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Happy deathiversary to the Bard

A couple times upon a time, I spent the month of June doing Shakespeare-related posts. And also posted Shakespeare-related posts on Wednesdays. That was back when I blogged all the time, a thing I stopped doing, but I am working on repairing that.

So I'm going to commit to doing another Brush Up Your Shakespeare month come June. And, in honor of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death, I will share his Sonnet 18:


Sonnet 18*
by William Shakespeare

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:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed,
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature's changing course untrimmed:
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st,
Nor shall death brag thou wanderest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st:
  So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
  So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

*The sonnet was actually untitled. Also, unnumbered. It was given a number from a collection of his works, which consists of some, but possibly not all, the sonnets he wrote (and which were preserved). It is often referred to as if its first line were its title: "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?"

History and discussion

As all Shakespearean sonnets do, this follows the rhyme scheme ABABCDCDEFEFGG.

This is one of the many poems written for the "fair youth," for whom Shakespeare wrote so very many of his sonnets. It seems likely that the youth was a male, and quite possibly Shakespeare's patron. Whether Shakespeare had an actual romance with the fair youth or not remains an unresolved matter. These sonnets were not published by Shakespeare, but probably circulated privately in handwritten form. Some of the "later" sonnets in his collection - a reference to higher numbers, and not necessarily the order in which they were composed - appear to have been more public during his lifetime, and it is likely that he "performed" them through recitation. (These include the so-called "Dark Lady" sonnets, including Sonnet 130--"My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun".)

Today's poem opens with a comparison: the youth is compared to a summer's day, and found to be far better. In fact, the first eight lines examine the notion that seasons come and go and sometimes their weather is unpleasant, but the youth is found entirely superior. The "turn" in this sonnet comes in the 9th line, with the word "But", which contrasts the fading away of summer with the idea that the beauty (physical and otherwise) of the youth might also fade. "But thy eternal summer shall not fade/Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st": Your youth and beauty won't fade, and you'll keep possession of the fairness that is yours (ow'st is probably a variant of the verb "to own" here). Shakespeare goes one further: Not only will the youth not fade, he will not be forgotten. The final couplet (inset a wee bit) explains why: I've written a poem about you to remind everyone through the ages.

Shakespeare's words proved prescient, in that his words continue to be read and cherished hundreds of years later. And even though the precise identity of the fair youth cannot be determined, our continued recitations and readings of the poem keep the youth's memory alive, I suppose. He is, after all, immortal based on Shakespeare's words.

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



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