This is the first of the essays I did a couple days ago. This is the final draft that I submitted. If you want to my opinions on Sonnet 18 and Sonnet 116, read on!

“The Corruption of the Fair Youth”


William Shakespeare’s sonnets are set up into three themes which are organized by the characters addressed in them: the Fair Youth, the Dark Lady and the Rival Poet. What I would like to contend in this essay is that Shakespeare shows an often unrecognized growth within his Fair Youth sonnets that the majority of society does not acknowledge by lumping them into the same category.

Two of my favorite Shakespearian sonnets will be put on display in this analysis. Shakespeare’s sonnets “sonnet 18” and “sonnet 116”, while they are commonly referred to as definitive “Fair Youth” poems; show a growth within the genre which raises the question if they belong in the same category. The key thing to notice while comparing the two poems is how Shakespeare matures from one poem to another.

“Sonnet 18” is pop culture. It has infiltrated society by centuries of grade school repetitions and people’s personal takes set for stage or screen. Because this poem has been redone into so many mediums so many times, it is hard to believe that people have a view of the poem outside of what they saw in a movie or a television program. How “Sonnet 18” needs to be addressed, at least in terms of this essay, is through a lens of purely textual analysis. That, compared with a similar take on “Sonnet 116,” will allow us to see the type of personal growth Shakespeare makes throughout his sonnet writing.

The best way to tackle “Sonnet 18” is by breaking up the Quatrains and the Couplet. The first thing to look at is the opening stanza:

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: (18, 1-4)

The first thing to note is line one. It is a prompt. Looking at the sonnets in a bigger picture it is comprised into two sentences. Shakespeare asks us, and more reasonably, himself, if he shall compare his target to a summer’s day. Is it a writer’s exercise? Is he acting in sincerity – trying to figure out the sheer definition of the subject before him? Those questions are things hard to analyze without taking into some outside-of-the-text information and need more of a complete view of the poem to develop any context. But, as first lines go, it establishes quite the subject matter for the next 13 lines.

It sounds better when he is saying it and we are thinking about her, huh?

It sounds better when he is saying it and we are thinking about her, huh?

The second line gives us a visualization of who Shakespeare is encapsulating, regardless of the actual identity of the person. The subject is more lovely and more temperate than a summer’s day. What do we know about a summer’s day? It is fleeting – here today and gone tomorrow – and it is often associated with images of true beauty: flowers, animals, weather and the emotions one may feel staring at their loved one in the middle of all of these other images. So, if the subject is more lovely and more temperate, the subject must have the extended qualities of these days. Summer in a person would be a person full of flush life, eager to attack the fall of tomorrow but willing to bask in the sunshine of the day.

The last two lines of the quatrain are the beginning of Shakespeare’s observations on summer, which could be looked at as his views on the brevity of life. Regardless of who Shakespeare’s subject is, these two lines – and the entire second stanza, as we will see – tell us the qualities of summer. Line three tells us “Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,” which should be looked at as Shakespeare telling the subject that there will be times in the subject’s life when he or she will be shook, that he or she will experience some sort of upheaval that will disrupt the surface beauty of their “May,” which is the early months of their youth.

The last line of this section continues on that theme. “And Summer’s lease hath all too short a date:” is a line acknowledging that brevity we spoke of earlier. In terms of the structure of the poem, line four plays a bigger purpose in the poem. The colon indicates a list is coming. That simple mark of punctuation lets the reader know that he is about to build on that previous point – that summer’s lease is much more complicated and needs more attention than one line. Really, the colon is the first signal that the poem mirrors a seasonal quality. The spring is the birth of the ideas in quatrain one, the summer is the analysis of what the season is and isn’t in the second stanza, the fall is the turn of Shakespeare’s words – the shift from talking about summer to once again talking about the subject, and lastly the couplet – the shortest lined portion of the poem and the repetition of Shakespeare’s point – resembles Shakespeare’s winter, the ending of the poem and the ending of life.

The second quatrain of Sonnet 18, or Shakespeare’s list, as we defined it, talks about the qualities of summer:

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; (18, 5-8)

Line five, “Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,” is an observation on the heat of the summer sun and, more importantly, the heated course life can sometimes take. Our end goal, our desire for eternity in some sort of ethereal paradise can be reflected here or Shakespeare can be talking about the earthly passions between two people and how they can disrupt a life.

Line six furthers the qualities of summer with Shakespeare writing, “And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;”. The complexity of this conversation continues with the line being able to take on multiple meanings. His gold complexion dimmed, in its deeper meaning, refers to possible a misreading of the eye of heaven which distorts the true view of some sort of heavenly father that the speaker believes in. The other, more literal meaning attached to this line is often the account of the bad days of summer, which the next two lines get more in to explicating.

Much like lines three and four, lines seven and eight mark a longer thought and the transition into a new theme or, structurally, quatrain. The lines, “And every fair from fair sometime declines,/ By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d:” mark Shakespeare’s realization that life ends – whether it is by chance or because of some freak accident with nature. The two lines are really the most stark and real concepts of Shakespeare’s logic. I tend to think Shakespeare is introspective in these two lines, the list quality established at the beginning of the quatrain has rolled down a hill within his head so quickly that he is looking at the subject and silently screaming “you will die.” But Shakespeare is also very aware of that quality – which is why there is such a shift from the concept to the person between stanzas two and three. Is Shakespeare trying to be comforting? To let the subject know there is immortality outside of the heavens? Is this poem, in its simplest form, Shakespeare’s claim that he can make people live forever? I think so.

The third Stanza, or the turn as I refer to it, marks Shakespeare’s shift from the concepts back to the person. Shakespeare writes:

But thy eternal summer shall not fade

Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;

Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,

When in eternal lines to time thou growest: (18, 9-12)

In line nine some of the earlier claims that have been made are reinforced. The subject has an eternal summer which means they have a quality of beauty and grace that can’t be disrupted by time. But there is also a contradiction present. If we know every fair from fair sometime declines, as line seven asserts, why does Shakespeare, in line 10, make the proclamation that the subject will not lose the fair they own? Lines nine and 10 are examples of Shakespeare’s rhetoric building to his last point – the driving point which validates the claim Shakespeare has a maturity issue in these earlier sonnets.

Line 11, the first of the two line completion of Shakespeare’s “fall” portion in Sonnet 18, first reference Death – and it is Death with a capital D, as it is the person he is speaking of – being unable to brag that the subject doesn’t wander in his shade. If Shakespeare has said to the subject that they cannot die but has also claimed that everyone dies, what are we, the reader or the listener, to make of this? That question is answered in line 12.

In line 12 Shakespeare ends his proclamation to the subject that they shall be immortalized in this moment by saying, “When in eternal lines to time though growest:”. Before looking at the implications of this line, let’s be sure to see how this clarifies the contradiction Shakespeare was working with in the previous two quatrains. Shakespeare is telling the subject that yes, they will die, but they will always remain how they are in this instant because he will immortalize their beauty in eternal lines to time. Shakespeare is saying to the speaker, you will not grow old because I will write how you are for the world to read centuries later.

Now there are two ways to look at that revelation. We can look at it with a romantic, gothic lens and say that it is beautiful. Shakespeare is defying the gods for the subject and there is something beautiful in knowing that even after the subject’s physical death, they will live forever in text. Then, and for the purposes of this text I stress this is the most important part, there is the idea that Shakespeare is being insanely arrogant. In a pre-reformation society to put in print that the writer believes they can make someone immortal – this would be a fairly grandiose statement.

The poem finishes, as most Elizabethan sonnets do, with the rhyming couplet. Shakespeare writes:

“So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, So long lives this and this gives life to thee.” (18, 13-14).

The couplet, in this case, reinforces line 12. Shakespeare is standing in front of the subject and building off of the eternal lines to time point: as long as people are around to read this poem your beauty won’t die.

This first sonnet, what is the most recognizable “Fair Youth” sonnet, is arguably Shakespeare’s most one-sidedly read. For everything Shakespeare promises the subject he is only able to deliver on those promises based on the ability of his writing. From the very beginning of the sonnet we get that this is an exercise Shakespeare is doing but it isn’t until the last three lines that we know why he is doing it. “Sonnet 18,” while easily associated with ideals of true love and everlasting beauty, is clearly an example of Shakespeare boasting his ability to make a person immortal.

98 sonnets later Shakespeare decided to put pen to paper for “Sonnet 116.” The sonnet moves from the idea of analyzing one’s beauty to delving deeper into how those in a union should treat each other or, essentially, how they should love:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds

Admit impediments. Love is not love

Which alters when it alteration finds,

Or bends with the remover to remove: (116, 1-4)

The first quatrain of Sonnet 116 shares some similarities with 18 but it is vastly different. While in both poems Shakespeare is present in the first line, there is a big difference in how those lines are formatted. In 18, Shakespeare ends the thought in line one which creates a clear concise idea that doesn’t impede on the rhythm of any of the other lines. In 116 the first sentence ends in the middle of line two after the sixth syllable with a period. The period is a use of enjambment and creates a caesura, forcing us to pause between impediments and love.

The first sentence shows a growth in maturity in Shakespeare. If he had ended the thought within the first line he would have been structurally committing to the idea that love is order, that it stays in line with the alterations and follows the path of the river. Ending it in the middle of the second line shows that love is none of those things. Ending it in the middle of the line breaks up the order of the rhythm and allows him to comment on all of the other things he is about to say. That difference between 18 and 116 shows an increase in both Shakespeare’s personal maturity and his growth as a writer.

The second portion of line two all the way to the end of line four, is Shakespeare’s declaration on what Love is not.  Shakespeare writes that “Love is not love/ which alters when it alteration finds,/ or bends with the remover to remove:” because he needs to establish what Love isn’t so he can do two quatrains on the qualities that love possesses.

Now it is important, before we go any further, to address to whom Shakespeare is addressing this poem. Most people hone in on the “true minds” present in line one but I think that is too simple to go with. Shakespeare’s “true minds” within Sonnet 116 are more conceptual ideas than actual physical people. Thinking of these people present rather than as ideas is a bit misleading because the people are never really addressed.

The second quatrain marks a shift. Shakespeare goes from what love is not to every quality love possesses. Shakespeare writes:

O no! it is an ever-fixed mark

That looks on tempests and is never shaken;

It is the star to every wandering bark,

Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken. (116, 5-8).

There is another use of enjambment in line five that creates the same caesura pause. In addition to the repetition of those devices we also see a difference in Shakespeare from 18 to 116. Sonnet 18 Shakespeare would not write “O no!” because writing that within the context of the poem highlights the poet’s inability to move seamlessly from one point to the next. The “O no!” is Shakespeare staying in the previous quatrain but realizing he has to move one.

The rest of the quatrain really is a series of Shakespeare setting up the definition of love, equating it to a mark that can’t be shaken. It’s fairly simplistic, Love is a mark that we all have an unknown quality within us that allows us to ascertain it.

The third quatrain marks an unexpected shift that delves into another area of love. Shakespeare writes:

Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks

Within his bending sickle’s compass come:

Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,

But bears it out even to the edge of doom. (116, 9-12)

The last quatrain deals with the qualities of love as they relate to time. Shakespeare is asserting that Love, real love, doesn’t end when people get old or lose their beauty. Much like the points of love being an ever-fixed mark, Shakespeare adds time into the equation to further explain that absolutely nothing can break Love’s mark.

The couplet, as it relates to the argument of mature growth between 18 and 116, is the only piece of text that can be argued Shakespeare is still writing for his own personal satisfaction. Shakespeare writes:

“If this be error and upon me proved, I never writ, nor no man ever loved.” (116, 13-14).

The focus on the couplet is the last line. Shakespeare prefaces the last line by saying if everything he just said his error and upon him proved and then asserts his claim. But what is interesting about the last line is how Shakespeare says “I never writ, nor no man ever loved.” Among all the things we have proven in regards to Shakespeare’s growth as a writer and a man between 18 and 116, does “I never writ,” disrupt his growth?

I don’t think it does. If that was the point Shakespeare wanted us to focus on he would have ended with it. Instead, he wrote “nor no man ever loved.” Ending it with that makes it a bigger claim and doesn’t feel like such an exercise in ability.

While Shakespeare doesn’t have a big shift in themes between “Sonnet 18” and “Sonnet 116,” there is a clear shift in the style Shakespeare uses in the two poems. In “Sonnet 18” Shakespeare is boasting, claiming he has the powers to cheat death and make a person immortal – and really he thinks he is giving their life more meaning by using them in his lines (think about how the word “grow’st” impacts the poem.).But all of that shifts in 116. Shakespeare comes out of the gates and says he does not want to admit impediments. He is present, in that poem, to explain what love is regardless of the effect it will have on him, the people he talks to, or any thing else. I think that is big and it is worthy to be recognized. The poems should be split into more definitive categories to track the growth of the bard from Stratford upon Avon.



Works Cited

  1. William Shakespeare, “Sonnet 18,” 2/4/2010. WEB. 5/3/2013.
  2. William Shakespeare, “Sonnet 116,” 2/27/2010. WEB. 5/3/2013.

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