Poetry can have an incredibly polarizing effect: people tend to either swear by at or swear at it. What gives? Well, aside from the fact that good poetry can be dauntingly elitist while bad poetry is, as a rule, truly god-awful, art in general is a very powerful medium – and poetry is one particularly artsy and inaccessible form of art. In fact, poetry is so powerful that it can be wielded against other people. Not just in the sense of intimidating your classmates with a spiffy beret, or holding your book of Keats a foot away from your face so that everyone in the coffee shop can see how brilliant you are; we’re talking immortality, manipulation, and objectification here. Shakespeare, that means you.
Just about everybody is familiar with the opening lines of Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 18,” which read, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? / Thou art more lovely and more temperate.” Pretty romantic stuff. Until you read the next 14 lines. Shakespeare goes on to describe the fleetingness of natural beauty in comparison to the subject of the poem, yadda yadda yadda, and ultimately decides that death could never claim his beloved “When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st.” Whaa?! Lines of what, exactly? Well, considering that this is poetry, it’s pretty safe to assume that the “eternal lines to time” in which the subject grow’st are referring to the lines of Shakespeare’s own poem. Roughly translated: “death can’t touch you so long as you’re in my poem, Sweetcheeks.” Or something to that effect. In other words, there’s nothing inherently wonderful or eternal about the beloved of this poem (whom we’ve learned absolutely nothing about, by the way); it’s merely the fact that (s)he happens to be in the poem that gives Shakespeare’s beloved any greatness.
In case he wasn’t being clear enough, Shakespeare closes the poem with: “So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, / So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.” Kind of presumptuous to declare that your poetry will exist “so long as men can breathe,” but that’s Shakespeare for you. If you still aren’t convinced, stop and think about the fact that “Sonnet 18” ends in the word “thee.” The significance? Sonnets are written in iambic pentameter with alternating stresses (shall I compare thee TO a Summer’s DAY / thou ART more Lovely AND more Temperate), meaning certain syllables are given importance while others are not. You might have noticed that, already in the first two lines, “I” is stressed while “thee” and “thou” are not. Who’s the subject of this poem again? In fact, “thee” and “thou” appear in the sonnet a total four times, but only one of these – the final “thee” – falls on a stressed syllable. Long story short, the person to whom “Sonnet 18” is addressed only receives any special importance at the very culmination of the poem – i.e., when Shakespeare’s mad poetry skills have had a chance to work their trans formative magic. Throw all this on top of the fact that Shakespeare is writing a supposedly intimate love poem… but fully expects it to be read the whole world over for, you know, the rest of eternity, and you’ve got yourself one hell of a power trip.
Moral of the story? Skip the beret and write yourself some poetry. Ya arrogant jerk.