The Fair Youth of the Sonnets


“The best response to a poem is another poem.”

I don’t know who first said that. But I try it out myself every now and then, whenever a poem leaves me with nagging questions. Consider Shakespeare’s Sonnet XVIII …

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimm’d;

But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall Death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st;

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

I’ve often wondered just how the fabled “Fair Youth” of Shakespeare’s Sonnets felt about this bit of flattery. Is it even flattery? If so, just who is being flattered, the subject or the poet? And how might the youth have responded in lines of his own? Here’s my own best guess …

Who cares if I am lovely and serene?
Your summer’s day is all they shall recall:
Rough winds, wracked buds, the sky’s sweltering ball—
Nothing of me in all your torrid scene.

What of my blest and tantalizing dimple
Which you have likened to a sylvan lair
Wherein you dedicate yourself to prayer?
Fine figure—so felicitous, so simple!

Such words alone would grant the lasting fame
Of that fat knight who from all havoc flees,
That gypsy queen of wild varieties.
Why not at least have written down my name?

The deathless days you promised for all time—
You’ve granted them to nothing but your rhyme.


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