Poetry

Immortality and Mortality in Shakespeare’s 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 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.

Intro

I wrote this analysis for my Shakespeare class at Grove City College. I just have to say, looking back at these sonnets and what I said about them, all I can think is that Shakespeare sounds very gay. Do you think so? Feel free to comment.

Analysis

In Sonnet 18, Shakespeare is addressing the young man whose beauty he praises for most of his sonnets. He compares this beautiful young man to a summer day and finds him superior. “Thou art more lovely and more temperate” the speaker claims, setting up a series of arguments in the young man’s favor in an extended metaphor (2). The speaker goes on to list ways in which a summer day may not be perfect, such as when “Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,” and when “too hot the eye of heaven shines” (3, 5). This is set up in contrast to the beautiful young man, who is “more temperate” and thus untroubled by roughness or anger that may make him less attractive to the speaker. Even though the sun’s “gold complexion” is often covered, or “dimmed,” the young man’s face is never clouded (6). In this fashion, the poem dramatizes the contrast between a beloved man and a bright summer day, between immortality and mortality.

The poet goes on to say that even what is “fair” about a summer’s day will eventually decline, such as it does when the seasons change to autumn (7). Shakespeare’s usage of the word “every” in “every fair from fair sometimes declines” suggests that this is a universal rule, and is applicable, as a result, to everything with few exceptions (7). The next line, “By chance or nature’s changing course untrimmed,” is an example of enjambment since it is a continuation of the preceding line. This is used to provide emphasis on each separate thought while linking the ideas in a single sentence and is the only example of enjambment since every other line ends in some form of punctuation. Shakespeare’s usage of punctuation forces the reader to dwell on lines momentarily, making his message more powerful and measured. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “untrimmed” in the enjambed line means “to deprive of trimness or elegance; to strip of ornament” (1). Sometimes what is “fair” falls by chance, struck down by fate (7) Other times it may be just the result of nature running its course.

The next line promises the young man that his beauty will not be short-lived like that of a summer’s day: “But thy eternal summer shall not fade” (9). At this line begins the volta of the poem, revealing the form to be of the octet and sestet format. This is the first of Shakespeare’s sonnets that is not concerned with procreation, admitting that the beloved young man may not need a son in order to preserve his beauty for future generations. Instead, he will be immortalized in the poetry of Shakespeare. The speaker of the poem claims that this poetry will live on as long as men breathe, and as a result, the beauty of the young man will live on in some small way long past his actual death.

Works Cited

“untrim, v.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, December 2019, www.oed.com/view/Entry/219113. Accessed 31 January 2020.

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Poetry

Superficiality and Profundity in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 91

Some glory in their birth, some in their skill,
Some in their wealth, some in their body’s force,
Some in their garments, though new-fangled ill;
Some in their hawks and hounds, some in their horse;
And every humour hath his adjunct pleasure,
Wherein it finds a joy above the rest:
But these particulars are not my measure;
All these I better in one general best.
Thy love is better than high birth to me,
Richer than wealth, prouder than garments’ cost,
Of more delight than hawks or horses be;
And having thee, of all men’s pride I boast:
   Wretched in this alone, that thou may’st take
   All this away, and me most wretched make.

Intro

This is another poem explication I did for a Shakespeare class. Once again, Shakespeare is sounding very gay in this poem. I am honestly still learning how to read poetry well, so I appreciated how much more straightforward this one was than some of his other poems.

Analysis

In this poem, the speaker addresses the same beloved young man that is referred to for the first one hundred twenty-six sonnets. The poem is structured using anaphora and parallelism, meaning that each line begins in the same way for the first four lines. This technique creates a crescendo with increasing momentum as the reader continues down through the lines. The sonnet is written in iambic pentameter, with a rhyme scheme of abab cdcd efef gg. The format of the poem consists of three quatrains and one couplet. The poem sets up a dramatic contrast between the superficiality of wealth and the depth of the speaker’s love for his beloved.

 “Some glory in their birth, some in their skill” the speaker explains, beginning a long list of what are often considered the most valuable attributes and gifts one could have in the world, including noble birth, skills, wealth, physical wellbeing, and possessions (1). He continues to say “And every humour hath his adjunct pleasure,” referring to the medical theory of the four humours that was widespread during Shakespeare’s time (5). The humours refer to four fluids thought to control the wellness of the body. These fluids are blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile, which directly influence a person’s health as well as their temperament. For example, someone with an excess of yellow bile would be choleric, or chronically angry. The speaker of the poem is claiming that every person of every kind of temperament has something that is pleasing to them above all other things.

For the speaker, his greatest joy does not come from noble birth, wealth, or any of the aforementioned gifts of this world. Instead, he claims that “these particulars are not my measure,” since he does not use them to gauge his own happiness (7). “All these I better in one general best,” the speaker boasts, revealing that his possession outranks those of the worldly others he has mentioned (8). What he possesses is the love of his beloved, which he could not do without—this to him is better than riches. Unlike most men, who have much and thus are afraid of much, the speaker of the poem only fears one possibility. This possibility is that the young man may make the speaker “wretched” by withdrawing his love for the speaker. The speaker ends on this thought.

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Poetry

Can Virtue Exist Without Vice?: William Blake’s “The Human Abstract”

Pity would be no more,
If we did not make somebody Poor:
And Mercy no more could be,
If all were as happy as we;

And mutual fear brings peace;
Till the selfish loves increase.
Then Cruelty knits a snare,
And spreads his baits with care.

He sits down with holy fears,
And waters the ground with tears:
Then Humility takes its root
Underneath his foot.

Soon spreads the dismal shade
Of Mystery over his head;
And the Catterpiller and Fly,
Feed on the Mystery.

And it bears the fruit of Deceit,
Ruddy and sweet to eat;
And the Raven his nest has made
In its thickest shade.

The Gods of the earth and sea,
Sought thro’ Nature to find this Tree
But their search was all in vain:
There grows one in the Human Brain

–William Blake

Intro

I wrote this analysis shown below of the William Blake poem “The Human Abstract” for my English Literature class. William Blake had his own brand of Christianity and likewise paved his own way of poetry. What I love are the illustrations that go along with his poems.

Analysis

In William Blake’s “The Human Abstract,” the poet reflects on the dependence of virtue on strife and vice, incorporating his perception of religion and politics as corrupt human constructs. Blake’s understanding of Christianity is unique, not fully complying with that of any established religion. The resulting complexity “ensured that his work could never be reduced to a single, static meaning, but would remain unstable, argumentative, and alive” (Lindop 35). Far from straightforward, “The Human Abstract” has many possible interpretations. Some scholars assert that the poem serves as political commentary, revealing the social injustices propagated by imperialism, slavery and poverty. Others, such as Gleckner, emphasize that the poem focuses on the perversion of virtue without love. Still others contend that it is about the power of the human mind to enslave the body, and that it demonstrates that humans are innately selfish and self-destructive, ultimately being the cause of their own downfall. Those who trace biblical images often note its parallels in Genesis. Despite the varied interpretations, there is agreement that the poem is highly critical of current systems of thought, religion, and government.

“The Human Abstract” is composed of six quatrains, each containing two rhyming couplets. Read aloud, it has the lulling quality of a lullaby or chant in the first two quatrains, but the patterns of punctuation are less consistent in the following quatrains, causing the tone to become didactic and at times jarring. The basic rhyme scheme is AABB for each quatrain. Thus, the meter is inconsistent throughout and turns the reader’s focus to Blake’s deliberate diction and the differences between quatrains. Gleckner, for example, notes that the voice in the poem changes from “man’s” voice to the voice of the poet (377).

Blake begins the poem by asserting that “Pity would be no more,/if we did not make somebody Poor” (1-2). Pity is included in the list of virtues in “The Divine Image,” the sister poem to “The Human Abstract. The parallelism between the two poems suggests that pity, paired with innocence, is free from the rationalization and religiousness of the experienced mind. The capitalization of “Pity” and “Poor” draws attention to the connection being made between them. Likewise, the next lines “And Mercy no more could be,/If all were as happy as we;” continue this theme (2-4). The quatrain as a whole suggests that virtue is only possible if a system of oppression is established and those in power are given the opportunity to be “charitable” without attacking the cause of the problem.

“And mutual fear brings peace,/Till the selfish loves increase;” includes two more virtues from the list of “The Divine Image” (5-6). Blake stresses that peace is usually kept because of a powerful ruler whose commands no one dares to resist; peace is suppression of the weak by authority. Love is depicted as love of self, which seeks to maximize pleasure and minimize discomfort; for example, by offering money to the poor to alleviate the guilt of benefitting from their subjugation. It is not so much love as an obsession with one’s self. Thus, all four virtues are shown to be human attempts to holiness that are crippled by greed.

Lines 7 and 8 state, “Then Cruelty knits a snare,/And spreads his baits with care.” Cruelty, the absence of love, is personified in this couplet. It sets a trap and baits it for others, but is actually caught in its own trap. Cruelty personified is represented by an old man in the illustration, restrained by ropes that bind him to the ground. “He sits down with holy fears,/And waters the ground with tears” (9-10). The ropes could be seen as guilt, or a sense of obligation to religious responsibilities. Lines 11 and 12 explain, “Then Humility takes its root/Underneath its foot.” Blake is asserting that humility is the root of cruelty; he believed that humility denied man’s divinity. Essentially, the old man is cultivating “the Blakean sin of doubt” (Gleckner 379). The elderly man is frequently identified with Urizen, an evil tyrant created by Blake as a “white-haired parody of God the Father” (Lindop 41).

Lines 15 to 20 are filled with biblical imagery, specifically from the book of Genesis. However, parallels with Norse mythology are also depicted. “Soon spreads the dismal shade/Of Mystery over his head” (15-16). This “Mystery” represents religion. The tree resembles Yggdrasil from Norse mythology, or the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil from Genesis. Blake adds that “And the Caterpillar and Fly/Feed on the Mystery” (15-16). The caterpillar and fly are both parasitic. However, caterpillars have the potential to transform into what can be considered a higher form, while flies retain their gruesome shape. They may also represent Adam and Eve feeding from the forbidden tree and their subsequent Fall. An additional view holds that they represent the corrupt clergy. The lines “And it bears the fruit of Deceit,/Ruddy and sweet to eat” may refer to the forbidden fruit, or the fruit of Yggdrasil. “And the Raven his nest has made/In its thickest shade”—the Raven is a symbol of Odin as well as death. Religion is seen as misleading, with the potential to cause spiritual death.

Lines 21 to 24 conclude the poem, commenting on the “unnatural” constructs of religion and politics. That Blake believes these go against nature is apparent in the following lines, “The Gods of the earth and sea,/Sought thro’ Nature to find this Tree,/But their search was all in vain” (21-24). The reason it cannot be found is that “There grows one in the Human Brain.” Ultimately Blake’s message is that humans create oppression through social systems meant to increase virtue, but by doing so are spreading vice.

Works Cited

  • Gleckner, Robert F. “William Blake and the Human Abstract.” Modern Language Association, vol. 76, no.4, Sep. 1961, pp. 373-379. JSOR, doi: www.jstor.org/stable/460620. Accessed 18 Feb. 2018.
  • Lindop, Grevel. “William Blake.” British Writers, Retrospective Supplement 1, edited by JayParini, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2002, pp. 33-47. Scribner Writers Series, doi:link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/CX1383000013/G-Scrib?u=grov34532&sid=G-Scrib&xid=0d70ea7f. Accessed 1 Mar. 2018.

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