Shakespeare's Sonnet 18 may be the playwright and poet's most well-known sonnet, beginning with the line, "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" It is popular not only for its themes of love and admiration, but for its simplicity; unlike some of the other sonnets in Shakespeare's repertoire, Sonnet 18 is clear and straightforward in its message to the subject.
At the start of the sonnet, which adheres to the rhyme scheme of the Shakespearean sonnet, ABAB CDCD EFEF GG, the speaker of the poem addresses his love object directly, comparing the love object to a summer's day. The speaker's love is temperate, like the gentle weather of this time of year, and the comparison is similarly gentle. The speaker's comparisons intensify as the sonnet progresses: the love object is at first like summer, and then the love object is summer, whose beauty is ageless.
Shakespeare employs literary devices like metaphor, apostrophe, imagery, and personification to bring his comparison to life and to ensure that his love object lives on in history, as the couplet concluding the sonnet promises. Interestingly, the speaker does not describe his love object specifically, and the reader has little sense of the love object's physical appearance nor his personality characteristics. The speaker only compares the love object to a summer's day, complete with all of the descriptions of the sun and the absence of bad weather. Some scholars argue that the sonnet is more about the intensity of the speaker's love and less about the love object.
Form and Devices
This poem is a sonnet, a poem consisting of fourteen lines in iambic pentameter, a form created by Petrarch, an Italian poet of the fourteenth century. A Petrarchan sonnet usually contains eight lines sketching a situation (the octave) and six lines applying it (the sestet). The form was modified by Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, earl of Surrey, appearing in poetic anthologies during the mid-sixteenth century. They and other poets created the English sonnet, consisting of three quatrains followed by a couplet, rhyming abab, cdcd, efef, gg. In this form, the eight-six division is occasionally maintained, as in Sonnet 18, but the concluding couplet summarizes the theme.
The sonnets of Shakespeare, taken as a whole, may be said to form a sonnet sequence: a series of sonnets, usually addressed to a woman for whom the poet has conceived a passion. From Petrarch’s time on, the conventions of the lover’s complaint pervade the imagery of these sequences, but their originality of imagery and conceit generally transcends the limitations of the troubadour traditions from which they derive. The women of these sequences have themselves become widely known: Petrarch’s Laura, Sir Philip Sidney’s Stella (Penelope Devereux), and Edmund Spenser’s Elizabeth Boyle have achieved the kind of immortality that Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 contemplates.
It is thus ironic that the object of Shakespeare’s own sequence should be unknown. The poems...
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