Sonnet 18 by William Shakespeare is one of the sonnets that describe the outstanding beauty of an unspecified lover and time as a relentless ravisher with no mercy for anyone or anything. The only way to defy time is to become immortal in verse. The persona is the “I” in line 1 and he (Shakespeare himself? ) is addressing a person (a him or a her) whom he adores. The description of the beauty of the unknown lover is the central idae throughout the sonnet and the element of time makes its first appearance in line 4 where it says “And summer’s lease hath all too short a date”.
This signifies the limited time during which the positive qualities of summer are at their best. The beauty is described in the shape of an answer to the question posed in the first line: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? ” This question is only intended to introduce the subject, which is the beauty of the lover. It is not relevant if the poet does or does not compare him or her to a summer’s day. Of more importance is the result of this comparison. What then is the result of the comparison? Already in line 2 it becomes clear that the object of admiration is preferred to the “summer’s day”.
The following lines (lines 3 to 8) present a number of negative qualities of summer. These can be reduced to two basic ideas which are joined in line 4: “And summer’s lease hath too short a date”. The first idea presented is the idea that the beauty of summer is not stable. Sometimes there are “Rough winds” (line 3), the sun may be too hot (line 5) or not bright enough (line 6). The lover is described as “more temperate” in line 2 and therefore less prone to vary between extremes. The second basic idea is the idea that time ends everything.
The notion of time is already present in line 1 in which the “summer’s day” is mentioned, the day being one of the measures of time. Then in line 7 it says that every beauty at one time or another is affected either by chance or by the change of season (“nature’s changing course” line 8), in this case the end of summer. The object of the persona’s adoration does not suffer from this finiteness. His “eternal summer’s day shall not fade”, or, as described in line 10, his beauty will remain his forever and the personification of death in line 11 shall not be able to make him follow him into the realms of the dead.
This immunity from devouring time is accomplished by immortalisation in lines of verse. These lines will even make stronger and more beautiful as time proceeds, as line 12 points out. The use of the word “eternal” in this line as well as in line 9 (“eternal summer”) contrasts sharply with the idea of finiteness attached to “a summer’s day” (line 1) and “every fair” (line 7). The immortalisation is continued in the final lines: life will be preserved by the readers of these verses in years and years to come. The syntax and form in general work together.
Most lines constitute a grammatical unity, there is no enjambment. The first words of the lines often indicate the beginning of a new grammatical unit. The word “and”, for example, is used as the opening word in three lines. A Shakespearean sonnet consists of three quatrains and a couplet. This also applies to sonnet 18. The first quatrain introduces the subject. The second quatrain presents a generalisation of the idea that no beauty lasts forever. The third quatrain, aptly introduced by “but” (a clear turn), states that the beauty of the person this poem is addressed to is something that cannot be touched by time.
The final couplet, in very consistent iambic pentameter, encapsulates the idea of eternal life through versification. The meter is iambic pentameter and the rhythm is fairly regular throughout the sonnet. However, in a number of lines there are spondaic feet, used to emphasise threats to the beauty and the idea of eternity. Clear examples of this are the “Rough winds” in line 3 and the “death” that will not “brag” in line 11. In the latter example the threat of death is reinforced by the assonance between the words “death” and “brag”.
Line 9 is an interesting line as regards the rhythm. For the last two feet reinforce the turn, introduced by the “But”. A regular rhythm would have a stress on “shall”, followed by an unstressed “not”. However, the opposite is true. This clearly adds to the contrasting quality of this line: after two regular iambic pentameters the stress on the “not” following the introductory “But” leaves no doubt about the turn the reader witnesses in this line. A truly beautiful example of a Shakespearean turn.