‘Sonnet 54,’ also known as ‘O how much more doth beauty beauteous seem,’ is number fifty-four of one hundred fifty-four sonnets that Shakespeare wrote over his lifetime. It is part of the prolonged Fair Youth sequence of sonnets, which last from number one all the way through one hundred twenty-six. These sonnets are devoted to a young, beautiful man whose identity remains unknown to this day.
The poem uses imagery and figurative language in order to create two different types of lives that flowers live. One, that which belongs to the rose, is filled with beauty in both life and death. The other, related to the canker-bloom, a kind of wildflower, is beautiful but that beauty does not exist beyond its lifetime. The former is used to describe the youth whose beauty and goodness will live beyond his life through the speaker’s poetry.
‘Sonnet 54’ by William Shakespeare is a fourteen-line poem that is contained within one stanza, in the form that has become synonymous with the poet’s name. The English or Shakespearean sonnet (sometimes also known as the Elizabethan) is made up of three quatrains, or sets of four lines, and one concluding couplet, or set of two rhyming lines. The poem follows a consistent rhyme scheme that conforms to the pattern of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG and it is written in iambic pentameter.
Iambic pentameter means that each line contains five sets of two beats, known as metrical feet. The first is unstressed and the second stressed. It sounds something like da-DUM, da-DUM. As is common in Shakespeare’s poems, the last two lines are a rhyming pair, known as a couplet. They often bring with them a turn or volta in the poem. They’re sometimes used to answer a question posed in the previous twelve lines, shift the perspective, or even change speakers. In this case, the turn brings with it a clear address to the youth who has indirectly been the subject of the previous twelve lines.
Shakespeare makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Sonnet 54’. These include but are not limited to alliteration, metaphor, and enjambment. The first of these, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “beauty beauteous” in line one and “fair” and “fairer” in line three.
Enjambment is another important technique. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For instance the transitions between lines one and two and five and six.
A metaphor is a comparison between two unlike things that does not use “like” or “as” is also present in the text. When using this technique a poet is saying that one thing is another thing, they aren’t just similar. In the case of this particular poem, an extended metaphor is used that stretches the length of the first twelve lines. In it, the speaker compares the Fair Youth to a rose with integrity and beauty that exists in life and after death.
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 odor which doth in it live.
In the first lines of ‘Sonnet 54,’ the speaker begins by suggesting that beauty is better, more real, and poignant when it is accompanied by truth and personal integrity. The rose, he adds, “looks fair” but feels even fairer because of its “sweet odor”. Its scent is an integral part of its makeup and one of several things that set them apart from other flowers. The rose has something inside itself, something integral to its make up that the speaker will later compare to the Fair Youth and contrast with the canker-bloom described in the next stanza.
The canker-blooms have full as deep a dye
As the perfumèd tincture of the roses,
Hang on such thorns, and play as wantonly,
When summer’s breath their maskèd buds discloses;
In the second quatrain of ‘Sonnet 54,’ the speaker goes on to speak about “canker-blooms”. These are rose-like wildflowers that are similar in several ways to the previous flower but are also set apart. They have the “deep…dye,” or color, just like the rose. They also have some “thorns”. The comparison continues with the speaker mentioning the “summer’s breath,” or the turn of the season, and how that allows them to open their “buds” and “disclose” their full beauty. Despite all of this, as the next stanza reveals, there is something integrally different between the two flowers.
But for their virtue only is their show,
They live unwooed, and unrespected fade,
Die to themselves. Sweet roses do not so;
Of their sweet deaths are sweetest odors made;
And so of you, beauteous and lovely youth;
When that shall vade, my verse distills your truth.
In the third and final quatrain of ‘Sonnet 54,’ the speaker concludes by saying that these things only appear the same. It is “their show” that makes the two flowers seem so similar. The wildflowers are in reality much less desirable than the roses. They “live unwooed,” no one desires them, and “unrespected”. They don’t have the virtues traits of the rose, that deep, inner beauty that the speaker is interested in. These wildflowers die alone. This alludes to a more complex argument that it takes more than beauty to find love and joy in life. One must have other virtues, such as those that the Fair Youth possesses.
The lonely death of the wildflowers is not something that is suffered by the “Sweet roses”. When these flowers die the “sweetest odors” are made from their remains.
This discourse on flowers comes to an end. The metaphor is wrapped up in the final two lines when the speaker clearly states that this description of the different traits of flowers was really about the Fair Youth and how his beauty is going to extend past his life. The speaker’s “verse” will “distill” the youth’s “truth” long after he is gone.