Themes

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Last Updated on July 24, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 209

The Brevity of Youth and Beauty

One of the key themes in this sonnet is the brevity of youth and beauty—the shortness of summer, both literal and metaphorical. The poet refers to the "summer" of his beloved, meaning his youth and the period in which he is beautiful, and ponders...

(The entire section contains 606 words.)

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The Brevity of Youth and Beauty

One of the key themes in this sonnet is the brevity of youth and beauty—the shortness of summer, both literal and metaphorical. The poet refers to the "summer" of his beloved, meaning his youth and the period in which he is beautiful, and ponders whether he should compare this to summers in nature, which are "too short" for his liking. Beautiful things, the poet says, do not remain beautiful for long—"every fair from fair" will decline in the end.

The Immortality of Poetry

In the second half of the poem, the poet makes a claim for the immortality of poetry, which he frames as a consolation for the brevity of youth and beauty. Although the physical beauty of his beloved may not endure, his summer will be "eternal" because it will be committed to paper. The theme of writing, then, and its enduring quality—even a capacity to confer immortality upon its subjects—is broached here. The poet suggests that the "eternal lines" of his work will prevent his beloved from being lost in the spell of death. Although he may literally and physically die, the poem will "give life to" him for as long as people are still living to read it.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 397

As in his plays, Shakespeare’s sonnet introduces several themes reflecting Renaissance thought. The most important of those here is the belief that everything under the moon was corrupted by Adam’s fall from grace. Thus, although the sun (the “eye of heaven”) moved in an uncorrupted sphere above the moon, the earthly influence upon its shining could make it either too hot (line 5) or too hazy (line 6). A corollary of this fall was the consequent mutability of the sublunary creation. For Shakespeare the change was not lateral; rather, it involved a progressive degeneration of beauty, created by chance or by the influence of time on nature (lines 7, 8).

In Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18, one may thus discern Renaissance beliefs about nature. One can also see remnants of medieval thinking. This combination appears most obviously in the poet’s treatment of the Ovidian tradition. The Middle Ages had interpreted Ovid (43 b.c.e.-17c.e.) as a moral poet whose Metamorphoses (c. 8 c.e.) contained a cosmology based on Greek and Roman myths. The Renaissance, on the other hand, saw him as an erotic poet whose Amores (c. 20 b.c.e.; Loves) and Ars Amatoria (c. 2 b.c.e.; Art of Love) provided the model for Petrarch and later sonneteers.

In Sonnet 18 one finds both the moral and erotic suggested in the words “lovely,” “darling,” and “fair.” Emphasis on the physical beauty of the person addressed is tempered by hints that this beauty outshines that of the natural universe itself; through the poet’s lines, it becomes one with Plato’s eternal forms. Missing from this sonnet, however, is that part of the Petrarchan tradition that sees the lover complaining of his mistress’s rejection and displaying his own despair or resolution resulting from it. In its place one finds the central theme of mutability, the imperfection and impermanence of the sublunary world, infusing the first eight lines and providing the foil for the rest of the poem.

In contrast to the mutability theme, the concluding sestet proclaims Shakespeare’s art as the antidote to time and change. The poet’s consciousness of his own genius, although placed here within a tradition maintained by several of his predecessors, transcends the limitations of the fallen world. Ars longa, vita breve (art is long, life is brief) becomes the underlying theme, arrayed in Shakespeare’s unique and comprehensive poetic language.

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