Shakespeare published 154 sonnets, and although they are all poems that are of the highest quality, there are some that have entered deeply into the consciousness of our culture to become the most famous of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Those sonnets are quoted regularly by people at all levels of modern western life – sometimes without even realising that they are quoting a line from a Shakespeare sonnet.
The most famous sonnets approach the great universal themes of love and death, or the slow ageing that precedes death. So, what are these most famous sonnets? In our humble opinion the sonnets below represent Shakespeare’s most famous:
Sonnet 18: Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Perhaps the most famous of all the sonnets is Sonnet 18, where Shakespeare addresses a young man to whom he is very close. It would be impossible to say whether Shakespeare was an arrogant man because we don’t know what he was like. We also don’t know whether he thought he was the ‘great,’ immortal writer that we regard him as today. However, after describing the young man’s great beauty, he suggests that his poetry is ‘eternal’ and ends by stating that as long as there are people who can still read, the sonnet, and therefore the description of the young man’s beauty, will still be there.
Sonnet 30: When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
An interesting take on ageing and love. The narrator describes the things that people agonise over as they descend into old age – all the regrets and the pain of reliving the mistakes he has made. It’s full of agony but when he thinks about his beloved all the regrets and pain evaporate.
Sonnet 33: Full many a glorious morning have I seen
This is a poem about loss; the loss of a loved one. Shakespeare approaches it by expressing the contrast in the way we feel when the morning sun is shining brightly and when it’s obscured by clouds, making the world a forlorn place. When he was loved by the beloved it was like the glorious morning, but now, having lost the beloved, it feels like an overcast and gloomy morning. He concludes that he doesn’t condemn the beloved because human frailty, even among the best of humanity, is just as much a part of nature as the obscuring clouds are.
Sonnet 73: That time of year thou mayst in me behold
The narrator of Sonnet 73 is approaching death and thinking about how different it is from being young. It’s like the branch of a tree where birds once sang but the birds have gone and the leaves have fallen, leaving only a few dry yellow leaves. It’s like the twilight of a beautiful day, where there is only the black night ahead. It’s like the glowing ashes of a fire that once roared. The things that one gave him life have destroyed his life. From that experience he has learnt that one has to love life as strongly as one can because it will end all too soon.
Sonnet 104: To me, fair friend, you never can be old
Here Shakespeare expresses the love one person has for another by showing how the beauty of the beloved doesn’t change in the eyes of the lover. He shows time passing through the seasons and the years, everything changing. Except the beauty of the beloved. He goes further by saying that no matter how long the world will endure, even though the beloved is long dead there will never be another as beautiful.
There are two striking definitions of love that we refer to again and again. Perhaps the most popular of the two is in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians (Corinthians 13: 4-8):
Love is patient, love is kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude.
Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right.
Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends.
Paul’s text is as well known as Sonnet 116 because it is used in most weddings as the young couple stands before the minister. But Shakespeare’s sonnet employs an amazing array of poetic devices to convey the eternal nature of love. Shakespeare ends by staking everything on his observations about love by asserting that if he is wrong about it then no-one ever wrote anything and no-one ever loved.
Sonnet 129: The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Sonnet 129 is an interesting take on the imperative force of lust, but its ultimate shallowness. Everyone knows how shallow and guilt producing lust is but very few men can avoid it. Shakespeare shows how lust brings out the very worst in people and the extremes they will go to. And then he explains the guilt that follows the satisfaction of one’s lust.
Sonnet 130: My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun
Shakespeare is expressing the kind of love that has nothing to do with the beloved’s looks. He satirises the usual way of expressing love for a woman – praising her lips and her hair, the way she walks, and all the things that a young man may rave about when he thinks about his beloved. What he does is invert those things, assert that his beloved is ugly, ungainly, bad-smelling etc, but ends by saying that his love for her is as ‘rare’ as that of any young man who writes flatteringly about the object of his love.