Pam Webb

a writer's journey as a reader

Bard Bits: Sonnet 18 (and then some)


Think of sonnets and Shakespeare naturally comes to mind. He wrote more sonnets (154) than he did plays (37). Granted, plays are more involved in writing effort, then again, sonnets are so, so absolutely soul bearing and that involves effort in its own way. Shakespeare most certainly laid bare his feelings in his sonnets. He also set tongues wagging with speculation as to who he addressed the sonnets.

Image: Ghost Cities (discusses the Dark Lady)

A bit of sonnet background–

In Shakespeare’s day the sonnet was an art form that young gentlemen tried to perfect as a means of showing off their commitment and wit. Wit meaning intelligent use of language. The format is challenging. Each line must have ten syllables with an iambic pentameter of unstressed/stressed beat. The rhythm sounded like one’s heartbeat: da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM. Shakespeare probably won all the sonnet comps in his day. He was good. Really good at sonnets. He still is considered the best.

Image: No Sweat Shakespeare

It’s thought Shakespeare wrote in iambic pentameter because he was sharing his heart with his audience (aww…). Another thought is that it is easier to remember Shakespeare’s words (his plays employ this meter as well) since the heartbeat is a natural part of being human, like breathing. Speech is supposedly in iambic pentameter–not sure if that applies to just the English language or all languages. It would be interesting to try scanning the meter on a French or perhaps a German conversation.

The English or Shakespearean sonnet (we won’t delve into the Italian sonnet which is credited to Petrarch from whom Shakespeare borrowed and revised his sonnet form) has fourteen lines: three quatrains and a couplet. The first part of the English sonnet presents a problem, perhaps how does one find the ultimate comparison when describing a favored personage? The latter half is an epiphany, indicated by a BUT, or a YET. Then the couplet provides a witty or profound statement in which the audience says: “That Shakespeare. He sure has a way with words.”

Shakespeare’s most popular sonnet (or seems to win all the popular votes) is Sonnet 18. The writer is trying to find a unique and memorable way to express how special the subject is. Nothing seems to work. Sunny summer days can end up too hot. And summer does eventually end. The epiphany? The writer figures out how the personage will always be remembered and will never die. Never die? How is that possible? This is where we say: “Oh that Shakespeare. He absolutely has a way with words.”

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,

So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

That “gotcha” ending is what makes Shakespeare so memorable.

After sharing the poem with my students I would pause and let the ending sink in. Looks of comprehending what Shakespeare just did to create the ultimate remembrance appears. Well, most got it. Okay, they might have not be have been as impressed as me, but some of them did get it. That couplet showed how 400 years later people are still remembering this person that Shakespeare wanted us to remember.

And then I would ruin it all by saying Shakespeare was supposedly writing to a young gentleman, not to his wife or an admired lady. That post is for another time.

Sonnet 18: Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
by 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 ow’st;

Nor shall death brag thou wander’st 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.

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