Shakespeare Sunday: Poet Claims, “Yes I Am That Good.”

Sonnet 18

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 was always a lot of fun to work with in the classroom because students want to view it strictly as a love poem and because so much of the poem turns on the single word “this” in the very last line.  In case you’ve forgotten all of your Shakespearean sonnets, here it is:

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 dimm’d;

And every fair from fair sometime declines,

By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;

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.

Easy to see why it is looked at as a love poem, yes?  I even found it listed by one website as a poem suitable for Valentine’s Day, and for the first eight lines, I could not agree more.  The poet finds his loved one more beautiful than a summer day, “more lovely and more temperate.”  After all, a summer’s day can have “rough winds” and can be too hot or perhaps obscured by clouds.  The poet recognizes that “summer’s lease has all too short a date” and as all things in nature “every fair from fair sometimes declines.”  All things natural pass through their time of youth and beauty, decline and eventually die, a theme Shakespeare returns to time and again.

But line 9 surprises us.  If all things natural (including his lover’s beauty) decline, how can he say that “thy eternal summer shall not fade”?  He spends three more lines declaring that her beauty is immune from time’s ravages or the “shade” of death.

How so?  The final couplet is the poet’s tribute to himself.  He has given her immortality because  “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see” they will be able to read his poem, the poem which has frozen her beauty in time. He assures her that “So long lives this (his poem), and this (his poem) gives life to thee.

Trying to figure out those last two lines used to drive my students crazy which was, of course, another reason I loved this poem.

Have a wonderful Sunday.  Check in later this week for some thoughts on Orwell’s 1984, and it’s also time to check in on how things are going with Surviving the Trump Apocalypse.  Cheers!

Shakespeare Sunday: Smooth Talker

R: If I profane with my unworthiest hand

This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this:

My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand

To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.

J:  Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,

Which mannerly devotion shows in this;

For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,

And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.

R:  Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?

J:  Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.

R:  O! then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do;

They pray, grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.

J:  Saints do not move, thou grant for prayer’s sake.

R:   Then move not, while my prayer’s effect I take.

Welcome to the weekly literary nerd edition of “Retired, Not Dead”!

Most of you will recognize this as the very first words exchanged between Shakespeare’s “star-crossed” lovers from maybe his most well-known tragedy, “Juliet.”

OK, it’s actually known as “Romeo and Juliet” but if you’ve read the play, you know that this is really Juliet’s story.  Romeo is pretty much an accessory.  Juliet gets the great speeches, the deepest conflict, and the most achingly perfect death.

However, in the passage above, Romeo does have his moments.  It took my faithful poetry anthology Sound and Sense (Arp–9th edition) to point out to me that this lovely exchange, when lifted from the play, is actually a sonnet written as dialogue.

Romeo has been struck with the lightning bolt of love when he sees Juliet for the first time, as I was when I first saw Olivia Hussey playing Juliet in the 1968 film.  I  thought it was cruel for Franco Zeffirelli to unleash this 15-year-old beauty on my 15-year-old self when I first saw the film.

OK, the dialogue.  The beauty of Romeo’s appeal to Juliet for a kiss is that he frames himself (his lips, rather) as “pilgrims” approaching a “shrine” and then continues to work the worshipful metaphor with references to “saints,” “devotion, and “prayer.”  Juliet plays along as she tries to chastely and gently deflect his desire for a kiss.

Thankfully for Romeo, her resistance only lasts for fourteen lines of poetry before she allows his reverent kiss.

Ah, young love in iambic pentameter.  It doesn’t get any better than that!  Happy Sunday, everyone!