17 Mar 2011

Sample Essay: Compare and Contrast

The two sonnets discussed here are Sonnet 18, commonly known by its opening line “Shall I compare thee to a summer day” and Sonnet 130 (My mistresses’ eyes), by William Shakespeare. The first one belongs to the “Young Man” cycle, generally agreed to be addressed to “The Youth” or “Young Man” while the latter belongs to the “Dark Lady” cycle.

At first glance, both sonnets tackle the theme of beauty. The opening lines of Sonnet 18 invoke the ultimate perfection of the summer day, “the most beautiful thing in an (English) world” (Vendler 121) as the basis of comparison. The beauty of the poet’s intended object of affection is far greater than that of the summer’s day, and therefore the following lines illustrate the degradation of such a perfect simile when compared to a mortal’s beauty. A summer’s day may be windy, hot and the summer is just a season lasting for three months – the beauty of the mortal is “more lovely and more temperate” meaning it is more constant, without excessive extremes of passion or lust. The perceived standards of beauty are too frail and imperfect to capture successfully the beauty that the poet sees. Sonnet 130 addresses the theme of beauty in a similar fashion. All the standards of beauty simply cannot apply to the mistress in question for her beauty is of different order. There is an invocation of a perceived standard of beauty, almost a checklist against which the poet compares the dark beauty of his mistress. While generally agreed that this sonnet is a parody of the sonnets that were in vogue at a time, it nevertheless asserts the notion that beauty is differently perceived in different times and by different persons. While the standardized notions become vacuous and almost serialized in an endless procession of “perfection” one can easily become desensitized to the real beauty.

As intricate an observer as Shakespeare was, he would often touch upon many different themes in his works. Closely intertwined with the theme of beauty is the theme of nature and quality of art in the Sonnet 18. Achieving immortality through a work of art that would capture the beauty in its verse puts this sonnet in Procreation sequence, ending with Sonnet 17 (Edmondson).  Although the question of sequence of the sonnets is under much scrutiny, the closing couplet celebrates life through art “as long as men can breathe or eyes can see.”

The visual imagery of the sonnet 18 is sheathed in light, in gold and fair of the summer day, and yet, paradoxically, underneath the surface of a placid summer’s day there is an undertone of things passing away. Summer, as a season, is a metaphor for the intricate beauty of the addressee; at the same time is tinged with the notion of imperfection and brevity. It is “too short” and sometimes “dimm’d”; it will “decline” and fade away. Nature is personified as suffering from imperfections resulting from chance or changing forces that shape it, but, moreover, the personification is reversed as the poet’s darling is exemplified by the nature (“Thy eternal summer shall not fade”) making him, or her, rise above the natural world. Furthermore, there is an extended metaphor of plant life throughout the sonnet, starting with “buds of May” and ending with “When in eternal lines to time thou growest” – it is a sacrament of life and love growing out of the fertile soil of poetry.

A similar imagery exists in Sonnet 130. The sun, the white snow, coral and roses invoke the fairness of a summer day. In this case, it is used to impose a contrast, as the poet’s object of affection possesses attributes that are quite the opposite. By deconstructing the image of his object of affection onto the most common examples of ordinary scrutiny and contrasting them to the ideal (blond, blue-eyed woman who moves gracefully and has a soothing voice), the poet presents us with two images, one of which is clearly a forced construct with no basis in reality.

If we take the image of the summer as a starting point in these two similes, then these two sonnets are equally on the opposite sides of a standardized notion of beauty. Sonnet 18 transcends the beauty as something perfect, above the nature’s course. Sonnet 130 goes the other way round, making beauty seem utterly disconnected to beautiful things. They both, however, arrive at the same destination and that is the profession of a true and consuming love.


Arp, Thomas R., Greg Johnson, and Laurence Perrine. Perrine‘s Literature: Structure, Sound, and Sense. Boston, MA: Thomson Wadsworth, 2006. Print.

Edmondson, Paul, and Stanley W. Wells. Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004. Print.

Vendler, Helen Hennessy. The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. London: Belknap of Harvard UP, 1997. Print.

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