You knew that I was coming to him eventually, right? If it’s a literary blog (especially about literature in the English language), it will eventually come to him. You’ll recite something from one of his plays, or one of his sonnets or his lesser known poems, because that’s what you do. Some were commissioned by royalty just like a painting – or so I was told.
The Bard has a lot of legends surrounding him, some don’t even believe that he was a real person; he was a known poet or playwright working under a pseudonym or several people used the name to work anonymously. I think he was a real person doing everything they say that he did, an actor who helped run a theater and he wrote and produced plays. But I can’t wrap my head around how he could have produced so much writing and of such amazing quality. Running a theater is like trying to build a house in the middle of a hurricane, how could he have collected his thoughts well enough to write a sentence more or less the amazing and brilliant (and freaking insightful) full three and four hour plays, I simply can’t say. There must have been a trick to it.
Shakespeare is to the literary curmudgeon that I am as dogs are to people who hate dogs. I’m supposed to like him, but the more I’m supposed to like a certain author, poet or text, the more critical I become of him or it. “Well, if it’s really so amazing, then I shouldn’t be able to find anything wrong with it,” I say. “And look there’s something that doesn’t work at all.” So I sniff my nose at the mention of his name. And like people who hate dogs, you stick them in a room with a dog for any amount of time and eventually they melt. The same thing with Shakespeare: you place his play or his sonnet under my nose, I read it and it is so unbelievably beautiful and I fall in love with it. So you can stay, Shakespeare – for now.
This chapter is about figures of speech, about using one thing to compare to another, even though on the surface they have nothing in common, instead digging to find that commonality. The book uses a line from a poem to illustrate: the top of a pine tree is “an emerald turkey-foot at the top.” It was a bit dissonant to me, but when I imagined the three-toed, scaly foot, pointed claw curling under, and the green, pointed, serrated shape of the tree limb of a pine (and the thinner ones do have a three-pronged shape), I could see it quite clearly. Here, Shakespeare is doing exactly what the textbook said, comparing to unlike things: a woman to a summer day.
A woman can have many millions of qualities. Women in general have been compared to sugar and spice, to tigresses, to cats, but specifically a human being can have many, many qualities – we are endlessly complex. There are women who are stubborn like mules, or slow like a sloth, some who are vibrant as a tropical bird. This woman is bright and sunny like a summer day.
If I were to write this poem, I wouldn’t quite go so deep as Shakespeare had, I’d just list a bunch of adjectives: bright, sunny, hot, active, bountiful, full of life, but Shakespeare goes the extra mile. “Summer’s lease hath all too short a day,” meaning he never gets enough of her, every visit is too short (and when you’re a school kid summer break is never long enough). “Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,” meaning that she’s so beautiful it’s hard for him to look at her – so beautiful, it’s painful. But this is where poetry becomes an art, it finds that perfect comparison that is better than any other, says exactly what you mean to say, but you hadn’t thought of before (or it was something that you wouldn’t think of right away). It can be tough to come up with those similes, but when I do it’s like a thunderbolt from heaven – it strikes you and illuminates you at the same time and you suddenly see the light.
Speaking of light, this woman sounded to be the light of Shakespeare’s life. So without further ado.
Shall I Compare Thee To A Summer’s Day?
by William 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.
Sometimes too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometimes declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimmed.
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.