1. Sonnet 18 is one of the most famous poems in the English language. Why do you think this is the case? How does the speaker use natural imagery to create a picture of the young man’s beauty?
2. In Sonnet 1, the speaker argues that the only way for the young man to defy the ravaging power of time is to reproduce, but in later sonnets, he seems to think that the permanence of his poetry will preserve the young man’s beauty for all time. Why is the speaker so concerned with the ravages of time? How do the sonnets portray time? How can they claim to defy it?
3. Discuss the portrayal of beauty in the sequence as a whole. Is beauty an immortal ideal, or is it vulnerable to time? How is beauty valued differently in a poems like Sonnets 1, 18, and 60 than in a poem like Sonnet 146? How does “beauty” contrast with “worth”? How is beauty treated in Sonnet 130?
4. Sonnet 94 is one of the most difficult, and in many ways one of the most ambiguous, of all the sonnets. What are the speaker’s feelings for the people “that have pow’r to hurt and will do none”? What is the significance of the summer’s flower?
5. Compare and contrast two “moral” sonnets, 129 and 146. How does the latter poem’s anxiety about outward appearance relate to the former’s ashamed admission of lust?
6. Discuss the theme of love in the sonnets. Do the young man sonnets express a different ideal of love than the dark lady sonnets? Is the ideal of love described in Sonnet 116—without which the speaker “never writ, nor no man ever loved”— constant throughout the sonnets?
7. Think about the ways in which the speaker uses the sonnet form to embody a series of metaphors. How do poems such as Sonnet 60 and Sonnet 73 divide their metaphors among the various parts of the sonnet?
The effect of the formal division of the Shakespearean sonnet, the four quatrains and closing couplet, is to pile up examples of a single idea—that the beloved’s beauty is really not comparable to the productions of nature and human art—so that by line 12, the reader wonders if there is anything at all about the woman that can be seen objectively as beautiful. The last two lines then provide a memorable explication of that idea: Objectivity and actual beauty are really no concern of the lover. While lines 11 and 12 dismiss comparisons to heavenly beauty as meaningless—mortals have no experience of the metaphysical world on which to base such similes—Shakespeare uses the mild expletive “by heaven” in line 13 to suggest in contrast that the impassioned subjectivity of the lover is itself metaphysical in origin, a kind of grace.
The speaker’s attitude in this poem is strikingly antimetaphoric, and lines 3 and 4 subject two conventional metaphors to examination by deductive logic. Line 3 begins with a premise, “If snow be white,” and concludes that the woman’s breasts are “dun.” In technical terms, the rhetorical device employed here is an “enthymeme,” a syllogism in which one of the terms is left out and must be inferred by the reader. One may reconstruct the full syllogism thus: Snow is white; my lover’s breasts are dull gray; therefore, my lover’s breasts are not like snow. Since snow is in fact white, one can concur with...
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