Shall I compare thee to a Summer

Analysis of ‘Shall I compare thee to a Summer’s Day’ by William Shakespeare

Background

Critics have found Shakespeare’s sonnets to be tantalizingly mysterious. Nothing is known about the Mr. W.H. to whom the sonnets were dedicated. These have been conjectures aplenty but nothing definite or final is known. All 154 sonnets have an autobiographical feel about them but they are certainly not autobiography. Shakespeare explores different kinds of love in these poems. This particular sonnet is one of the best known in the English language. Better things have been written, by Shakespeare too, but the beauty and simplicity of the praise given to the beloved give it pride of place amongst English poetry.

Metaphorical inference

Comparing his friend to a summer’s day, the poet argues that that his friend’s personality is superior to it in many ways. Summer can be ruinous on the buds that are put forth in May, with summer itself having too short a life. On the contrary, the friend’s good looks and life are beyond the grasp of death. It is this sonnet that shall make him live as long as mankind itself.

Summary

The central idea of the poem is that the poet’s friend is fairer than the fairest summer’s day. This is because summer is too unpredictable: It could turn blustery with winds ruining the buds which come forth in May. Summer could also turn too hot for comfort or too cold. The season could also be dull without the golden sunshine that is expected in summer. On the contrary, the friend is like an eternal summer, with his glowing countenance unblemished. He shall remain beyond the grasp of death. He shall last as long as mankind itself. It is this sonnet of the poet that shall ensure this.

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Analysis

Of the 126 sonnets addressed to Mr. W.H., this one is the most famous. The sonnet, which is in the classic English sonnet format with three rhyming quatrains followed by a couplet, opens with a question. Most lines end in some kind of a punctuation showing the meaning to be complete, if not wholly, definitely partially. While the poet compares his friend to summer, the friend comes off better in all counts. Several problems can befall summer: the tender buds of May can be ruined by the keen winds that can mar summer, summer itself can be too short and sometimes, summer can be too hot. There are times when instead of warm golden sunshine there just jaundiced dull light. Nature is unpredictable and summer may not live up to its name. On the contrary, the poet’s friend’s fair countenance will last forever. Never can it be blemished with even death not being able to extend its cold grasp on to it. What grants it eternal life, will be this sonnet.

Overall impression

This sonnet is perhaps Shakespeare’s greatest love poem. In it, he explores the ability of his sonnet to bestow immortality on his subject. Beginning on a low-key note, the poet builds up the tempo to declare that his friend is a perfect being, more perfect than summer itself.