Summer Breezes and Immortality

We’ve been enjoying some fabulous summer days here in Coastal Virginia. When I was sitting out on my back patio recently, the delightful weather brought to mind that most famous first line of Shakespeare’s most famous sonnet:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

So I looked up Sonnet 18. And here’s the thing about Shakespeare: there’s always more to his writing than one meets in the initial read.

First, here is the full text as taken from the 1609 Quarto Version and reproduced on shakespeares-sonnets.com :

Sonnet 18

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:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed,
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course untrimmed:
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st,
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Now, a few things I found to fascinate me in this sonnet, which those of you more familiar with The Bard’s works may already know:

1) Shakespearean scholars are fairly unanimous in thinking that this poem and, in fact, roughly the first two-thirds of the 152 sonnets in the 1609 Quarto are addressed to a young man by the poet (also a man–Shakespeare). One interpretation I read concluded that this was not particularly shocking on Shakespeare’s part, but rather, a representation of pure love, or love untainted by desire. Another interpretation identified the young man referred to in the sonnets as a rival poet who competes with Shakespeare for the favor of the “dark” lady addressed in the latter third of the poems.

2) This sonnet is possibly the most quoted love poem in the English language.

3) The real aim of the poem, as contained in the final couplet, is to point out that a man (or woman) can be made immortal and unchanged by time through the wonder of words written down. A kind of technological breakthrough of parchment and quill.

4) The 1609 Quarto Version was published by one Thomas Thorpe, who in an echo of our 21st century concerns about pirating of copyrighted material may have stolen this version to compile and publish it without Shakespeare’s consent. (Though this point was debated in the research I read on the 1609 printing.)

In exploring this most famous “Summer’s Day” sonnet, I have found a new favorite in the Sonnets of Shakespeare. Sonnet 141 has a sharp, dark texture but it still extols love, ever mysterious.

Sonnet 141

In faith I do not love thee with mine eyes, 
For they in thee a thousand errors note;
But ’tis my heart that loves what they despise,
Who, in despite of view, is pleased to dote.
Nor are mine ears with thy tongue’s tune delighted;
Nor tender feeling, to base touches prone,
Nor taste, nor smell, desire to be invited
To any sensual feast with thee alone:
But my five wits nor my five senses can
Dissuade one foolish heart from serving thee,
Who leaves unswayed the likeness of a man,
Thy proud heart’s slave and vassal wretch to be:
Only my plague thus far I count my gain,
That she that makes me sin awards me pain.

“The poet runs through a catalogue of the senses, to see what it is that attracts him to his mistress. In fact he finds nothing, and therefore concludes that it must be some perverseness in his heart that forces him to love her and to be her slave. His reward is that she gives him penances for the sin he is committing in loving her….There is therefore an element of parody in this sonnet of Shakespeare’s…For that reason it brings us down to earth with a bump, for it tears us away from the tortured conceits of the sonneteers, and perhaps from our own idealisations of the beings we love, and forces us to accept that the things we love often have an earthly and earthy beauty, much less than a divine one. For we also know that love is a power beyond rationality, and that it does not depend on the beloved being made of coral, or ivory, or rubies, but of flesh and blood with all its imperfections.” —shakespeares-sonnets.com

To that I say, “Yes. Oh, YES!”

Do you have a favorite sonnet or poem? Would you rather capture pure, untainted love or earthy, real love in your writing? Does writing something down make it immortal?

Seals and Crofts Summer Breeze from 1972

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