Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Readings: three types:
- Literal: what does the sonnet actually say?
- Ecological: what does it say in the context of its family (genus, species … Fair Love, Dark Lady)?
- Odd comments
Accepting Thorpe’s order, the first seventeen sonnets explore love as a biological sacrament, involving marriage, reproduction. The argument is basically that the young man addressed, is beautiful, virtuous, noble: he should be married, reproduce, pass on the title. Fine: conventional enough. Ordinary society is being sanctified, rationalized.
But this sonnet pulls something revolutionary: Here the poet is saying that it’s his virtue as a poet that’s provides the precious thing. And he doesn’t say is should be preserved, the says it will be immortal!
Enter the ego of the genius! Wow. Unprecedented.
Chaucer wrote how the fame of the Duchess justified his writing about her: the poet was humble, the noble was glorious.
Here it’s topsy turvy. Shakespeare playing with things upside down, as usual.
The joke is so bold, so outrageous, we may not even see it.
Note how amazingly simple the sonnet reads. Shakespeare is at his very best when his perfect verse reads like plain simple prose: King Lear carrying the dead Cordelia, Othello seeing himself as a murderer of his beloved Desdemona: “Let it all go.”
Note how amazingly direct the devices are: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” The poet is asking if he should be poetic, weave a simile! He proceeds. There are two principal characters: the poet, the fair love. Immediately he goes into a hyperbole that nevertheless passes as simple: “Thou art more lovely and more temperate. The fair love out-natures nature!”
Literal: Close Reading
In this case I began the reading before designating the three types: so, I leave the fragments below till I absorb them among the three.
I’ll begin my readings of the individual sonnets with this one: a quintessential Fair Love sonnet.
I’ve considered close reading to be my forte since 1958 or ’59, but my reading of the Sonnets in terms of a meta-oxymoron between the orthodoxy of Scholastic Realism and the heresy of Nominalism requires a great deal of history. Teaching in a classroom I would know what prerequisite classes my students had taken; here, online, I have no idea, I’d better err on the side of presuming ignorance. All the materials I’ve posted online about my Sonnet readings since 1995 have been general, introductory, preparation … Now let me try to focus on Sonnet 18 through several lenses, at several degrees of magnification, before surfing more context considerations: and technical, prosodic considerations.
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
There. We scan the first quatrain. I assume the readers has mastered the Anatomy of a Shakespearean Sonnet: fourteen iambic pentameter lines, structured as octave (two quatrains) and sestet (a quatrain and a heroic couplet). The Italians wove their rhyme scheme; Shakespeare blocks his off: abab cdcd efef gg.
Now: look at the first line again:
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Ten syllables, exactly. Consider any set of lines from the Sonnets. Ten syllables is the rule, but not an absolute rule: five accents is the rule; but note: here, at least read as modern English, not worrying how Elizabethans pronounced things just yet, the effect is four accents! The line is pentameter, but seems to be tetrameter!
Note that, now put it aside, and note this: the line reads, sounds, is heard (except for the quaintness of the “thee”), as plain simple English! “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”
In this exact context, note: the rhetorical question puts us smack in the center of the realm of poetry! The poet is asking if he shall be a poet! forge a simile?
The poet enforces awareness of the poem’s literary nature!
Thee and thou are artificial in English, long out of date, long out of date in the 1590s! King James’ scholars would thee and thou their translation, but that was an endeavor of 1604 to 1611, long after Shakespeare’s activity with sonnets. But thee and thou was already a literary convention. Shakespeare puts our nose in artificiality in a verse line in other respects as plain as prose.
Can there be anything harder in poetry than to make artificial language sound natural? A number of poets have achieved it on occasion: Chaucer, Wordsworth; Shakespeare achieved it again and again! Consider Lear’s speech carrying the dead Cordelia, consider Othello’s speech after killing Desdamona: “Let it all go.”
“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” Artifice sounds “natural.” We are in perfect counting, measured language, up to our nose, and feel free, natural, at home in it, like a fish. Anyone could read this line (almost) as well as a trained actor!
(My own rhythm can improve here, but not in the first draft.)
Octave, second quatrain, line 5.
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Still with the thee and thou. And now the common verb is quaint-ified: “art” for “are.” “Thou art” instead of “you are”: artificial, but he’s getting away with it! Just amazing.
You, my love, are more lovely and more temperate than a summer’s day! A human being is credited with being more wonderful than nature, nature at its best: a summer day! Remember, this is England, (with (as Lord Byron would come to phrase it)) our cloudy climate, and our chilly women: more lovely, more temperate. Make an effort, modern, to imagine Chaucer, come spring, Whan that Aprille, rolling among the daisies, having been cooped among fart-filled hals all winter: no central heating, no humidity control, no temptation to strip off heavy clothing. Imagine Wyatt, Marlowe … Imagine Shakespeare and friends on a summer’s day.
England owes its luck to being separated from the continent by the Channel and to its climate, so moist, so good for certain crops, for wool, but isn’t it nice to enjoy resort weather for at least a month of two.
The diction continues perfect: “lovely”: isn’t that what “poetry” is supposed to be? “Lovely” is the expectation of polite ladies, spinsters who’d never quote Macbeth.
Temperate: a climatic reference but with overtones of moral, cultural, sexual restraint. The lover loves the love, but they’re not rutting, not panting, not squirting. The love is another guy, for one thing. Meantime, two lines, packed with effect.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
Coffee is served with cream, tea with milk, we wouldn’t want to drink much of the cream without the coffee with its bitter oils. Contrast is the thing, conflict, contradiction. We’ve had two lines of summer, lovely, temperate; now Shakespeare levels us back to reality with rough winds troubling the new life of late spring. And immediately we’re reminded that summer too won’t last: it has a “lease,” evoking a harsh landlord. The lease will run out, terminate. Time is short, precious.
Time and its finiteness will be a major theme in the Sonnets — a Devouring Time sonnet is coming next! As love is a major theme: and procreation, love differing by gender, and, as we shall see additionally in a moment, different types of (mortality and) immortality.
“Darling” isn’t my favorite adjective here, but it works: I bet it hadn’t been used to saccharinity by the 1590s.
Scan each of those lines in the opening quatrain. Ten syllables in each line. Four accents the way I read line 1, but exactly five in each of the others: and five each the rest of the way. Note that line 1 can be read as five accents, but it can also be read, well read, with four.
Moderns also note: the word “date” in line four is not a pun: the word hadn’t acquired that meaning.
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
2013 02 06 I have to finish 1) reading my three basic sonnet representatives: 18, 130, 199
2) posting all the Sonnets, so you can read among them as you wish
3) editions introductory drafts into specific topics and sub-topics: Realism, Nominalism, sequence, Abelard… Then I must edit, merge all such spinoffs into new coherent essays.
2016 05 14 I’m reading and loving Melvyn Bragg’s Adventure of English: he’s very good on Shakespeare, on Chaucer, on everything. Here I commend in particular his imagining Shakespeare, the hick, coming to London and conquering the world of effective English: the upstart crow (saith Richard Green & fellow Elizabethan verbal wits). This basketball-climax season I’ve reminded of Steph Curry! He can do anything! and he knows it! and anyone who doesn’t is just jealous: take that, Lebron.
This sonnet commences with a direct invocation of comparison. Hey, that’s what sonnets did: especially in the early 1590s. Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Note the forged-antique appeal of the Scandinavian pronouns: thee-ing and thou-ing. Here it’s pure poetic affectation, such usages had nearly disappeared from 1590s’ speech.
But the showoff declines comparison, he emphasizes non-comparions, failure of comparison. The fair love doesn’t successfully mimic the world; the world fails to successfully mimic the fair love!
Etc. Fine. Through the octave. The sestet launches a different tack: the fair love will achieve immortality, not because the fair love is so great, however great he is, but because the loving poet is so great!
Nor shall Death brag thou wand’rest in his shade
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st.
When Chaucer wrote poems of praise, it was the duchess being praised, not the poet. Now the young lord is just an excuse for Shakespeare, the insufferable showoff, to strut his stuff. How come he didn’t get his lights punched out before the first flagon of sack at the Mermaid was quaffed? Because he was so damned cute at it! Like Steph Curry: a living genius we’re in the midst of discovering.
Everybody’s floored, everybody loves it!
More in another min:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
The MVP of three years ago isn’t so sure, wants to ride Steph’s comet alongside him? It doesn’t matter how the other wits complain, the newbie’s glow is a supernova.
2016 05 14 I suspend the menus and menus of menus till I can complete them, even half way, if ever.