William Shakespeare's Sonnet Eighteen is arguably one of the most eloquent passages of poetry in the English language. As the most famous sonnet of Britain's greatest writer, it is also the most studied and well-known poem in the English speaking world.
The sonnet first appeared in a 1609 collection of Shakespeare's works called a Quarto. It was the eighteenth in a group of one hundred twenty-six sonnets called the Fair Youth Series. The first seventeen sonnets were called the Procreation Sonnets because they dealt with the subject of mortality in the context of the poet addressing a young man and arguing that he should find a wife and produce children. Many experts agree that although Sonnet Eighteen departs from the procreation theme, the poet continues to address the same young man. However, modern readers generally interpret the poem from a modern perspective and assume that the author is addressing and romantically pursuing a young woman.
Like the Procreation Sonnets, Sonnet Eighteen deals with issues of mortality. The writer is no longer advocating for marriage and birth, but metaphorically suggests that the subject will remain forever youthful by virtue of being immortalised within the sonnet. The poem uses double meaning and extensive metaphor to tell a greater story than most writers would be able to accomplish within the length limitations of a fourteen line sonnet. The poem begins by asking "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day", a question that flatters just by being asked. Everyone loves a summer day. It implies that the subject is so great that he approaches the splendor of a summer's day. But then in the second line, Shakespeare gives us a twist. The man is not almost as good as a summer's day. He is even better -- more lovely, and more temperate.
Summer days are not good enough to compare to the subject. Shakespeare goes on to reinforce this by listing the flaws of summer. The season has brutish rough winds to shake the darling buds of May. And in the next line, summer is too short and therefore has an impending mortality in contrast the immortality granted to the young subject preserved in the poem.
The second quatrain continues to discuss the flaws of summer as compared to the beauty of youth. The sun, referred to as "the eye of heaven shines", is too hot. Then it is too cold or covered by clouds, with its "gold complexion dimmed". The writer goes on to explain that not just the sun, but everything under it becomes diminished. Nature and luck take their toll on anything of beauty or value.
The third quatrain returns to the subject, and his immortal youth. Unlike the short leased real summer, the man's youth is called an eternal summer and his shall not end. Contrasting the summer of the preceding quatrain, the youth's summer is idealised and will not fade; the fairness of the youth remains fair and undiminished. By the third line, the subject is so ensured of his immortality that Death has no bragging rights. By the last line of the quatrain, Shakespeare winks at the reader and explains that the young man's beauty is immortalised because it will forever exist within the lines of the poem.
The final couplet of the sonnet adds, perhaps arrogantly, the emphasis that "so long as men can breathe or eyes can see", in other words, as long as humanity exists, the sonnet will continue to be read by people and continue to give life to the poem's subject.