Shall I compare thee to a summers day

Lecture 1, Introduction to Poetry, 2007

Back to Index page: index.html



Text 1, Shakespeare, ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’

The poem is a sonnet, and the first part of the lecture consists of background on the form.

The sonnet was invented in 13th century Italy: ‘sonneto’, a little sound. The first major practitioner was Dante (1265-1521), who developed from Provençale poetry what he called his ‘rime petrose’, stony rhymes, about the hard, unyielding cruelty of the lady. But literary scholars don’t speak of the Dantean, but of the Petrarchan sonnet. The first important thing to know about Francesco Petrarch is that he has two R’s to his name. If you are having difficulty staying awake already, be of good heart, for if you henceforward spell Petrarch with two R’s, not ‘Petrach’, you can take something educationally valuable away into your dreams. Petrarch – two R’s still, mind you – lived 1304-74. Two of his literary works were in Italian, rather than Latin, the Canzoniere and the Trionfi. The Canzoniere consisted of 366 poems, 317 of them sonnets. Petrarch’s first sonnet, line one, refers to them as ‘rime sparse’, scattered rhymes, and they are often referred to using that expression. So, Petrarch didn’t invent the form we call the Petrarchan sonnet. Nor did he invent the trick of carrying a single metaphor through the 14 lines of a sonnet which gets referred to as a Petrarchan conceit (when the poet compares his state, being in love, to a ship at sea, or to the unmeasureable mountains, that kind of thing).

Petrarch (two R’s) did, however, produce the first unified collection of love lyrics (Dante’s Vita Nuova had narrative links in prose). They dealt with his love for Laura. If she ever existed, he saw her first on 6th April 1327, and on 6th April 1348 she died, perhaps in the Black Death which was spreading across Europe from 1347 – ‘the light of her life was withdrawn from the light of day’. He continued addressing poems to her after her death, so that the sequence can be divided between the in vita and the in morte sections, poems 1-> 263 and 264 -> 366. During the Laura in morte section, the previously failed relationship picks up considerably. One night, she comes and sits on Petrarch’s bed, to comfort him. When she was alive, she was always an incitement to sin, and nothing as naughty as that was ever allowed to happen, but once she is in heaven, she can guide him there, to heaven, with complete moral safety.

Petrarch wrote about the possibility of a sublimated, virtuous love, with Laura as his spiritual guide. You will readily concede, I am sure, that the unknown woman who was Petrarch’s mistress, bearing him illegitimate children in 1342 and 1347, was not a suitable subject for poetry. This is highbrow literature, not life as lived. Laura may never have existed.

The ‘rime sparse’ are beautiful poems, impassioned, using the Italian sonnet form of an octave and sestet for a repeated pattern of pressure and release, anguish and consolation which seems very close to the dynamic of emotional experience. The poems are voiced with a rich Italian cantabile. And Petrarch goes on being staggeringly constant: several sonnets commemorate the numbers of years that have gone by since that transfiguring meeting one Easter Sunday in Avignon, ‘that burning knot in which hour by hour I was caught for 21 whole years’. Rather less superhuman in his devotion, Shakespeare’s 104th sonnet commemorates three years of love.

Petrarch’s influence spread as the Renaissance itself spread from Italy. He had many 15th century Italian followers (a mob called the petrarchisti), while it took his form 200 years to reach Spain, and 300 to get to France and England. Clement Marot wrote the first French sonnets in the 1530’s, du Bellay doing the first sonnet sequence in 1549. As far as English poetry was concerned, the first English Renaissance man was Sir Thomas Wyatt, who began translating sonnets from Petrarch in the 1530’s, progressing to write sonnets that seem to be original to him. The first sonnet sequence in English was the unsurpassed ‘Astrophel and Stella’ of Sir Philip Sidney, written in the early 1580’s, and published after his death, in 1591, to trigger the major decade of Elizabethan sonnet writing.

Formal properties of the sonnet (in general)

So, what was meant by a sonnet, in the strict sense?(2) The classic Italian or Petrarchan form rhymes its 10 syllable lines ABBA ABBA CDC DCD or ABBA ABBA CDE CDE: it is a form with 4 or 5 rhyme words, with a distinct volta or turn between the octave and the sestet. Petrarch only very rarely ends a sonnet with a couplet, doing that constitutes a rare deviation from his usual sestet patterns.

Major practitioners in English fought hard against the problem that English, as a language, provides fewer rhyming words than Italian, something which makes strict ‘Italian’ form sonnets hard to write in English. Sidney always uses a two rhyme octave, Spenser had his own variation, but in English poetic practice, the sonnet tended to devolve into a less demanding form, using 7 rhyme sounds: ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. This is called the Shakespearean or English sonnet. Naturalisation of the form began immediately, a far-reaching adaptation to the English inner-ear: for Wyatt, bringing the sonnet into English, usually kept an ABBA ABBA octave, but he always ends a sonnet with a couplet. There ceased to be an important turn in the sonnet after line 8, rather it divided itself into a semi-volta after 8, and a formal division after line 12, before the final couplet. As Barbara Smith says in her book, Poetic Closure, the English version pushes the sonnet towards the epigram, and, she goes on, the epigram tends to be a form which sums up a subject, and dismisses it, says what doesn’t have to be said again. Wyatt writes sonnets of crisis, the climactic, end-of-the-affair poems (as Thomas Greene points out), rather than Petrarchist poems in which small dramas are played out again and again, over and over, never to a finish.

In diverting towards something like the epigram, the English sonnet became (she argues) more analytic, intellectual, edged. One could add that this might be the case when it is being well handled. At its worst, the pattern of three quatrains and a couplet could lead to one of the quatrain units being mere restatement, elegant variation, or, to be frank, padding, and for the couplet to have a life of its own as an epigram, a two line epitome of what’s already been said, or (at other times) wrenching the poem round with a contradiction to all that has gone before. When Sir Philip Sidney used a couplet ending, he always tied it in to the main part of the sonnet with some kind of syntactic link, or by use of such devices as ‘head-rhymes’, having the same word at the start of lines 12, 13 and 14.

Shakespeare as sonneteer

Throughout the 1590’s sonnets were, as one of the sonneteers, Michael Drayton, put it ‘impressed’ in bundles.(3) Shakespeare was mentioned as writing sonnets by 1599, but his sequence was not published until 1609, by Thomas Thorpe, with the unusual title, Shakespeare’s Sonnets: unusual in its (to us) very ordinary commercial pitch (author first, as the main commodity offered). The title isn’t a To Delia (Samuel Daniel) or a Fidessa, more chaste than kind (Bartholomew Griffin’s non-masterpiece) that is, entitled for the beloved, or a linking of the names of the lover and beloved, like Astrophel and Stella or Parthenophil and Parthenope. The publisher wants to sell on the basis that these are sonnets by no less a poet than Shakespeare. It didn’t seem to work, as no second edition was called for, until there was another attempt to sell the poems in 1640. It isn’t known how far Shakespeare authorised the 1609 edition; it would have been nice to have had his own title, if the sonnets ever had one. Even the precise nature of the sequence isn’t known, for it seems to be mid-way between being (this seems to be mainly the case) a sonnet sequence and (residually) a personal anthology. What might be Shakespeare’s earliest surviving poem is there, sonnet 145, in octosyllabics, and apparently punning gamely (in a Warwickshire accent) on Ann Hathaway’s name. The rest seem to spring from an initial commission to write sonnets to persuade a young man to get married, then there follow personal love poems to this same young man. He then betrays the poet by starting an affair with the poet’s own mistress, who might be the same woman as the Dark Lady (who is, by the way, never called that anywhere in the sequence). Unnamed like the young man, she seems to have had a husband called Will, perhaps another lover called Will, and, in William Shakespeare, a ‘Will in overplus’. The so-called ‘Dark Lady’ sonnets, 28 of them, bring the sequence to its close. The structural effect of this block of sonnets might be taken to be analogous to the 20 palinodic sonnets which end Thomas Watson’s ‘Hecatompathia, a passionate century of love’: at sonnet 80, there is a heading, ‘My love is passed’, and the poet describes his revulsion from his love. Acid self-appraisal, revulsion and the wish to break away for higher things are similarly expressed in this concluding part of Shakespeare’s sequence.

The Sonnets –all 154 of them - are hard to read en bloc, and, as Winifred Nowottny wrote of them, are ‘resistant to generalisation’. They vary in quality. Elizabethan sonnets in general, as J W Lever pointed out in his book on the form, exploit the fact that while the sonnet is ostensibly the most personal of forms, the form in which you wrote about your deepest feelings, it is in actuality the most conventional of forms, in which you could most easily imitate the way other poets had expressed their feelings.(4) Some of Shakespeare’s sonnets float down the limpid river of Elizabethan sonneteering – sometimes doing it very well, but generally the more interesting don’t go with the flow, but leave idealisation behind for something more difficult.

Prior to a rediscovery by the Romantic poets – and even they did not admire them without qualification - the Sonnets were not popular. In the 1640 edition, there might be a clue to the problem. The publisher, John Benson made interventions in the text to hide the gender of the beloved: ‘To make him seem long hence, as he shows now’, in 101, was altered to read ‘To make her seem long hence, as she shows now’. ‘Nothing, sweet boy’ in 108 became ‘Nothing, sweet love’, ‘To me fair friend you never can be old’ again used the same recourse to a gender-neutral term: ‘To me fair love you never can be old’. Sonnet 18, by the way, did not get into Benson’s capricious collection of Poems by Will Shakespeare, Gent, as he had the nerve to call it. This farrago went on being accepted as the right text up till 1818. I will say more about the issue of the homoerotic element in the poems later on.

Commentary on Sonnet 18, ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’

i) Sonnets which use comparisons or the idea of comparison

‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’ is a sonnet which develops the Petrarchan conceit in a poem which, like other amatory poems of the period, finds that the best comparison is simply inadequate. If you want to see classic Petrarchan conceits in action, just use the first line index of the Everyman Elizabethan Sonnets: ‘Like an adventurous sea voyager’ … ‘Like as a huntsman’ … ‘Like as a ship’ … ‘Like to the Indians scorched with the sun’. In the case of that last sonnet, adoration of the sun-like beloved has given the sonneteer’s heart sunburn (it’s a poem by Lady Mary Wroth). Such comparison sonnets are fairly easy to knock out. The effort to make them original by finding a new comparison sometimes produced grotesque effects, as when Sir Robert Sidney says that he must, however painful it is, give up love before it kills him, just as a victim of gangrene must submit to an amputation.

Robert Sidney’s older brother Sir Philip Sidney was the most influential of all English sonneteers, and he introduced throughout his Astrophel and Stella an element of poetry criticism, writing poems about the poems other people typically wrote. His 3rd, 6th and 15th sonnets all give critical accounts of standard comparisons and hyperboles. John Donne later tagged sun comparisons as the weariest of cliches:

now your beauty shines, now when the sun

Grown stale, is to so low a value run,

That his disshevel’d beams and scattered fires

Serve but for Ladies’ periwigs and tyres

In lovers’ sonnets …(5)

In Shakespeare’s Sonnets, 1609, ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’, addressed to the fair young man, acquires what we might see as a heterosexual companion poem in sonnet 130, ‘My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun’. Sonnet 18’s ostensible rhetoric seems to affirm that ‘You are better than the best thing I can think of to compare you to’, while sonnet 130 wittily says that in actuality, his mistress doesn't match up to the usual comparisons, conceding that his mistress isn’t as brilliant, rosy-perfumed, or as musical as all the other poets say their mistresses are. But 130 still affirms that she is still, to his mind, ‘As rare / As any she belied by false compare’.(6)

ii) Detailed commentary

So, Sonnet 18 is one of those poems which explains why a particular, favoured comparison isn’t adequate, in this very special case. We approach the poem through a glaze of familiarity. This is the poem opening that maybe one or two people in the street would come up with: if anyone can offer any single line from any love sonnet, it would in all likelihood be this one. Helen Vendler, in her normally hyper-acute commentary on The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets seems to throw her hands in the air when she gets to Sonnet 18. ‘What remains to be said?’ she exclaims, and goes on to offer what is, by her own high standards, a reading rather blurred by sentimentality.

How the poem plays out after that famous opening can still surprise those who are unwary about the way Shakespeare’s sonnets work. Despite changes in attitudes, the circumstantial shock might also remain, when new readers discover that the sonnet comes from – or rather, initiates - a long sequence of sonnets mainly concerned to express fervent love for a young man. Shakespeare in Love’s presentation of the top bard as Romeo (that is, heterosexual) did provoke some Renaissance scholars: Stephen Greenblatt tried to pitch to the creative team working on the film that their Shakespeare might be depicted as besotted with Christopher Marlowe. I will try to say more later about what we can say about this married father of three’s adoration of a young man, but a critical reading of the poem is the first priority. But the sonnet itself might be seen as somewhat disconcerting in its development of thought.

I am conscious that the way I read Shakespeare’s sonnets (I mean, read them critically, interpret them) is strongly influenced by Gerard Hammond, The Reader and Shakespeare’s Young Man Sonnets.(7) This was not a widely admired book, and in some ways I can see why. Hammond’s reading is a coercive one. While a critic might expect to get some respect from his peers for opening out a poetic text to ambiguity, all too often Hammond seems to reduce the sonnets to ambiguity. He seems to be engaged in making the poet pull himself together, so determined is he to isolate and stress the critical note amidst the conventional adulation. I purposely didn’t re-read Hammond before writing this lecture, as I suspect it is already Hammond enough, without my re-immersing myself in him. Be aware, then, that I am to some extent transmitting to you a notoriously hard-headed reading of the poem. From my notes for other lectures, I see that Hammond says of sonnet 18 that, in the end, ‘two kinds of poetry have been described: one idealises and immortalises the subject, the other tells the truth’. Hammond sets out his stall in the way he reads this sonnet. You might still want to read the poem in a more romantic way, despite the Hammond-inflected reading I am about to give.

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate…

So far, so good, no problems here. Elizabethans philosophically didn’t like extremes, and were, medically speaking, suspicious of the physiological effects of hot weather. Rephrased as a direct statement and shorn of its simile, ‘You are so temperate’ doesn’t exactly come across as a knockdown compliment. The glossary Shakespeare's Words compiled by David and Ben Crystal glosses the entry for ‘temperate’ with ‘self-restrained, abstemious, gentle-natured’, then as ‘calm, moderate, composed’. Another famous sonnet, number 94, does cumulatively move to criticism of that type of person whose temperance is a kind of emotional disengagement. In that poem, being ‘unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow’ may be good in itself, but is not so great when coupled with a cool disregard of the emotional turbulence such a type can trigger, if excitingly beautiful as well as emotionally disengaged. But at this early, idealistic stage of the sequence, the poet can still believe both in the young man as temperate (though he will prove not to be), and in such temperance as an ideal.

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May …

This is one of those Shakespearean lines with a literary afterlife, used by H E Bates for the title of one of his rural novels.(8) Vendler argues that this shaking is an unrealised threat, something that falls short of any destruction, but buds and blossoms always have some connotation of transience, the emergent theme which also sounds in

And summer’s lease hath all too short a date …

Elizabethans were litigious people, and rather legalistic language came very naturally to them: summer has a lease which soon expires. Vendler thinks that ‘too short a date’ is the first ominous note. ‘Date’ is, narrowly, the end of the tenancy, more generally, duration or period of existence.

As tends to be the case in English or Shakespearean sonnets, the second quatrain here is something of an elegant restatement, or expansion on what the first four lines have already said, not carrying things forward very much, but lyrical, certainly:

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.

The sun can get too hot, or be obscured by clouds; do too much, or too little. The sun, anthropromorphised by his ‘gold complexion’, is here most directly the beloved’s rival in beauty, and is of course found wanting. ‘Complexion’ is, as now, facial appearance, but in Shakespeare’s usage has a wider sense in which the complexion of a thing is its very nature. The sun is male because of Apollo, the beautiful God of the sun. It (the sun) isn’t named as such, but identified by a periphrasis or kenning: ‘the eye of heaven’. The maleness of the sun might also take us back to the ‘temperate’ youth. For an ‘eye of heaven’ shining too hotly might be suggestive of an intemperate, lecherous eye. The youth, for the moment, isn’t like that, being beautiful without any taint of (adult) lustfulness.

‘And every fair from fair sometime declines’, says the sonnet. You take this (within the metaphorical vehicle) as meaning either a day that turns into poor weather, but which can still be followed by days of sunshine, or you read it as the definitive shift into autumn. In the tenor of the metaphor, it can suggest both an off day – in the current idiom, a ‘bad hair day’, something that is soon got through and forgotten, or again it can be the start of an irreversible descent into the loss of good looks. ‘By chance’ – an accident, which again is either minor and therefore soon got over, or major and causing irreparable harm – ‘or nature’s changing course’ – this sounds more inexorable (though nature’s seasonal cycle might still suggest a long term return) - ‘untrimmed’, which is, robbed of its beauties, shorn of ornament, with a sub-sense, as John Kerrigan suggests in his Penguin edition, of a boat which is loaded out of trim, and so might sink, so there’s a sub-sense of ‘out of balance’, without its proper poise. The glossary by David and Ben Crystal, Shakespeare’s Words, lists page after page of Shakespeare’s ‘un-’ words.

The sonnet has been lulling us along with this pleasant stroll in the garden of truisms ‘And … and … and’ it has gone, rather expansively, and not unduly demandingly, before we reach the volta of the sonnet, its ‘turn’, with the resounding affirmation, ‘But’: ‘But thy eternal summer shall not fade’.

Here, Shakespeare makes his sonnet affirm what we know cannot be the case. No human beauty can be eternal, and stop fixed at its zenith of perfection. We all know that, and I think part of what complicates our response to this hyperbolic assertion is the background work we start to do, as we half-think how, in what special cases, this incredible assertion might be true. I think that we might assimilate it by an imaginative leap forward to death. ‘Thy eternal summer shall not fade’ – it could be a marmoreal inscription, something that might appear on a gravestone.(9) While saying that the young man will keep his beauty forever, Shakespeare might be triggering a faint foreboding that the youth can never grow old, and lose his beauty, because he is dead. I think that this is our more immediate background solution to the conundrum the sonnet has just posed (‘How can this be true?’, we are asking ourselves) than the one the sonnet goes on to supply, which is that his beauty will live forever in the poet’s art: so that the sonnet which promises he will live beautiful forever, is itself part of the fulfilment of that promise, an achievement of the impossible. But in offering itself as what will preserve the youth, the sonnet anticipates the way such poetry will be a memorial, elegiac. So, even at the moment when Shakespeare declares his love, a faintly elegiac note is sounded. The 17 sonnets prior to this in the sequence have all been engaged in telling the youth that only by marrying and fathering children can he hope to preserve his own beautiful form. New readers, conscientiously approaching sonnet 18 through the first 17 sonnets would also have a moment when they had to realise that 18 is not another poem on that same theme.(10) The love is now personal to Shakespeare, and the power to confer a form of immortality on the youth and his beauty is now no longer dependent on a woman bearing his children, but on the poet, who will pass on those ideal qualities in art.

‘Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st’ – he won’t be ejected from his leasehold on beauty. ‘Ow’st’ is a normal Shakespearean usage, where ‘owe’ regularly means ‘own, possess, have’. ‘Own’st’, if it had been used, would have been an awkward sounding word, but Shakespeare also needs his customary ‘ow’st’ for the rhyme sound. In terms of an ambiguous sense here, the sonnets regularly tell the youth that his beauty comes with obligation (most obviously, in the 17 preceding sonnets, the youth is told he must marry and hand down his beauty to future generations). So he might in this context be thought to ‘owe’ his beauty, as a commodity which he must pay back, hand over for preservation purposes.

‘Fair’ is one of the words Shakespeare more or less gets away with in his sonnets. A surprisingly banal vocabulary of praise is often used: ‘fair’, ‘lovely’, ‘beauteous’, ‘gentle’, ‘my rose’, and the like. But a regular part of Shakespeare’s poetic practice was to use the rhetorical trope of traductio, the trick of using the same word in different sense. Here, ‘fair’ means, simply enough, ‘beauty’. In ‘every fair from fair sometime declines’, ‘fair’ first means ‘beautiful being’, then in ‘from fair’, an absolute standard of fairness. The glossary by David and Ben Crystal lists no fewer than 12 groupings of related senses for Shakespeare’s ‘fair’. There may well, here, be a faint suggestion of the moral sense of being fair, so that the decline is a falling short in mind as well as body. At his best, Shakespeare reanimates his simple words through such permutations of sense, words that in a lesser poet might appear banal.

The sonnet’s rhetorical trap begins to close: ‘Nor shall death brag thou wanderest in his shade’ – from being told one moment that his beauty will last, the recipient now discovers that the sonnet is anticipating his death – ‘When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st’. As I see it (and I suspect it was Hammond which made me see it this way), the sonnet has stealthily closed in on its subject, and now triumphs. ‘Thy eternal summer’ was shown – and three lines later, it has been switched, in a piece of poetic legerdemain to ‘When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st’. The phrases in apposition mean different things: the hyperbolical compliment to you (‘your beauty will never fade’) has turned into what is really a hyperbolical self-compliment (‘my poem about you will last forever’). The youth, transmuted into the subject of art, can now live forever in time, or grows up to equality with time. Those ‘eternal lines’ do perhaps have a faint carry-over from the sonnets which urged him to marry. He could live in an ‘eternal’ line of descent: but far more saliently this sonnet offers poetry as the substitute for lineage. Instead of the doubtful self-transmission via procreation (while the progenitor slips into old age with its lines and wrinkles), the poet’s lines are lines of life:

So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see

So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Helen Vendler, reading to my mind a touch sentimentally, suggests that these lines are self-qualifying, modestly self-limiting, in that it isn’t actually eternity which is promised, but only duration as long as people still read poetry. I myself can’t see that poetry can make any larger claim.

The abjectness of the opening – ‘Shall I (little me) compare thee (big you) to a summer’s day?’ has turned into a statement of the youth’s complete dependence on the poet: nothing else will do the job so well.(11) The prior sonnets had played with the idea of getting a woman involved in the immortalising process, but that was just a semi-competent contrivance of mere biology. Sonnet 18 is a poem of an all-male world, a masculine son/sun with no feminine mother-to-be (or moon) to be seen, and a poet who will verbally transmit a perfect account of the youth’s impeccable genes to men’s eyes in the future. In another of these semi-repetitions within the poem (like ‘eternal summer’ and ‘eternal lines’), the ‘eye of heaven’ changes, somehow, into the eyes of readers, readers who are perhaps more than just conventionally ‘men’. ‘So long lives this’ (ARS LONGA) ‘and this gives life to thee’ (VITA BREVIS). That ego-tickling opening, saying ‘let me enumerate the ways in which you are more beautiful than a summer’s day’ has led to an ending which boosts another ego: ‘you will be dead, but think of the poetry I can write: look, this is an example. You will live because you inspired this’.

Sonnet 18 is filled with a temporal vocabulary: summer, (three times), May, sometime (twice), nature’s changing course, eternal (twice), fade, so long as … so long lives. Setting out to explain why you aren’t like a summer’s day, because … (etc), the final implication does seem to be that you are exactly like a summer’s day, a transient delight that needs an intervention from artifice to make it last forever.

The use of ‘thee’, ‘thou’ and ‘thy’ is interesting. This version of the second person pronoun can, rather curiously, be both more honorific than ‘you’ and ‘your’, but, dependent on the tone taken and the relations between addresser and the person addressed, it can be used to demean the person addressed.(12) David and Ben Crystal have a marvellous special section describing the various kinds of ‘thou’ and ‘you’ interplay in Shakespearean dialogue, and the effects possible from switching from one to the other – a close reading of a passage of Much Ado about Nothing is given – and the history of these pronouns in English. The sonnets address the young man either as ‘you’, or as ‘thou’; sonnet 18 follows a little run of ‘you’ sonnets, so its use of ‘thee’ sounds a new note of elevated address. There is, I suppose, a subdued conflict over who gets the metrical star billing in line 1. Stress the iambics mechanically, and you get ‘Shall Í compáre thee tó a súmmer’s dáy’, instead of the stresses falling on ‘Shall’, ‘pare’ ‘thee’ ‘sum’ and ‘day’, with a more muted stress on ‘to’. If the opening is tentative and its stresses rather unsettled, the last line is highly emphatic, you can almost hear six stresses in the line: ‘So lóng líves thís, and thís gives lífe to thée’. That the ‘i’ sound gets so much stress ( I … I … I) might lead a cynical, Hammond-like reader to deduce that what Shakespeare really wants to say (and rhyme) is: ‘So long lives this, and this gives life to ME’, the poet’s ego wants to make itself heard.

Notoriously, despite all the promises to immortalise (sonnet 55 makes the loudest promises), the fair youth remains ‘you’ or ‘thou’, as unidentified as his ignominious companion, the dark lady. The sonnets 'do not do the thing they most do show'. Whether this was intentional or not simply isn’t known. Whether the identity was too well known in Shakespeare’s circle to bother mentioning, whether identification was censored out, or whether concealment was always the aim, these issues just cannot be resolved. This is a sonnet sequence in which there are strange forays into imaginative obliteration (‘You are so strongly in my purpose bred / That all the world besides me thinks y’are dead’, Sonnet 112 breathtakingly concludes), and the refusal even to hint at the name of the beloved is part of that withholding.

The homoerotic element.

(This section will probably contain material not delivered in the lecture; if you are looking for the links to the YouTube videos of various performances of the poem 'as pop object', follow the link to the web-posted version of the powerpoint )

Southampton cross dressed?

Note on the picture: this image, brought back to light in 2002, at Hatchlands Park, Surrey, has been argued to be a portrait of Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare's patron, and one of the stronger candidates for being the 'Mr W H' who was "only begetter" of the sonnets. It does indeed bear a strong resemblance to later portraits of the Earl. The excitement came from the extreme effeminacy of the image (the portrait was long considered to be of a 'Lady Norton'), with some claim that it depicted the young Earl cross-dressed.


I will close by saying a little more about the homoerotic element in the sonnets, which is of course in the background to this poem to the young man. This element is not without parallel, even in English sonneteering. When I re-edited the Everyman Elizabethan Sonnets volume (1994 and 2003), I made it – to be frank – a more politically correct volume than the original 1977 edition by Maurice Evans had been. I added in the sonnets of Lady Mary Wroth, as woman practitioner, and the Certaine Sonnets of Richard Barnfield, which are sonnets expressing abject love for a young man the poet calls, rather wistfully, ‘Ganymede’.

The Renaissance was philosophically amenable to love between men. As Alistair Fowler judiciously remarks that 'In the Renaissance, people were categorized less by the deviation than the elevation of their sexuality'. Here’s a triad of lines written by Edmund Spenser, which rise through the various levels of love:

The dear affection unto kindred sweet

Or raging fire of love to womenkind

Or zeal of friends combined with virtues meet.(13)

Here, the love in a male-male friendship is evidently taken to be of a higher order than that over-heated ‘fire of love’ for women. Intellectually trained as they were to believe that women were members of an inferior sex, male writers at the time tend to promote love between men, that is, between equals, as the highest form love can attain. You have heard of, you have most likely used the expression, ‘Platonic love’. Let me tell you a little about the man who invented the phrase. The neo-platonist scholar Marsilio Ficino was famous for his abstinence and chastity: he was a priest, a vegetarian, and wrote a treatise informatively explaining that sex is bad for scholars, as it enfeebles the brain. Platonic love was Ficino's term for the ideal relationship, as described for him in Plato’s Symposium, which could only be between man and man – Platonic love ‘seeks to return us to the sublime heights of heaven’. Ficino’s surviving love letters are all to Giovanni Cavalcanti, ‘my sweetest Giovanni’. I suppose that one should say that in trying to imagine what was in the minds of these men, we should humbly recall what extraordinary people they were. Pico della Mirandola, whose ‘Oration on the Dignity of Man’ is a definitive Renaissance document, eloped when young with another man’s wife, fought over her, but exchanged passionate sonnets with the poet Girolamo Benivieni. Pico was an ardent follower of the fiery Savonarola, the friar who denounced the vanities and debauchery of Florence, with special mention for those who loved ‘beardless youths’ and practised ‘unspeakable vices’. But Benivieni was della Mirandola’s life-long companion: they were eventually buried side by side, in the church of San Marco in Florence, like man and wife.(14)

But what about sex? We haven’t a clue. It was entirely customary for male friends to share a bed. You might claim that there was a studied, society-wide blindness to what might happen there. But we just cannot assume that men reached emotional and sexual maturity in just the same ways that they generally do now. As historians of sexuality point out, the male homosexual, meaning a man whose sexual attention is directed solely to members of his own sex, had not then emerged as a social phenomenon. Randolph Trumbach argues, rather, for a commonly bisexual early modern male, with an early phase of same-sex activity before the man married – and despite all that you think you know from Shakespeare’s Juliet, this was a society in which people married remarkably late, especially if non-gentry, so there was plenty of time for the other orientation before a man’s marriage (then on average 28 for a non-gentry man, 26 for a (non-gentry) young woman).(15) Trumbach’s large thesis piles up examples of men assaulting, battering, raping and murdering their womenfolk, as if enraged by having been born too late for a more natural era of male bisexual sexuality. Now historians like Trumbach can always be suspected of having an agenda. He certainly seems to extrapolate from the genuine and remarkable high percentages of same sex activity documented in some Italian Renaissance cities. But he makes this a general truth about Renaissance men, rather than offering the economic explanation for the particular example in Italy, where crippling expectations for dowries were driving marriage into social unavailability: girls were put into convents, rather than family funds be alienated by inordinate dowry provisions.

Even Richard Barnfield, whose sonnets are just about as gay as can be imagined, finally married: marriage had different expectations then too. Shakespeare had married, at 18, probably forced into it by his older partner’s pregnancy. Sonnet 20, two after our sonnet 18, seems to disavow a sexual interest in the young man – as Nature ‘pricked thee out for women’s pleasure / Mine be thy love, and thy love’s use their treasure’. But this sonnet is tonally very hard to place. Later in the sequence a deal of warm physical contact is imagined:

Then give me welcome, next to heaven my best

Even to thy pure and most most loving breast

while in the murky sub-texts of the sonnets, a great deal of sexual knowingness is suggested (‘So am I as the rich, whose blessed key / Can bring him to his sweet up-locked treasure…’). Gangs of innuendoes lurk, ready to pounce on and beat up any innocent reading that wanders by. W H Auden tried to settle the matter, remarking on how eagerness to claim the top bard as one of their own makes homosexual readers read in one way. (It has been suggested, too, that the disproportionate fuss about the Dark Lady springs from a corresponding desire in other readers to heterosexualise the sequence.) Auden notes that it is the Dark Lady sonnets which are ‘unambiguously sexual’: which leaves open what any close reader would concede, that the young man sonnets are ambiguously sexual.

That you cannot easily claim ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’ as a gay poem, that it adapts so readily to Jospeh Fiennes’ screen Shakespeare writing it for that invented personage, Viola de Lesseps, hints at a general truth about the sonnets, which is that the issue tends to disappear. ‘My love’, meaning the fair young man, gets replaced with ‘my love’ connoting ‘the feelings which I have’. Even within the 14 lines of sonnet 18, we see the process, that sleight of poetic hand by which the subject switches from ‘thee’ to the poet’s art.

So, that’s Sonnet 18. Rummaging around it its sub-texts and possible implications like this should not obscure the poem’s general impact, the way it might be received from recitation, rather than what emerges from dissection. Shakespeare simply twists the poetic dial up to maximum, the amplifier up to 11. Shakespeare's own habits of punctuation are hard to retrieve. As far as scholars can tell, he punctuated very lightly, may never have used question marks at all, and didn't always end sentences with a full stop. As we are used to a more analytic punctuation, editors impose their own punctuation on the Shakespearean text. Colin Burrow puts a full stop at the end of line 12, but Katherine Duncan-Jones in her New Arden edition punctuates her modernised text so that, after the question at the end of line 1, the remaining 13 lines make up one tremendous, overwhelmingly persuasive sentence, ‘Thou art … and … sometime … and … and … But … when … so long … so long’, wrapping from the ‘Thou’ which opens line 2 to the ‘Thee’ which concludes the poem. I suppose that it was written to be devastating, to elicit a ‘Yes, do it for me William!’ response. Sonnets are one of literature’s closest imitations of a very human transaction. Most fall dismally short of their purpose, or can’t make their mind up what their purpose is. But some have a power that still persuades people to transcribe them, learn them off by heart, because, at certain times, we all want to be able to say something like that.

In your seminars this afternoon, you have in sonnet 33 the sequel sonnet to 18, the sonnet in which the sun he adores goes behind a cloud: that the young man is not as temperate as sonnet 18 hoped has been made all too apparent. The sonnet tries to come to terms with this disillusion. Sonnet 106, from late in the sequence to the young man, has a deeply ambiguous ending, in which ostensible praise has an undercurrent of bitter condemnation. Sonnets 30 and 73 are two of the sonnets about the poet’s age, in relation to the young man’s youth; sonnets 55 and 65 are two more sonnets which, like 18, promise to immortalise the beloved. Sonnet 71 is markedly self-pitying. I have already mentioned sonnet 94, which reflects in general terms on the theme of the corruption of the best being the worst possible thing. Sonnets 116 and 129 further transcend their context, reflecting on the nature of love, and lust, respectively, without any reference to the particular case involving the poet.


(1) You should note that this is a lecture text, annotated informally. It is emphatically NOT a model essay.

(2) Rather confusingly, ‘sonnets’ could also be applied by 16th century English writers to any short poems, as in John Donne Junior’s assembly of his father’s ‘Songs and Sonnets’.

(3) Idea 31, ‘To the critic’.

(4) This is the general thrust of J W Lever’s The Elizabethan Love Sonnet (1974).

(5) Donne, ‘To the Countess of Salisbury’. This is a poem of 1614. Petrarch’s ‘Laura and the sun’ sonnet is Canzoniere 188, ‘Almo Sol’, ‘Life-giving sun, you first loved that branch / Which is all I love…’

(6) After Shakespeare, other poets did pick up the ‘you are nothing like’ turn, but it reverts to being complimentary hyperbole. This is the Duke of Newcastle, in ‘The Unparalleled Love’:

Some fine and little love I might express

Your snow white skin, and then my muse to seek

Lilies and roses for your either cheek

So simulise you all, but I do know it

There’s nothing like you..

Or William Drummond, ‘Eurymedon’s priase of Mira’:

The sun from east to west who all doth see

On this low globe sees nothing like to thee…

(7) Gerard Hammond, The Reader and Shakespeare’s Young Man Sonnets (Macmillan, 1981).

(8) At barbarapaul.com/shake/sonnets.html you can find a collection of book titles derived from Shakespeare.

(9) ‘They shall not grow old as we that are left grow old. Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn’ – Lawrence Binyon’s resonant words in his otherwise mainly pedestrian poem about the dead of World War 1, ‘The Fallen’.

(10) The point is Stephen Booth’s, in his commentary in his edition of the Sonnets.

(11) This is very much a remark after Hammond.

(12) (As in the old Derbyshire rebuke my grandfather used to recite, ‘Don’t thee tha me, thee tha thysen, and see how tha likes it’).

(13) Contextually simplified for the sake of the lecture audience: in full, the stanza affects to weigh the matter up more slowly:

Hard is the doubt, and difficult to deem

When all three kinds of love together meet

And do dispart the heart with power extreme

Whether shall weigh the balance down, to weet

The dear affection unto kindred sweet

Or raging fire of love to womenkind

Or zeal of friends combined with virtues meet

But of them all the band of vertuous mind

Me seems the gentle heart, should most assured bind.

Spenser, The Faerie Queene Book IV, canto ix, st 1.

(14) Details taken from Ross King’s Michaelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling (Pimlico, 2003), pp.183-4.

(15) Randolph Trumbach, Sex and the Gender Revolution (Chicago, 1998).