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Shakespeare Sonnet 54: "O! how much more doth beauty beauteous seem"

The Shakespeare sonnets play an essential rôle in my poetry world. Those 154 classic sonnets masterfully dramatize truth, beauty, and love.

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 54: "O! how much more doth beauty beauteous seem"

The speaker in sonnet 54 from the classic Shakespeare 154-sonnet sequence is comparing outer beauty with inner beauty, employing the symbol of two types of roses. As a sonneteer, this writer has continued to live up to his vow to approach his work with sincerity, honesty, and unalloyed truthfulness.

This speaker has no interest in the mere baubles and tinsel of outward physical encasement for show. This speaker/poet has chosen the goal of creating works that remain vibrantly filled with truth throughout eternity or until the last poetry reader has vanished form the Earth.

Sonnet 54: "O! how much more doth beauty beauteous seem"

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 odour, which doth in it live.
The canker blooms have full as deep a dye
As the perfumed tincture of the roses,
Hang on such thorns, and play as wantonly
When summer's breath their masked buds discloses:
But, for their virtue only is their show,
They live unwoo'd, and unrespected fade;
Die to themselves. Sweet roses do not so;
Of their sweet deaths are sweetest odours made:
And so of you, beauteous and lovely youth,
When that shall vade, my verse distills your truth.

Reading of Sonnet 54

Commentary

Sonnet 54 reveals a speaker who continues to find beauty in the truth of the soul. That he follows the wisdom of the old adage, "beauty is only skin deep," becomes evident as he creates his little dramas dedicated to love, beauty, and truth.

First Quatrain: Inner Beauty

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 odour, which doth in it live.

The first quatrain of sonnet 54 features the speaker proclaiming that beauty is only genuine when loveliness is contained inwardly, as well as outwardly; only both levels of beauty can truly demonstrate the admirable quality called "beautiful." The speaker continues by exemplifying his claim as he suggests that human feeling regarding a rose is replete with the philosophical stance, on which he is now elaborating.

The speaker explains that even as a rose’s appearance is pleasant to the eye, its sweet smell enhances that outward beauty. The rose's odor delights the human nostrils because its petals of beauty are infused with that delightful fragrance. The fragrance symbolizes the inner beauty of the rose while the shape and color of the petals represent the outward beauty.

Second Quatrain: Cultivation and Cankers

The canker blooms have full as deep a dye
As the perfumed tincture of the roses,
Hang on such thorns, and play as wantonly
When summer's breath their masked buds discloses:

The cultivated roses contrast with "canker blooms." The latter remain the wild-dog roses that grow naturally and are not cultivated to produce pleasantries. The cultivated roses possess "the perfumed tincture," while the canker blooms do not. The latter may look pleasant, but they lack the inner beauty, symbolized by fragrance.

Just as the canker bloom is naturally shielded by its thorns, so is the cultivated rose. Also "summer's breath" is said to play over both roses. Yet only the cultivated rose performs service for humanity while the canker rose goes unobserved.

Third Quatrain: Outward Beauty Goes Wanting

But, for their virtue only is their show,
They live unwoo'd, and unrespected fade;
Die to themselves. Sweet roses do not so;
Of their sweet deaths are sweetest odours made:

The canker rose possesses only outward loveliness. Because that rose does not yield a corresponding lovely fragrance, it remains undesired. Outward beauty alone, again, is found wanting, even in roses. Lack of inner beauty causes the canker rose to remain undesired for human enjoyment.

Thus, the canker blooms expire "to themselves," while the sweet blooms continue to be searched out for they posses both inner and outer beauty. The rose with inner as well as outer beauty can be transformed into sweet smelling perfume after the rose itself dies: "Of their sweet deaths are sweetest odours made."

The Couplet: Soul Qualities

And so of you, beauteous and lovely youth,
When that shall vade, my verse distills your truth.

The couplet unveils the speaker's comparison that he has been constructing throughout the three quatrains: soul qualities are the eternal qualities that remain most important vs the outward garb of physical encasement beauty: after the freshness and loveliness of youth have vanished from all things on the material level, the essence of that beauty will remain in the speaker’s poems. He has "distilled" that beauty, placed it in the container of his 14-line sonnet, thus retaining it for all time, as long as people can read.

The speaker is thus contending that the muse will remain everlastingly young because she functions as an instrument of the eternal soul. The muse will remain beautiful throughout eternity for that same reason; the muse, representing both the writer’s talent and his soul qualities, is of the eternally youthful and beautiful inner being.

Despite the natural aging process of the aging poet’s physical encasement, the muse will be able to retain her vitality; she will remain "beauteous and lovely." Even as the poet ages, he makes a solemn vow to his own muse/soul that he will "distill your truth" in verse. This speaker/poet will never break his vow of remaining dedicated and mindful; he will never become satisfied by creating outwardly beautiful sonnets; he will instead fill his works with eternal truth as he constructs his poems and bases them on all things transcendental.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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