Sonnets 18 and 116 are two of Shakespeare’s most quotable love poems. If you’re a fan of weddings, rose petal-filled bathrooms, or Kate Winslet in Sense and Sensibility, you’ll probably recognize the lines “Should I compare you to a summer’s day?” and “Love is not love / That is altered when it finds alteration”. However, the problem with quotes is that they lack context. Let’s do a quick, line-by-line review of sonnets 116 and 18. You may be surprised to find that one of these so-called “love” poems doesn’t look much like the other.
Don’t leave me to the marriage of true minds
This is the Shakespearean equivalent of saying “Mama is the word” to the old “Speak now or hold forever” of the marriage ceremony. In fact, Shakespeare will not even admit the word “impediments” to the line that speaks of marriage. Love: 1; Impediments: 0.
… Love is not love
that is altered when it finds alteration,
Or bend with the remover to remove:
In other words, he’s not one to spout that “you’ve changed” nonsense.
Oh no! is a brand always fixed
that watches the storms and never shudders;
It is the star of every wandering bark,
Whose value is unknown, even if its height is taken.
The star of all wandering barks? That would have to be the North Star, which never seems to move from its spot in the Northern Hemisphere. The reason its “value is unknown” is because Europeans didn’t know much about stars in Shakespeare’s time, and were still bitter about the roundness of the Earth and all that.
Love is not the fool of time, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within the compass of his bent sickle come:
Love: 2; Pink lips and cheeks: 0. On a side note, he reminds that this is Shakespeare, which means that anything a 12-year-old could interpret as dirty probably is. Feel free to laugh, therefore, at the image of Old Father Time’s “bent” sickle.
Love is undisturbed by its brief hours and weeks,
But he confirms it even on the verge of perdition.
Love: 3; Edge of Doom: Large Chicken Egg. If love could talk, it would be saying “booya” right now.
If this is error and on me tested,
I never wrote, nor did any man ever love.
Did Shakespeare just take an oath on his own poetry? They are fighting words. If he isn’t sure why, it will all make sense when we get to Sonnet 18.
Like Sonnet 116, Sonnet 18 ranks high on Sappy Poetry lists…usually by people looking for explicit rather than implied meaning. If you’ve ever considered including a reading of Sonnet 18 at your anniversary party, the last three lines will probably change your mind. (If you are a Really careful reader, the first two will do the trick.) Let’s start at the top.
Shall I compare you to a summer day?
You are more beautiful and warmer:
Aww so sweet! We thought… Sure, we’re going to read it again – out loud. Remember to stress every second syllable, like this:
shall me comcut he and a a additionde mer day?
You Art plus lovelie Y plus weatherbyate:
AHA! Notice how “I” is emphasized but not “you” and “you”? Furtive. Let’s continue.
Rough winds shake the dear buds of May,
And the summer lease is dated too short:
I can’t argue with that.
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often his golden complexion darkens;
And every fair fair sometime declines,
by chance, or by the changing course of untrimmed nature;
Yes, yes, we get it: everything in nature fades away. Come back to that “you” person.
But your eternal summer will not fade
Wow! And the “you” is emphasized! We knew Shakespeare would come eventually!
Nor lose possession of that beautiful you ow’st,
We like where this is going.
Not even death will boast that you wander in its shadow,
Well well. keep coming back!
when in eternal lines to time you grow;
Uh oh, we have ourselves a conditional. So let’s get this straight: the whole business of not fading, getting ugly, or dying depends on growing up on eternal lines in time? And what does that mean? And please don’t tell us it has anything to do with the fact that sonnets 1-17 are also known as the “procreation sonnets.” If Shakespeare is saying that the best way to bottle up all that good looks is by creating genetic bloodlines, we’ll go ahead and reject that second quote.
As long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
Another conditional?!? Okay, okay: “as long as men can breathe or eyes can see” is actually a decent amount of time, so we’ll let that slide.
So live this, and this gives you life.
In the end! – an emphasized “you”! But hold the phone: whatIs it giving you life? some nameless “East”?? Is Shakespeare referring to those timeless lines? To give him some credit, he probably knows enough about grammar to use the pronoun “these” when he talks about something in the plural. Dare we ask… if “this” is the sonnet itself? Could Shakespeare be suggesting that appearing in his work immortalises you? Are these eternal lines the lines of the sonnet itself? Is the final you emphasized just because it is the end result of Shakespeare’s amazing and immortalizing poetic skills?
Probably. After all, being Shakespeare is like being an Elizabethan rock star: you can bully roadies, sleep with groupies, trash hotel rooms, and still be the world’s favorite. And let’s face it: if you went down in history as the Bard, you’d probably swear by your own poetry, too.
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