Sonnet 18: An Expression of Grief

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 wand’rest 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.

William Shakespeare, Sonnet 18

This sonnet is popularly believed to be a poem of love and admiration. That may be a fair interpretation of the first two lines, and I suppose that might be as far as some people read.

However, when one reads the whole poem, a much more somber message unfolds.

I cannot help but read this sonnet as a reflection on the fleeting seasons of life and an expression of grief as a beloved life comes to an end. As I read, I think of those whom I have loved and lost, particularly those who died young. Now, the foremost person in my mind when I read this sonnet is my beautiful cousin and friend Helen, who died last year- far too young and far “more lovely and temperate” than any summer’s day.

A summer’s day is lovely but soon over; a life is longer, embracing the growth of spring, the warmth of summer, the storms and changes of autumn, and the dormancy of winter. Just as summer fades, so do the vigour and health of youth.

How, then, does one achieve “eternal summer” that “shall not fade” and avoid wandering about in Death’s shadow? How does one not grow old and lose their beauty?

By dying in their youth.

When an old person dies, we reflect on what they achieved, and that they had a good, long life. When a young person dies, we feel shortchanged. It feels far less natural. We have a profound sense within ourselves that it’s just not fair.

One who dies too soon remains forever young in our minds and memories. They do not age, and faults and flaws are remembered far less than their talents and endearing qualities .

Shakespeare certainly understood grief: his son Hamnet died in 1596 when he was 11 years old. The powerful contrast of Hamnet’s “eternal summer” with the regular seasons of life would have been very real to Shakespeare and his family, as Hamnet’s twin Judith lived well into adulthood,  marrying and having children of her own.

Grief is a powerful muse — as a poet, I can attest to that myself— and the loss of a child in his youth could certainly have inspired a sonnet such as this. Those who are left behind understand the imagery of “rough winds [that] do shake the darling buds of May” and the tendency to cling to memories and the places and activities that honour and polish them.

“And this gives life to thee”… even when thou art long gone.

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 65: The Relentlessness of Time

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Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,
But sad mortality o’ersways their power,
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?

O how shall summer’s honey breath hold out
Against the wrackful siege of batt’ring days,
When rocks impregnable are not so stout,
Nor gates of steel so strong, but Time decays?

O fearful meditation! Where, alack,
Shall Time’s best jewel from Time’s chest lie hid?
Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?
Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid?

O none, unless this miracle have might,
That in black ink my love may still shine bright.

William Shakespeare, Sonnet 65

This sonnet expresses a reality of life: nothing can withstand the relentless power of time.  Erosion, degradation, and decay overwhelm not only the frail, but also the mighty. True, rocks and brass may outlast flowers and flesh, but they too will yield eventually.

This is a poem of contemplation and resignation, but also one of defiance: time may be relentless, and there may be no way to “hold his swift foot back”, but one who is immortalised or memorialised in ink lives on, albeit in a different way. We can continue to remember and honour them, and to express our love for them.  Our memories and mementos remain long after those who have fallen prey to time and mortality.

In Shakespeare’s time, they had fewer options for immortalising those who passed away than we do. They had eulogies and poetry – the black ink  in which “love may still shine bright”. They could create drawings and paintings.

Now, in addition to those, we have photographs, video, and voice recordings. Poetry and eulogies still touch our souls just as powerfully, though— whether written in the 21st century or the 16th, beautifully written tributes and reflections endure and move us still.

Desdemona’s Lament

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Often when I see a willow tree, I think of the  desperately sad song sung by Ophelia as she prepares for bed in Act 4, scene 3 of ‘Othello’.

‘Willow’ is a folk song that tells of lost love and resulting tragedy, although Ophelia doesn’t quite get that far in the song before she stops to talk with her maid, Emilia. The song was not written by Shakespeare, and it seems to have been widely enough known for the audience to have understood the gravity and foreboding of it being sung by Ophelia. 

Shakespeare did, however, make one significant change. The original song was about a man dying as the result of the cruelty of a woman, but when Ophelia sings it, the song is about a woman suffering at the hands of the man she loves. 

The poignancy of the song is heightened by Ophelia’s revelation to Emilia that her mother’s maid, from whom she learned the song, died tragically while singing it. 


The song takes another tragic twist when Emilia herself sings the song as she, too, dies from injuries inflicted by her own husband. 

Shakespeare uses this song to evoke pathos,  tragedy and foreboding in abundance. 

It seems to me that he willow tree, graceful and mournful at the same time, is a most fitting image for achieving that effect.


Desdemona’s Lament.
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