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Metaphysical Conceits in Shakespeare's Sonnets

In the study of literature, the term "Metaphysical" refers to a type of poetry initiated by John Donne in the early seventeenth century--it is characterized by "conceits," elaborate, sustained metaphors (Abrams, 1993, 1081). In his use of such conceits, a Metaphysical poet "displays his own ingenuity but may express a deep vision of the world and the strands of analogy that seem to hold it together" (Abrams, 1993, 1081). Although William Shakespeare wrote and published his sonnet cycle before Donne's Metaphysical poetry was published, there are traces of what could be argued to be Metaphysical images and conceits within Shakespeare's work. This research will examine a number of sonnets from Shakespeare's sonnet cycle and decipher them, explain how they are constructed, and explore the ways in which Shakespeare anticipated the Metaphysical movement.

Shakespeare's sonnet cycle can be divided into three parts: the first part is addressed to a beautiful young man, urging him to marry and father children in order to preserve his beauty for the future; the second part laments the ephemeral nature of youth and beauty, which can only be "preserved" in poetry; the third part concerns the Dark Lady, who is a "tempting but degrading object of desire" (Abrams, 1993, 802). It is the second section, that which concerns the nature of youth and beauty and the inevitable effects of time, which most clearly anticipates the later Metaphysical poetry of Donne and his followers, so it is primarily these poems on which will receive the focus of this analysis.

Among the most famous of Shakespeare's sonnets is the first sonnet in the second section of his cycle, Sonnet 18 which begins, "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" The metaphor Shakespeare invokes, of course, blatantly stated in line one, is the comparison of youth and beauty (of the young man addressed in the first part of the cycle) to a summer's day. This metaphor is elaborated and ...

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