The Darling Buds of May – A Short Explanation of Shakespeare’s Famous Love Sonnet

I showed this wonderful sonnet to a student of mine. He’s not a very advanced student, but he loves literature. He has read lots of famous books in his native language, which happens to be Russian. While we were reading the underneath sonnet, I realised that he didn’t understand one iota (= nothing) of it!

What about you? Do you understand Shakespeare or do you need an explanation of each line? Nothing to be embarrassed about. Many people think Shakespeare is “difficult.” (I don’t agree.) However, Shakespeare is as much a part of the English language as the Bible is of Hebrew. If you stick with it, there is much to enjoy and it will get easier.

First of all, here’s the sonnet (number 18):

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? (Sonnet 18)

by William Shakespeare Shakespeare
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 oft' 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 owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wanderest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:

So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

First of all, here is a webpage where you can find a paraphrase of the poem.

A paraphrase means saying the same thing in different words. In this case, the Shakespeare lines are “translated” into modern English.

I can completely understand that you would like to have a little more explanation and background, so let me show you how I read each line.

But first: WTF is a Sonnet?

I don’t know what you remember about sonnets? This is a special kind of poem, which was invented in Renaissance Italy, but soon became hugely popular in English and other languages. The original Italian sonnets were about love, but they also spoke about the wider theme of how to make love eternal. The sonnet didn’t speak so much about how to keep love fresh by giving tips about how to behave or keep things interesting in bed, but talked more about an abstract kind of love. This was because the sonnet usually talked about a lover who was hard to get. So the kind of love that is described in the sonnet is often a very dreamy, idealistic kind of love.

The poet is interested in preserving (= keeping) the lover as fresh as the first day they saw this person. Usually, this creates lots of frustration and pain as of course the object of their love gets old and ugly. It’s hard to avoid. On the other hand, the poet does develop this neat idea that he can love the apple of his eye as much as he likes and without each of them growing older in his poetry; while writing and creating wonderful poems.

Lots of Shakespeare’s sonnets play upon this idea, that poetry makes love live forever. Shakespeare did not invent this idea, I must stress, because all the poets of the time wrote about it. But he wrote about it in very inventive ways and in language that is so beautiful and tender that it still moves us after 500 years. Who knows but that Shakespeare really is timeless.

Who was Shakespeare’s Lover?

Shakespeare seems to have written about a few different lovers. There are lots of scholars who’ve done research about this and they’ve concluded that the sonnets should be divided into two groups. Sonnets 1-126 are addressed to an attractive young male “friend.” The rest of the sonnets, 127-152 are written about a frustrating “Dark Lady.” Who those two are is a big mystery, because they’re never mentioned by name. Not in the poems at least. However, it really doesn’t matter for us to know who Shakespeare loved or not loved (he was happily married, by the way). These people are long dead and poetry is poetry! 🙂

Okay, so now you have some background. Let’s return to the sonnet.

1 Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

Thee is just an old-fashioned word for “you.”

2 Thou art more lovely and more temperate.

Thou = thee = you.

So this line says: You are more lovely and softer/milder than a summer’s day (because summer days can be rainy or hot, which isn’t pleasant).

3 Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,

Bad weather may shake the trees and make the flower buds fall off.

budsTanaka Juujoh

4 And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.

And the time that summer gives us is too short anyhow.

A lease is a contract for something that is given to you for a certain time (like something that you rent).

5 Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,

See line 2: an example of when summer isn’t pleasant: the sun (“the eye of heaven”) shines too hotly.

6 And often is his gold complexion dimmed;

Often, there are clouds that hide the sun’s face. (dim = make less bright.)

Although this line speaks about the sun, there is a hint that it could apply to the lover. The sun has a face, so it is personified (made into a person). If you understand the sun to be a metaphor for the lover, there is also a danger that the lover’s golden face will disappear.

7 And every fair from fair sometime declines,

If you wait long enough, everything that is fair (= beautiful) will go away from something that was once beautiful.

8 By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimmed;

This process of getting older and becoming ugly is untrimmed (= not stopped) by chance and not by nature.

9 But thy eternal summer shall not fade,

Thy = your

So this line says: However, your eternal summer will not go away/become weaker.

Here, the lover is directly compared to summer. And not just a summer day as in the first line of the sonnet. You may note the power of the lover growing throughout the poem. First he’s a summer’s day, then he becomes the (face of the) sun, and then he is summer itself. So he’s a very powerful figure. This is a good introduction for the lines that follow, because in the next lines the lover will be described as more powerful than death:

10 Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,

Nor lose its beauty that you have (“ow’st = own).

11 Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,

Death won’t be able to say proudly (“brag”) that you walked next to him.

12 When in eternal lines to Time thou grow’st.

When you grow forever in these written lines of poetry.

13 So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,

14 So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Thee = you.

Hope you liked this!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s