This poem belongs to a large volume (154 in all) of sonnets that were published in 1609 under the name SHAKE-SPEARES SONNETS. They are divided into four “thematic” sections with the Sonnet 18 being the first of the group of 108 sonnets addressed to a young man, expressing his love for him.
The poem is written in the form of English/Shakespearean sonnet containing 3 quatrains and concluding couplet. The rhyming scheme is conventional to the form – ababcdcdefefgg (perfect, masculine rhyme); similarly the metre is the most used one in English poetry – iambic pentameter.
The poet starts with a rhetorical question from which we can straight away deduct what will follow. The author is going to compare his beloved - and as stated above, majority of critics agree that the subject of the poem is a young man – to the summer day. Nevertheless, reading the poem separately and not knowing anything about the contexts, one could very easily presume that the person adored is a woman. There is nothing in the text to suggest otherwise.
The youth is praised not through finding similarities between his beauty and the beauty of a sunny summer day, but through contrasting him against it. The lines 2 and 3 are very striking, as the image of contrast is achieved by using several techniques. Firstly, the meaning: lovely, temperate X rough winds, shake; secondly, the sound effect of those words - using onomatopoeia and sibilance in the third line.
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
The lines five and six also employ the contrasting parallelism (shines X dimmed), which then develop into parallelism of identity (gold complexion, fair; dimmed, declines). The lines 7 and 8 calms down the tension that was created by the contrasts, which makes the following three lines of antithesis yet more striking:
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,
The imagery is quite simple and concrete using the metaphor of “the eye of heaven” to picture sun; the youth will become embodiment of “eternal summer”. Also the death is conventionally personified.
The rhythm of the sonnet is very regular with sense of continuity and flow that are not distorted by any enjambements. Each line is devoted to a single statement. Also the verse is very melodic. Both the regularity and melodious sound is achieved through use of internal rhymes and assonance.
Anaphora of the words And, Nor helps to create the gradation which reach its climax in the lines 9, 10, 11. The following line is a complete turnabout preparing us further for the statement of the final couplet. Suddenly, the centre of attention is changed from the person who was adored to the one that adored – to the poet himself. Thus a completely new theme has emerged and is further expanded by the couplet:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
so long lives this, and this gives life to the.
After all the elaboration and praise of the beloved, we learn, that it is not the merit of the youth’s beauty that his “eternal summer shall not fade”, and the Death shall not “brag thou wand’rest in his shade”. In fact, if it was not for the poet and his verses, the young man would be one of the “fair” that “declines”.
When we look at the last two line of the sonnet, we sense the emphasis on the conditional existence of men and the art through the word repetition of “so long” (anaphora). The caesura in the line 14 gives an opportunity for us to pause and think; it also emphasises the word “this” and the conditionality of the eternal life and beauty of the beloved.
We see that this sonnet is not only a love poem, but that it also poses questions about the nature of poetry and its qualities. Furthermore, it makes us think about the relationship between the existence of mankind and the existence of art in general. “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see” implies that only existence is not sufficient for the art to survive; it can be eternal only if there are people who “can see”, who can appreciate it and take care of it.