Central Theme of Shakespeare’s Sonnet No. 18 (shall I compare thee To a Summer’s Day)

According to Francis Meres, a contemporary of William Shakespeare, “mellifluous and honey-tongued” Bard of Avon who equals to the Roman Ovid, is a master artist of sonnet writing. Out of 154 of such Shakespearean sonnets, the first 126 sonnets are addressed to a handsome youth, his fair friend. The first 126 sonnets reveal “a story of brief intoxication by a friendship with a young aristocrat of quick disillusion; of a renewal of friendly relations on a quite different basis, when Shakespeare was economically independent of a gradual decay of the relationship”. Shall I compare Thee to a Summer’s Day (sonnet No. 18),” which ranks among the most famous love poems of all time can also be read from the above perspective.

          The poet in this sonnet eternalizes the beauty of the youth – the beauty with which his fair friend is adorned. In fact, Shakespeare also preoccupies the Elizabethan theme of love and time. He wages war with time and he wants to create a poetic dimension where the youth will remain immortal.

The poem begins with a rhetorical question – shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Here the pronoun ‘thee’ is obviously ‘youth’ which forms a parallel to his fair friend. Now as the poem progresses the answer to this question is elaborately given to us. Though the poet identifies youth with the beautiful manifestation of nature, yet the youth is more “lovely and temperate”. He considers that a comparison between the beloved youth and a summer day would be in appropriate and inadequate. Firstly, he feels that ‘more lovely and temperate’ is the form of beloved youth than the summer day. Secondly, summer’s beauty is inconstant as the sun sometimes is too hot or sometimes dimmed by clouds. More over, its beauty is ephemeral, whereas the beauty of beloved youth is eternal. The supereminences of all earthy beauty is stated in a beautiful line – “And every fair from fair some time declines”. With the passage of time fairness of fair object loses its brilliance and brevity. Amidst these turnovers beauty of youth and his love for that beauty would withstand the blows of times.

          In the third quatrain Shakespeare the youth, will not lose his beauty even though the ravaging power of time would put everything within his compass. The very memory of his fair friend identical as youth will remain a fresh for ever as he with his juvenile form will be eternalized in the poet’s verses. The concluding couplet reads as:

          “So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long times this, and this gives life to thee”

           Thus the sonnet ends in a defiant couplet where the poet says as long as the world endures; his poetry will survive and will reanimate and recreate the youth. The youth has been immortalized through the poet’s eternal verse. 

            While the sonnet may provide little conclusive information about Shakespeare’s life and his relationship with the fair friend, it does provide insight into him as an artist. In fact Shakespeare’s Sonnet no. 18 is highly metaphorical. The sonnets derive its artistic unity from its exploration of the universal human themes of time, death, change, love, lust, and beauty. Thus, Shall I compare Thee to a Summer’s Day (sonnet No. 18) can also be read as the great dramatic poem. 
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