For today’s poem we return to the master sonneteer, at least in the English language, as momentum builds up to celebrate the 400th anniversary of his passing. This sonnet, number 54, praises the craft of the poet in transforming transient beauty into a more permanent record of beauty, both in its subject matter and in itself. Shakespeare has covered all the angles, as you would expect from the greatest wordsmith in the English language.
O how much more doth beauty beauteous seem,
By that sweet ornament which truth doth give!
The rose looks fair, but fairer we it deem
For that sweet odour which doth in it live.
The canker-blooms have full as deep a dye
As the perfumed tincture of the roses,
Hang on such thorns and play as wantonly
When summer’s breath their masked buds discloses:
But, for their virtue only is their show,
They live unwoo’d and unrespected fade,
Die to themselves. Sweet roses do not so;
Of their sweet deaths are sweetest odours made:
And so of you, beauteous and lovely youth,
When that shall fade, my verse distills your truth.
Brilliant. Beauty, the girl, the rose is self-evident and appreciated by the eye and in the moment. But it is the poet conveying the “sweet ornament of truth”, perpetuating the “sweet odour” which gives true beauty its everlasting impact. This is implicit throughout the sonnet, but becomes explicit, in case we had missed the point, in the final two lines – when beauty fades, as it must, the poem will still convey the beauty that once was.
The contrast in the body of the poem is between the true beauty of the rose and the illusory beauty of the “canker-blooms”, thorny weeds which nevertheless give off a sweet scent. People will enjoy the scent while it lasts but nobody will commemorate these weeds in verse, so they will “die to themselves” and then be forgotten.
And of course Shakespeare was right. Here we are appreciating the beauty of the girl and the rose through his poem 400 years or so later…
The Poetry Dude