The suddenly strident foliage inspires me to post Shakespeare’s sonnet 18, ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’, before it’s too late – it almost is. Looking again at these famous lines, I am struck afresh by the compactness, the shape, the altogether pleasing completeness of a Shakespearean sonnet. Forgive me if you know something about the sonnet form, as I attempt to explain why I like it so.
First of all, you know where you are with a sonnet. It’s fourteen lines long. It always is. And each line has ten syllables. OK – not quite always, but pretty near. And those ten syllables divide into five pairs – an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. (For an illustration of this pattern, think of the word today. When you say, ‘today’, the first bit – to – is much quieter, quicker, far less significant than the second bit – day.) This creates a gentle, background regularity – like clematis trellis – often inconspicuous but always present. This regular structure is extended – in 3D, as it were – by the way the lines rhyme. Alternate lines rhyme in three groups of four and then the last two lines rhyme with each other. This wonderful, interlocking construction – strong and largely invisible – supports some of Shakespeare’s most exquisite poetry. What is extraordinary is the way Shakespeare blends the form of the poetry with the images he creates to manipulate the reader’s response. In this sonnet, the poet seems to compliment his lover’s beauty. Lovelier than a summer’s day – sounds good to me. And yet, the poet reminds the reader, summer is short and sweet, new growth can be damaged by bad weather. Still, the poet seems to insist, this is a fair comparison, as everything beautiful eventually fades and passes – just as this gorgeous youth will. But, never fear: the lover’s beauty, immortalised in this verse, will live forever. So is the poet is not so much paying homage to his lover’s beauty as boasting about his own poetic powers? See what you think.
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 dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course untrimmed.
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st,
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
Another masterclass in persuasion is sonnet 49. The poet appears, at first, to be imploring his younger lover to forget him when he dies. But is this really his message? How would the lover feel, reading this verse, remembering the hand that writ it?
No longer mourn for me when I am dead
Than you shall hear the surly sullen bell
Give warning to the world that I am fled
From this vile world with vilest worms to dwell;
Nay, if you read this line, remember not
The hand that writ it; for I love you so,
That I in your sweet thoughts would be forgot
If thinking on me then should make you woe.
O if, I say, you look upon this verse
When I perhaps compounded am with clay,
Do not so much as my poor name rehearse,
But let your love even with my life decay;
Lest the wise world should look into your moan,
And mock you with me after I am gone.