Sonnet, Interpretation

The Interpretation of a Sonnet

William Shakespeare – Sonnet No. 18

1. Comprehension: (Feststellung der Textsorte und des Themas)
The poem is concerned with eternal beauty, the beauty of the person addressed by the lyrical I. It does not become fully evident whether the situation underlying the poem is a conversation between two people, or whether it is a moment of solitary reflection expressed in an interior monologue. The lyrical I adores the person he has in mind; the relationship suggested between them might be that of a lover and the beautiful woman he has fallen in love with.

2. Line of argument: (Untersuchung des Textaufbaus)
The poem is a sonnet which falls into three quatrains and a rhyming couplet at the end. It has iambic pentameter lines with alternating rhyme. The line of argument corresponds to the structure produced by the rhyme scheme of the poem.

 1Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
 2Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
 3Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
 4And summer's lease hath all too short a date.

In the first quatrain the sonnet opens with a rhetorical question which serves a double function: it invites the reader to follow the speaker's train of thought, and it presents the guiding idea of the poem. The initial question introduces the comparison of the beautiful person to “a summer's day”; this is the thesis laid open to discussion in the poem.
The speaker's immediate response in the first quatrain is to reject the thesis. The person's outward beauty (“more lovely”) and inward even-mindedness (“more temperate”) form a lasting harmony, which “a summer's day” will never be able to match. Its beauty is likely to be upset by “rough winds”, and even the whole season of summer tends to be short.

 5Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
 6And often is his gold complexion dimmed
 7And every fair from fair sometime declines,
 8By chance, or nature's changing course, untrimmed;

The second quatrain contains further examples revealing the short-lived beauty of summer. There is no guarantee of a clear summer sky (“often is his gold complexion dimmed”), and the heat of the sun may be harmful to nature (“Sometimes too hot the eye of heaven shines”). In lines 7 to 8 the speaker arrives at the general conclusion that everything is bound to change and decline, either due to an untimely event of “chance”, or due to the course of nature.

 9But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
 10Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st,
 11Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
 12When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st.
 13 So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
 14 So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

This conclusion contrasts sharply with the idea suggested in the third quatrain, which forms the turning point of the poem; the speaker claims that, unlike summer's beauty, the height of a person's beauty can be immortalized in some way, by describing it in “eternal lines”. In the final couplet the lyrical I affirms that lines written, poems, are able to overcome the transitory nature of earthly things.

3. Language and intention: (Sprachanalyse, Absicht und Wirkung)
The most striking stylistic devices used in this sonnet are comparison and contrast, sentence structure, repetition, metaphor and personification.

  • The comparison which runs throughout the poem is that of a person's beauty to a “summer's day”. Although the speaker rejects many characteristics associated with summer in the first two quatrains, we may conclude that the season of “summer” has been intentionally chosen to signify maturity of character and the ripeness of the person's outward beauty. The poet is talking about a person in the prime of life.
  • In line 9 the idea of summer representing a period in one's life is extended into the metaphor of “thy eternal summer” that can be kept alive in poetry, thus giving coherence to the poem.
  • The contrast between brevity and eternity is established around the theme of time. It is first introduced in the contract-metaphor of line 4: a contract (“lease”) stands for the duration of summer's stay. Just as summer is bound to be followed by autumn, the terms of a contract are bound to run out after a fixed period of time.
  • Lines 5 and 6 display a personification of the summer sky; the atmosphere surrounding earth is given features of human beauty, so as to continue the theme of beauty.
  • The theme of time is resumed in lines 7 and 8, which allude to the decline and loss of beauty that accompany old age. The participle “untrimmed”, meaning “being robbed of one's ornament or beautiful features”, is an example of the clothes-imagery frequently used at Shakespeare's time.
  • The third quatrain turns towards the eternity aspect of time. It is signalized by the repetition of the adjective “eternal”. The introductory “But” and the syntactical parallelism of lines 10 to 11 underline the speaker's determination to overcome the restrictions of time. “Death”, personified in line 11, will be given no power over the addressed person's life. Instead, his or her beauty will stay alive and develop as the poem is read by a changing audience (line 12). In the third quatrain, the alternating rhyme underlines the contrast between the word pairs “fade/shade” and “ow'st/grow'st”, which are related to the conflicting ideas of the poem.
  • The concluding couplet forms the climax of the sonnet. It expresses in hyperbole, emphasized by syntactical parallelism, the poet's firm belief, that eternal life will be given to beauty if it is put into the form of a poem. The different rhythm used in the couplet adds further emphasis to the final statement.

On the whole, the sonnet is built on the paradox that unlike natural beauty, beauty in poetry is free from change and decay.

4. Evaluation
Sonnet No. 18 is one of Shakespeare's best-known and most beautiful sonnets. Its language, even if some words sound a bit strange to modern ears, is always clear and to the point. Its imagery is able to appeal to the reader's imagination. Its structure is simple but well-built, gathering emphasis for the conclusion in the rhyming couplet.
Some literary critics have claimed that in this sonnet Shakespeare does not merely refer to the relationship between a man and the woman he loves, but that the deeper meaning of the sonnet refers to the relationship between the poet and poetry, personified by a beautiful woman. Enough evidence is to be found in the poem to support this approach.

5. Aufgabentypen, die alternativ zu Evaluation gestellt werden können:

 Einordnung in den Entstehungshintergrund des Gedichtes, z. B.:
 Which characteristics of a Renaissance poem does Sonnet No. 18 display?
 Persönliche Stellungnahme, z.B.:
 Does the final statement of the poem hold valid for art and literature in our time?
 What is your opinion on the effects of time on love?
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