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 ostensible subject of this sonnet is the so-called dark lady of the later sonnets, a woman with whom the speaker of the poems is having a passionate sexual affair. The first 126 sonnets are addressed to a man, in whom the speaker denies having sexual interest. (See Sonnet 20, where the speaker notes that the male beloved has “one thing to my purpose nothing.”) These sonnets to and about the man attempt to consider the dimensions of platonic love, “the marriage of true minds” (Sonnet 116), without the compromising motive of sexual desire. In contrast, the sonnets addressed to the dark lady suggest that once sex enters into the relationship, the possibility of achieving a higher, platonic love is virtually lost. Indeed, the speaker and the dark lady engage in quite a sordid affair.
Although the poem focuses on this woman, its main subject is perception itself and the methods by which poets represent love. Poets often concern themselves with the nature of their art and, in creating new ways of seeing human experience, question the validity of the poetic conventions of their predecessors. This poem prompts some very fundamental questions about poetic devices. What does metaphor actually tell about the objects on which it focuses? If poetry attempts to bring one closer to what is true in the human experience, why is it that most poetic conventions are falsehoods? Love is not a rose, beloveds are not heavenly goddesses, lovers do not die from being...
(The entire section is 471 words.)