‘Sonnet 56’ also known as ‘O how much more doth beauty beauteous seem,’ is number fifty-six 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. In this poem, Shakespeare explores the possibility that the love between the two is weakening due to a separation of some kind.
Although coming right after the very loving and devotional ‘Sonnet 54’ and ‘Sonnet 55,’ this poem presents the reader with a different relationship. The speaker suggests that there is something going wrong between the two in the realm of love. Perhaps lust has taken over in a way that the speaker is uncomfortable with. He’d rather love be the emotion that their relationship is based around. In the second half of the poem, Shakespeare uses metaphors and similes to compare the distance between the speaker and the youth to an ocean, a newly married couple, and the winter.
‘Sonnet 56’ by William Shakespeare is a fourteen-line poem that is contained within one stanza. It is an English or Shakespearean sonnet (sometimes also known as the Elizabethan). This means that 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 56’. These include but are not limited to alliteration, metaphor, and simile. 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, “appetite” and “allayed” in lines two and three and “feeding” and “former” in lines three and four.
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. There is a good example at the end of the poem where the speaker suggests that the interim period of separation between the youth and himself be known as “winter”.
A simile is a comparison that is also present in ‘Sonnet 56’. It is between two unlike things that uses the words “like” or “as”. A poet uses this kind of figurative language to say that one thing is similar to another, not like metaphor, that it “is” another. There is an example inline nine where the speaker compares the position of the youth and the speaker, and the state of their relationship, to the ocean that moves between two shores.
Sweet love, renew thy force; be it not said
Thy edge should blunter be than appetite,
Which but today by feeding is allayed,
Tomorrow sharpened in his former might.
In the first lines of ‘Sonnet 56’ the speaker begins by addressing “Sweet love”. The “love” he mentions is not a specific person but the personified force of love. This is a technique known as apostrophe. He asks that love return in strength to how it used to be. He hopes it will be “renew[ed]” in “force”.
The speaker tries to argue with the force, telling it to come back and prove to all those who favor lust and say that it is the stronger of the two, that the argument is wrong. Lust, some believe, is more persistent than love is. It is temporary satisfying and then comes back “sharpened in his former might”. This is another example of personification.
So love be thou; although today thou fill
Thy hungry eyes even till they wink with fullness,
Tomorrow see again, and do not kill
The spirit of love with a perpetual dullness.
In the next four lines of ‘Sonnet 56’, the speaker goes on to say that love should try to be more like this image of lust is. He asks that affection does not decline just because there is, as the third stanza says, a period of separation. He wants love to fill him up, or perhaps the youth, and then return the next day to do the same thing again.
Let this sad int’rim like the ocean be
Which parts the shore, where two contracted new
Come daily to the banks, that when they see
Return of love, more blest may be the view;
Else call it winter, which being full of care,
Makes summer’s welcome, thrice more wished, more rare
In the third and final quatrain of ‘Sonne 56,’ the speaker says that the “sad int’rim” or period of separation should be “like the ocean” between two opposite shores. This similar compares this in-between period to the movement of the tides between shores and the betrothal of two lovers. When they have a glance at one another that “view” is all the more “blest”.
The last two lines of the poem suggest a different way of understanding the “int’rim” of separation. It could be painful and cold “winter” than once lifted makes summer seem all the better. The longing for love and connection will be more powerful because it is “rare”.