Writers Ink continues our series of blogs on poetry: sharing & examining, analyzing & interpreting.
February is Love, and poetry is my particular love. ~ M.A. Lee
While I love experimental poetry–free verse and the like, carefully crafted pure verse can amaze. The sonnet with its required length of 14 lines, rhyme scheme and meter length, all written to propose and answer a question, is just one example of poetic skills.
Llike the villanelle and other required structural poems, the sonnet exhibits a poet’s fluency with words and deftness with structure. The majority are actually poetic arguments, as the poet presents a conflicting problem and works to a solution.
Several poets have exceptional skill with the sonnet form:
- Any sonnet by Edna St. Vincent Millay but especially “Time Does not Bring Relief, You all Have Lied”
- Robert Frost’s “Once by the Pacific” which alludes to William Blake’s “The Ancient of Days”
- Elizabeth Bishop’s “Sonnet”
- Octavio Paz’s “The Street”
- and the master, William Shakespeare, especially his Sonnet 18, which serves as the focus for this blog.
In Sonnet 18, the persona’s love has asked the perennial question that contains a trap: “Do you think I’m pretty?”
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
The trap part of that question holds the following, waiting to sink the unwary: Do you love me because I’m pretty? Will you still love me when I lose my prettiness? What do you find my prettiest feature?
Shakespeare’s persona sidesteps the question with a question of his own: The prettiest thing in his mind would be a summer’s day: hot as love without burning up, clear of troubling clouds, no problems on the horizon, everything blooming and growing and fruiting.
And then he answers: you are better than a summer’s day, not just for its beauty but also for being “temperate”, moderate. Smart man: he just said her personality is as wonderful as her appearance.
The next two lines and the new two quatrains of the sonnet present evidence in support of the persona’s statement.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.
Clever, clever persona: Everyone loves May, the first true month of warm weather, filled flowers, lacking the April showers. Remember, though, that May still have lingering showers and the flowers won’t stand up to the bad weather . . . while Summer’s growth—and therefore their love—is strong enough to stand up to storms.
The problem with Summer, however—and the reason that she is better than a summer’s day—is that it never lasts long enough. The poem continues in the second quatrain to present additional problems with Summer. And he infers that she does not have any of those problems.
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.
A clever man appeals to his love’s intelligence as well as her emotions. He admits when things are not perfect—and then reminds that perfection is not what he wants because it’s not real.
- Summer days get too hot (and he’s already called her “more temperate”).
- Clouds cover the sunshine, sometimes for days on end. (She, therefore, is never so dimmed.)
- Every fair wonderful things can never been constantly fair. At some point it will “decline”. No relationship, he suggests, is always perfect, whether a problem occurs through accidental chance or through an action we take by mistake.
The best time in the natural world are only temporary. She’s more than temporary to him.
So, his love says, “You love me. You think we’re going great. But what happens when we get older? Will you still love me? Or will you go after some other young pretty thing?”
“Ah, sweetheart,” he replies, “have you forgotten? I don’t love you because of your appearance alone. That may have attracted me, but your personality caught me.”
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st
“Will you love me when I’m gone? Or will you forget about me?”
Clever, clever man with your poem:
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade
When in eternal lines to time thou growest.
Death may have you, but I will always remember you. See, sweetheart, this poem will remind me even when I am in my decrepancy.
“No, sweetheart, look.” And he gives her a revelation in the poem’s closing couplet:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
Their love is immortalized. Now everyone will know, for all eternity, that he loves her for herself, her soul, not for any temporary consideration.
The English sonnet (or Shakespearean sonnet, if you prefer), is a simple three quatrain and one couplet structure. This poem maintains without much twisting the required ten syllables, but a strict iambic meter is not maintained—nor necessary.
Rhyme is not necessary to tie a poem together, but this one rocks not only an abab scheme but also four additional methods to “couple” them even more closely:
- Repetition >> summer, more, sometime (and yes, that is sometime, not sometimeS), fair, long, and life/lives.
- Alliteration >> “fair from fair”, chance / changing, long / lives
- Internal Rhyme >> “lines to time”
- Anaphora >> 3 lines that start with “and” (with two of those coupled) then a 4th that starts with “but”, 2 coupled lines starting with “nor”, and the last two lines coupled with “so long”.
Sonnet 18 is a lovely poem for lovers in a lasting relationship. Attraction may have drawn them together. Compatibility may have formed the relationship. Yet it’s devotion to the individual, our personality, that holds together the relationship through chance and changing times, through times better and worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.
Thank you for stopping by. Return on the 25th for the most beautiful love poem in the world.