Perhaps the most famous of all the sonnets is Sonnet 18, where Shakespeare addresses a young man to whom he is very close. It would be impossible to say whether Shakespeare was an arrogant man because we don’t know what he was like. We also don’t know whether he thought he was the ‘great,’ immortal writer that we regard him as today. However, after describing the young man’s great beauty, he suggests that his poetry is ‘eternal’ and ends by stating that as long as there are people who can still read, the sonnet, and therefore the description of the young man’s beauty, will still be there.
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 dimm’d;And every fair from fair sometime declines,By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;But thy eternal summer shall not fadeNor lose possession of that fair thou owest;Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,When in eternal lines to time thou growest:So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,So long lives this and this gives life to thee.
An interesting take on ageing and love. The narrator describes the things that people agonize over as they descend into old age – all the regrets and the pain of reliving the mistakes he has made. It’s full of agony but when he thinks about his beloved all the regrets and pain evaporate.
When to the sessions of sweet silent thoughtI summon up remembrance of things past,I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,And weep afresh love’s long since cancell’d woe,And moan the expense of many a vanish’d sight:Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,And heavily from woe to woe tell o’erThe sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,Which I new pay as if not paid before.But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,All losses are restor’d and sorrows end.
This is a poem about loss; the loss of a loved one. Shakespeare approaches it by expressing the contrast in the way we feel when the morning sun is shining brightly and when it’s obscured by clouds, making the world a forlorn place. When he was loved by the beloved it was like the glorious morning, but now, having lost the beloved, it feels like an overcast and gloomy morning. He concludes that he doesn’t condemn the beloved because human frailty, even among the best of humanity, is just as much a part of nature as the obscuring clouds are.
Full many a glorious morning have I seenFlatter the mountain tops with sovereign eye,Kissing with golden face the meadows green,Gilding pale streams with heavenly alchemy;Anon permit the basest clouds to rideWith ugly rack on his celestial face,And from the forlorn world his visage hide,Stealing unseen to west with this disgrace:Even so my sun one early morn did shine,With all triumphant splendour on my brow;But out, alack, he was but one hour mine,The region cloud hath mask’d him from me now.Yet him for this my love no whit disdaineth;Suns of the world may stain when heaven’s sun staineth
The narrator of Sonnet 73 is approaching death and thinking about how different it is from being young. It’s like the branch of a tree where birds once sang but the birds have gone and the leaves have fallen, leaving only a few dry yellow leaves. It’s like the twilight of a beautiful day, where there is only the black night ahead. It’s like the glowing ashes of a fire that once roared. The things that one gave him life have destroyed his life. From that experience he has learnt that one has to love life as strongly as one can because it will end all too soon.
That time of year thou mayst in me beholdWhen yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hangUpon those boughs which shake against the cold,Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.In me thou see’st the twilight of such dayAs after sunset fadeth in the west;Which by and by black night doth take away,Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire,That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,As the death-bed, whereon it must expire,Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,To love that well, which thou must leave ere long.
Here Shakespeare expresses the love one person has for another by showing how the beauty of the beloved doesn’t change in the eyes of the lover. He shows time passing through the seasons and the years, everything changing. Except the beauty of the beloved. He goes further by saying that no matter how long the world will endure, even though the beloved is long dead there will never be another as beautiful.
To me, fair friend, you never can be old,For as you were when first your eye I ey’d,Such seems your beauty still. Three winters cold,Have from the forests shook three summers’ pride,Three beauteous springs to yellow autumn turn’d,In process of the seasons have I seen,Three April perfumes in three hot Junes burn’d,Since first I saw you fresh, which yet are green.Ah! yet doth beauty like a dial-hand,Steal from his figure, and no pace perceiv’d;So your sweet hue, which methinks still doth stand,Hath motion, and mine eye may be deceiv’d:For fear of which, hear this thou age unbred:Ere you were born was beauty’s summer dead.
There are two striking definitions of love that we refer to again and again. Perhaps the most popular of the two is in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians (Corinthians 13: 4-8):Love is patient, love is kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.Paul’s text is as well known as Sonnet 116 because it is used in most weddings as the young couple stands before the minister. But Shakespeare’s sonnet employs an amazing array of poetic devices to convey the eternal nature of love. Shakespeare ends by staking everything on his observations about love by asserting that if he is wrong about it then no-one ever wrote anything and no-one ever loved.
Let me not to the marriage of true mindsAdmit impediments. Love is not loveWhich alters when it alteration finds,Or bends with the remover to remove:O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark,That looks on tempests and is never shaken;It is the star to every wandering bark,Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeksWithin his bending sickle’s compass come;Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,But bears it out even to the edge of doom.If this be error and upon me proved,I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
Sonnet 129 is an interesting take on the imperative force of lust, but its ultimate shallowness. Everyone knows how shallow and guilt producing lust is but very few men can avoid it. Shakespeare shows how lust brings out the very worst in people and the extremes they will go to. And then he explains the guilt that follows the satisfaction of one’s lust.
The expense of spirit in a waste of shameIs lust in action: and till action, lustIs perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust;Enjoyed no sooner but despised straight;Past reason hunted; and no sooner had,Past reason hated, as a swallowed bait,On purpose laid to make the taker mad.Mad in pursuit and in possession so;Had, having, and in quest to have extreme;A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe;Before, a joy proposed; behind a dream.All this the world well knows; yet none knows wellTo shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.
Shakespeare is expressing the kind of love that has nothing to do with the beloved’s looks. He satirises the usual way of expressing love for a woman – praising her lips and her hair, the way she walks, and all the things that a young man may rave about when he thinks about his beloved. What he does is invert those things, assert that his beloved is ugly, ungainly, bad-smelling etc, but ends by saying that his love for her is as ‘rare’ as that of any young man who writes flatteringly about the object of his love.
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;Coral is far more red, than her lips red:If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.I have seen roses damasked, red and white,But no such roses see I in her cheeks;And in some perfumes is there more delightThan in the breath that from my mistress reeks.I love to hear her speak, yet well I knowThat music hath a far more pleasing sound:I grant I never saw a goddess go,My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:And yet by heaven, I think my love as rare,As any she belied with false compare.