A review of Sonnet 18's narrative through versal analysis
| William Shakespeare is well-known for his somber love sonnets, sonnets more realistically painted than a romantic's might be. Many of these love poems can be found through sequences, where the narration is not merely contained within the realm of a singular piece. Like many of his sequential sonnets, Shakespeare's arguably most well-known grouping: Sonnets 12, 15, 18, and 19, use a nature-based symbology in order to create a narrative of love surviving death as well as the nature of literature itself being the life blood of continued existence. Sonnet 18, in particular, shows a development of both the latter narratives through the use of naturalistic metaphors, tone, and clearly cut rhymes.
To begin, Sonnet 18, most commonly recognized as "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day," lays out the foundations for a love-stricken fool to find an unhappy ending by the end of the poem. However, it is a false start, a somber beginning that is reminiscent of Sonnet 12's entire being. Much like all of the sequences in which it abides, Sonnet 18's narrative is driven by an ongoing metaphor between the narrator's love and nature, more specifically, a summer's beginning and end. For example, lines one and three fully utilize this ongoing metaphor through phrases such as, "summer's day," or, later, "darling buds of May," thus perpetuating the idea that this 'love' must die in the same way that a day must come to an end, (1, 3). Furthering the idea of sonnets from the beginning of the sequence, the tone of this particular one begins in much a similar, sombre, way. The narrator, having already made the connection between their love and summer, ends the first quatrain with, "summer's lease hath all too short a date;" creating a beginning that hints at a sour, bitter ending (4). To complete the first quatrain, it's mostly masculine rhyme scheme, containing typical, end of line rhyme of "day/ temperate/ May/ date" (1-4), show a hopeful ending, differing than the words of which they succeed. In all, the first quatrain, much like looking at the sequence in as individualistic sonnets, shows a sombre beginning with a hopeful uptick.
Continuing, the second quatrain takes on the sobriety of its predecessor, and much like the second of the sonnet sequence, creates a rapidly deteriorating state of thought. This particular quatrain marks the end of the end times, so to speak. Markedly, the metaphor is death as stated through phrases such as: "heaven shines" and "By chance or nature's changing course untrimm'd," (5, 8). They hint at the death of both the narrator and his love's death, of life and appearance. In that manner, the tone is almost morbidly sombre as the mortal ending of narrator and interested party are concerned as "...every fair from fair sometime declines," (7). Everyone dies, as such as the end of summer might suggest, but before that, health deteriorates, leaving only a shell of what was there to love to be loved. To accompany the morbid tone of the second quatrain, it's rhymed lines match the Shakespearean sonnet pattern continuance through CDCD, "shines/ dimm'd/ declines/ untrimm'ed," (5-8). Simplistic in nature, and while comforting in its familiarity, in the case of this second quatrain, the same true rhyme turns into the beating drum of an executioner. Luckily, the same quatrain that bumps up the morbid tenacity is the last as hope is the outlook of both the following quatrain, couplet, and sonnet.
The turning point of the entire sequence, the third quatrain of Sonnet 18 marks the demandingly hopeful continuance of love for the rest of the sonnet as well as the following sonnet itself. Metaphorically, the comparison of the life of love to the life of the living things is changed. Summer has no longer to end in its literarical "eternal" state, (9). Death has no draw to taking away the narrator's love, stating that the love interest does not "wander'st in his shade," (11). In addition to the aforementioned, the metaphorical reference to a life in literary medium takes the tone out of morbid sombre and into a hopeful future. Demanding, the narrator asserts that his love will never "...lose possession of that fair thou ow'st;/ Nor shall death brag thou wander'st in his shade," but that their love will live on forever (10, 11). These assertions and demands carry their weight through the masculine rhyme scheme that is displayed the remainder of Sonnet 18 and through the entirety of the last sequential sonnet, Sonnet 19. The EFEF, typical rhymed pattern, leads the reader away from the executioner's drum and into something more poignant with "fade/ ow'st/ shade/ [and] grow'st," beginning the new, masculinized rhyme (9-12).
As with any typical Shakespearean sonnet, Sonnet 18 ends with a couplet that ties it off as well as carries it into the following sonnet in the sequence. With an ending couplet, so ends the nature metaphors, leaving the literary comparison starkly visible through the narrator's demand that "...this gives life to thee," that the sonnet preserves the life of love for the narrator's love interest (14). Thusly, the tone ends on an upbeat, hopeful note with the words "So long as" echoing the sentiments of the narrator's desire for his work to outlive time itself (13). In this way, the overall narrative of the sequential sonnets through the life of Sonnet 18 by way of its containment of the switch from sombre to hopeful in the realms of love. Their love can live forever, not just for the "summer," so long as literature remains, so does their love for one another.
In conclusion, Sonnet 18 sets the precedent for the narrative of Shakespeare's sequence of sonnets involving the undying nature of love through the medium of literature itself. It is via metaphors of the seasons from life to death and winter to spring as well as a somber to hopeful tone that the aforementioned sonnet embodies so well the overall narrative of Shakespeare's sequence 12, 15, 18, and 19. Invoking a narrative not uncommon for his mode, his keeping of a traditional rhyme scheme allows for a familiar stage to be set for the unconventional means of telling the narrative. In that manner, the third to last sonnet in this sequence demonstrates how and why the narrative is told the way that it is.
Shakespeare, William. "Sonnet 18: Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day? by William Shakespeare." Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45087/sonnet-18-shall-i-compare-thee-to-a-summers-day.