Some Personal Notes re: Shakespeare, Sonnet 18

Sonnet 18
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 dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor 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.

Reflections:

1. 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…

“More lovely” confuses me. “More temperate” I think I understand. The summer is like a passion that grows more intense with each passing moment, until it burns itself out. But the idea that winds affect the summer’s day more than the internal audience – now that’s curious. I think you could say that the human spirit (tied to the idea of youthfulness, see Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind,” and yes, I can’t explain it, it’s a hunch) itself could be characterized as the wind, but then again, there is nothing “lovely” about the wind. What is lovely is being grown, being in full bloom, not being subject to random shifts. So perhaps our internal audience is characterized by his maturity (loveliness) and moderation (temperance).

2. 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

This is what I was afraid of, why I’m using the word “reflection” more than “commentary.” It looks like the sun, in his shining, destroys his own gilded appearance. That irony gives “fair from fair” a double meaning: it means that something was more fair before, and has declined into something less fair but still fair, certainly. It also means that physical beauty (note that the sun was tied to passion and immoderation above) destroys itself, in a sense, because its most perfect moments lay behind it, and comparison with what was always make what is look bad.

Now how does that happen? I’m saying it happens because of the nature of time, and Shakespeare’s “nature’s changing course untrimm’d” aids that interpretation. But Shakespeare gives us the possibility that “chance” is involved. What is the difference between “chance” and “nature’s changing course?”

I have mentioned before that to try and totally control chance – like we try to do via modern natural science and the social sciences – is to reject Nature as a guide. But that doesn’t mean that using Nature as a guide is complete openness to “yeah, stuff happens.” That’s the way the vulgar view Nature – “I’m made this way, this is how I feel I want to act” – and they excuse their randomness because all they can see is chance, since strict causal relations aren’t in effect regarding the human things. Using Nature as a guide would mean acting as if one were the best example of a human being ever made.

Now that’s an Aristotlean conception of the problem of chance and nature. I think Shakespeare is a lot more Machiavellian (coming soon: an essay on Macbeth), and that “chance” here is something more substantive. It is that which can be explained by nature, perhaps, but more importantly, is just as much as a threat as Nature. If we go to Nature as a guide, then fair from fair will always decline. We want an immortal beauty, one that we recognize and establish, not one that exists when we cultivate our tastes, make them better, and grow and change properly.

3. But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor 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.

Even though this formally has the look of a Shakespearean sonnet, it divides 8 and 6 thematically. This is really a Petrarchian sonnet. And I wonder if Shakespeare is making a joke about poets that think they can make love everlasting through their verse.

For immortality here rests on these lines not merely being seen and read aloud, but on men remembering this poem, and trying to imagine the audience’s beauty. It does make sense that immortality is conventional – it is because we choose to remember, choose to honor, that things last from age to age. But what utter arrogance is involved in asserting that one is giving another immortality through these lines! The joke is that the poem will last, while our poor audience dies. He is subject to the problem of the sun, after all, for he only seemingly differs from the sun by degree.

And then again, we have seen in the first few lines that the audience could very well be mature and moderate. And if that’s the case, he is qualitatively different from the sun, and conventions are not used to make him immortal, but conventions come about because he is already in touch with something immortal. He exercises virtue in a sense, and therefore is part of something all men in all ages understand. I would imagine that it is the remembrance of virtue in the poem that makes the poem immortal, and thus can bring our audience back to life.

3 Comments

  1. I had an Idea. A wonderful, yet stupid, idea. Instead of writing a great novel, i will write the worst novel I can. I mean looked for what it did Anne Rand, of “atlas shrugged” and “from here to eternity” fame. Those were atrocious books, yet she is worshiped like a god of literature. So, I will endeavor to write a novel that says, despite all the words, absolutely nothing!

  2. Addendum: One has to wonder if the audience really is moderate – either the sun image or the lovely, temperate image could suit him. The speaker is grappling with who the audience truly is, perhaps.

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