May 27 Shall I Compare Thee To A Summer’s Day (a couple more thoughts)

I thought that I would write a bit more on the Shakespeare, Moss “Summer’s Day” because it has been pre-occupying my thoughts.

First off, I misinterpreted some of Shakespeare’s lines in his poem, because I was thinking that he was comparing his lover (saying how like she is) to a summer’s day, but in fact he was contrasting her to a summer’s day by saying that summer is this, but you are better. “Thou art more lovely and more temperate.” The obvious contrast, but then there’s “and summer’s lease hath all too short a date.” In other words, summer’s beauty has an end date and much sooner than you expect (so imperfect is summer), but not you. By an implied contrast, your beauty has no end date, it is eternal and perfect. When I say “perfect”, I realize that I am extrapolating something that isn’t explicitly written, but if you read it carefully, it’s there.

That implication is completely missing from Howard Moss’s “abridged” and updated version of the poem. In fact, it’s all just a string of quirky expressions that leave out all of the details and the subtext, the big ideas underneath the text. It’s like bread made the old fashioned way and the newfangled, factory way (with all of the vitamins, minerals, textures, flavor and care processed out of it).

“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” turns into “Who says you’re like one of the dog days?” Yes, dog day, is an expression that references summer, but Shakespeare is comparing his lover to a summer’s day, something thought of as bright, beautiful and bountiful, and Moss is comparing her to a dog day, something thought of as arduously hot, languid and a drudgery to endure. The modern expression makes her not quite as wonderful and you kind of wonder how beautiful the poet thinks her to be (maybe not so in love).

There is a lot of personification that goes on in Shakespeare’s poem, “rough winds do shake the darling buds of May.” I interpreted “rough” as a personification of the winds – thinking of them as bullies pulling at these darlings. But using “darling” to describe young and tender buds makes them dear to the poet not simply tender. Darling is used to describe a lover (someone you feel tender towards) or a child, someone you feel such great love and tenderness for that you feel the need to protect him or her. Obviously the word choice and the way the image is constructed gives the reader much to interpret as opposed to “even in May, the weather can be gray.” There’s no image, the language is straight forward and not much to interpret other than,” sometimes May isn’t bright and sunny.”

In Shakespeare’s poem the lover is even compared to other people or perhaps any other beautiful thing that does exist, “and every fair from fair sometimes declines.” Versus Moss’s “who can stay young forever?” which actually implies that perhaps even the subject of the poem isn’t eternally beautiful either. (The abridged version kind of stepped on it’s own lines.)

The text book asked to look at Shakespeare’s use of the word “untrimmed” as in “And every fair from fair sometimes declines/By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimmed. But thy eternal summer shall not fade.” Untrimmed can mean “divested of trimmings” , but it  could also imply “eternally youthful” as in not needing to trim off the branches, because they did not grow old enough to need trimming. It seems to imply that the fair person might decline but not lose her beauty all together, or at least that beautiful spark – in contrast, the poem’s subject will never decline in her beauty. Though in Moss’s version, “untrimmed” means “dead” as in they died before they could grow old and ugly (often how people refer to Marilyn Monroe). A less than attractive way to compare one’s lover – hey, they’d have to die to keep from growing old and ugly, but you don’t. Lucky you!

And finally, the last two lines, though they same the same thing on the surface actually have completely different messages in the subtext.

Compare: “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see/So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.” and “After you’re dead and gone, In this poem you’ll live on!” They say the same thing, but don’t. The first says: as long as there are people in the world as long as they can be witness to beauty and summer days, this dedication will also live, will be as eternal as your beauty, will spend the rest of eternity praising you. The poem is also a living thing, it also worships her beauty. It speaks in hyperbolic terms about timelessness and about ideals that are greater than just this one gritty time in the right now. The other two lines just say – your pretty and this poem says so. No, hyperbole, no imagery or personification, just straight forward, “whose lookin’ at you, kid.” And a chuck to the chin. Oh well, not everybody can be a romantic.


About penneloppe

I like to write horror, dark fantasy and crime fiction. Sometimes, I'll write science fiction, but usually I like to write science fact. I also write screenplays and stage plays. My day job is office work. I live in Seattle and I have a cat.
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2 Responses to May 27 Shall I Compare Thee To A Summer’s Day (a couple more thoughts)

  1. Frank says:

    Note: Shakespeare’s poem is addressed to a young man, not a woman. See also Sonnet 20.

    • penneloppe says:

      Hm, you could be right; you could be wrong. The sonnet doesn’t actually refer to any particular sex. I did go back over it and couldn’t find anything that gave *that* particular hint up. And, I have actually gone over the thing with a fine toothed comb (parsed it out line by line and word by word).

      I want to point out the thing to keep in mind is he wrote a rather large number of sonnets in his lifetime, and to many people – not just to one. There are even many sonnets where the addressee is well known, including those to his wife. There’s one where he wrote one to his cousin Queen Elizabeth. There is some disagreement in the academic world as to whether Shakespeare wrote all of his plays, or if he is a person or simply a persona (or even a persona made up of a group of writers who just passed along the pen name). I do think that this is unfair to the actor himself given that his rival Christopher Marlowe holds no such academic challenge – everybody just thinks that he was Christopher Marlowe (nor Francis Bacon nor Thomas Kyd nor John Webster, etc…). But when they do agree upon him actually having been a living person, it is agreed that he had a wife and a large number of children and was a good husband and provider. I know that there are many who say that that isn’t a good test of one’s sexuality since in the past a number of men have gone to an extreme length to hide their sexuality (Oscar Wilde was also a good husband, father and provider), but I think that the number of children he had might be a better testament, but whatever. His last play, the Tempest is generally acknowledged to be a love letter to his favorite daughter. And, as far as anyone could tell, he never had that “special friend” that Wilde had, nor do his plays give that tone (though I guess you can always find what you are looking for). I’m sometimes annoyed at how very masculine-centric some of them are. (cough, cough, the Taming of the Shrew, cough, cough)

      I suppose in the end it doesn’t really matter either way. Perhaps he was both. Perhaps sexuality wasn’t poured over with such intense fury as it is today. Ancient Greeks thought that male male relationships were more sacred. Times change. But, and back to the original point, we don’t know who this sonnet is actually addressed to – not necessarily the same person as Sonnet 20, so I got to work with the material that’s in front of me (and had the sonnet been known to be attached to that particular sonnet, the textbook that I had copied it out of would have told me in the footnotes which I read – the editor made certain to go to great pains to give the audience the context of every poem). I think that it is a woman, he wrote and was known to have written many love poems to women, but my only clue to sex of the addressee is the line, “thou art fairer and more temperate…”. He often referred to women in his plays as the “the fairer sex” or “she is fair” which leads me to conclude that he is, in fact, speaking to a woman.

      But I could be wrong.

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