a pathetic fallacy, in that the poet assigns emotional qualities to the summer day and its component parts, such as the "rough winds" and "darling buds of May" (line 3), and the "too hot eye of heaven" (line 5).

Certainly these words might evoke an emotional response in the mind of a reader, but human emotional qualities aren't assigned directly to the elements in nature to which the poet refers. Also, the comparison of the summer's day to the person to whom the poem is addressed is fairly objective, almost dispassionate, and not particularly emotional.

For example, the metaphor of "And often is his gold complexion dimm'd" (line 6) is a purely objective description of an event that occurs almost daily in nature. Line 7, "And every fair from sometime declines" is likewise an objective observation of a natural phenomenon. These observations evoke an emotional response only when combined with "But thy eternal summer shall not fade" (line 9).

It's also important to note that the true focus of the poem is not the person being compared to a summer's day, but the poet and the poem itself:

Shall I | com pare | thee to | a sum | mer's day?

Thou art | more love | ly and | more tem | per ate: (lines 1-2)

The emphasis is on "I," not "thee" and "thou."

This is confirmed in the rhyming couplet at the end of the poem.

So long | as men | can breathe, | or eyes | can see,

So long | lives this, | and this | gives life | to thee. (lines 13-14)

In this sonnet, the poet is extolling the virtues of poetry, and more specifically, of his poetry.

This might explain why the poet seems to observe the subject of this sonnet from a distance, particularly when compared to other sonnets which repeatedly and directly address the person for whom the poem is written and to whom the poem is addressed.

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In Sonnet 18, Shakespeare uses the extended metaphor of a summer's day to which he compares his beloved. He finds her lovely and, using a double entendre, more temperate (which has two meanings—being of a milder temperature and being more even-tempered) than a day in summer. Then, using a form of personification called pathetic fallacy, he attributes human qualities to aspects of nature. For example, he says that rough winds shake the flowers of May (as if they were human) and that summer has a lease, or a duration like that of a lease on an apartment, that is too short. He also says that heaven, or the sun, shines too hot or sometimes disappears. When the sun disappears, his (the sun's) complexion is dimmed as if he were a person. These are all examples of pathetic fallacy. Later, the poet personifies Death, who stalks people in his shade. However, his beloved's "eternal summer," a metaphor for her beauty, will not disappear, as she will live forever in the poem.

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In Sonnet 18, the speaker describes his lover's beauty and all the ways in which their beauty is actually preferable to that of a summer's day.  One way that they surpasses a summer day is that their beauty is more temperate, more even, as "Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines, / And often is his gold complexion dimm'd" (lines 5-6).  This line characterizes the sun as heaven's eye -- a kind of personification of heaven (as possessing an eye) -- however, this does not qualify as an example of pathetic fallacy because no real emotional or intellectual content is ascribed to the use of this device.

The speaker also tells his love that "thy eternal summer shall not fade," by which he means their youth, the most lovely season or time of their life (9).  Neither does this metaphor qualify as pathetic fallacy, for the same reason as above.

The speaker also personifies death when he says, "Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade" (11).  In this figure, the speaker ascribes to Death the ability to boast, and this personification does add to the emotional and intellectual content of the poem; therefore, it is an example of pathetic fallacy.  The speaker means that Death will never be able to brag that he possesses the beautiful lover because they have been immortalized -- freed from death in a way -- by the speaker's words in this very poem.  

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The "pathetic fallacy" is a term coined by John Ruskin to describe what he considered misuse of personification, or treating animals or elements of nature as though they were possessed of human intellect or emotion. Although some of the metaphors used to describe the weather in Sonnet 14 involve a limited amount of personification, they don't really fall under the category of pathetic fallacy as it is normally defined by literary critics, because they do not attribute emotions or intellect to nature.

For example, when Shakespeare refers to the sun as "the eye of heaven", he doesn't actually humanize the sun by making it look at anything or respond intellectually or emotionally to anything; instead, we get a sense of both the importance of the sun and its ability to reveal the world by giving light.

The line "Thou art more lovely and more temperate", although again moving close to pathetic fallacy, in the notion of moderation, does not cross all the way into fallacious territory, as in fact "temperate" can refer to moderate weather as well as human temperaments.

The metaphor of "his gold complexion dimm'd" is not an example of a pathetic fallacy as it is a purely physical description with no emotional or "pathetic" component.

The main literary device used in Sonnet 18 is metaphor. It also uses rhyme, meter, comparison, hyperbole, litotes, and repetition.

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