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The meaning of "this" in line 14 of Shakespeare's Sonnet 18

Summary:

In line 14 of Shakespeare's "Sonnet 18," "this" refers to the poem itself. The poet asserts that as long as people read this sonnet, the beauty of the subject will live on, immortalized through the verse.

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What does "this" refer to in line 14 of Shakespeare's Sonnet 18?

The word "this" in line 14 of Shakespeare's Sonnet 18 refers to the poem itself.  Sonnet 18 is one of several sonnets in which the speaker proclaims that his love for his friend and his friend's beauty shall be eternalized in the speaker's verse.  In Sonnet 17, the speaker asserts that future generations may not believe him when he describes his friend's beauty, so he urges his friend to have a child so that his beauty "should live twice, in it [the child] and in my [the speaker's] rime" (14).  We see another example in Sonnet 19 in which the speaker is addressing Time, imploring it not to take his friend's youth and beauty; however, knowing that to be impossible, the speaker concludes with this statement: "Yet do thy worst, old Time: despite thy wrong / My love shall in my verse ever live young" (13-14).  Finally, we see in Sonnet 65 this same theme repeated again.

Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,

But sad mortality o'ersways their power,

How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,

Whose action is no stronger than a flower?

O, how shall summer's honey breath hold out

Against the wrackful siege of battering days,

When rocks impregnable are not so stout,

Nor gates of steel so strong, but Time decays?

O fearful meditation! where alack,

Shall Time's best jewel from Time's chest lie hid?

Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?

Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid?

O, none, unless this miracle have might,

That in black ink my love may still shine bright.

In all of these examples, the speaker is essentially stating that he can immortalize his friend in verse, and he is right as we are still reading these sonnets 396 years after Shakespeare's death.

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What does "this" refer to in line 14 of Sonnet 18?

The final couplet of Shakespeare's Sonnet 18 reads:

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

The word "this" repeated in the last line might refer to the sonnet or to the entire sequence of sonnets, many of which address the same person. In either case, the idea is clearly that Shakespeare's verse will endure forever and preserve the memory of his beloved for future generations. If we take the word "this" to refer only to the sonnet in which it appears, however, it will not preserve much about the addressee except the fact that they were Shakespeare's beloved, since no concrete details are given.

This claim to immortality is a very common trope in Shakespeare's poetry and in Elizabethan verse in general. It is also a feature of the Augustan period in Rome, particularly marked in the Odes of Horace. Perhaps part of the reason for its popularity is that this is a game the poet cannot lose. If the poem is no longer read, his boast dies with him, if it survives, he is proved right.

Another reason for the popularity of this claim in love poetry is that it shows what the poet can do for the beloved, who will last longer than a summer's day, but still only endure for a matter of decades without any help. The genius of the poet is needed to preserve the beauty of the addressee eternally.

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In Shakespeare's Sonnet 18, what does "this" refer to?

Shakespeare wrote a number of sonnets in which he affirmed that the person being addressed would be immortalized in the fourteen lines of poetry because his poetry was immortal. Sonnet 18 is an example. The closing couplet reads:

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

The word "this" in both cases refers to the sonnet itself. Shakespeare is saying that this sonnet will live as long as humanity continues to exist. This may seem like rather an arrogant statement, but the sonnet has "lived" for some four centuries and seems likely to live for another four centuries. Meanwhile the person addressed in this sonnet continues to live in spirit within the words. We do not know who that person was, but we can sense that person's presence inspiring the poet and thereby shaping the sonnet.

In the very next sonnet, Sonnet 19, the closing couplet contains the same idea, or poetic conceit.

Yet do thy worst, old Time, despite thy wrong,
My love shall in my verse ever live young.

These sonnets were presented like individual gifts, and the recipient must have felt pleased that the poet was offering him (or her) a gift of long life or even immortality. No doubt the recipient would preserve the sonnet because it seemed to have a sort of talismanic power to protect him (or her) against the ravages of time or even death. 

Sonnet 55 has a similar poetic conceit. The opening lines are:

Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme;
But you shall shine more bright in these contents
Than unswept stone, besmear'd with sluttish time.

Shakespeare had a deservedly high opinion of his poetic gifts. He knew he was honoring the recipients of his sonnets, even if they did not value them as much as they deserved. 

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