Shakespeare’s most popular sonnets deserve their reputation as some of the most beautiful love poetry ever written. Indeed, some of the most popular sonnets from the 154-strong collection are regularly used in wedding ceremonies and on Valentine’s Day.
In this article, we bring together the complete texts for three of Shakespeare’s most celebrated and popular sonnets for your enjoyment.
Sonnet 18: A Sonnet for Valentine’s Day
There is one sonnet that, by default, must top any popular sonnets list: Sonnet 18 - Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day?
It is the quintessential love poem and is often used on Valentine’s Day. It’s a great example of how Shakespeare was able to capture human emotion succinctly in words. In just 14 lines, as is the format of a sonnet, Shakespeare explains that love is eternal – unlike the seasons, which change throughout the year.
Here’s the full text to Sonnet 18 - Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day?
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 owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
Please see our Sonnet 18 - Study Guide for an indepth analysis of this text.
Sonnet 116: A Sonnet for Wedding Ceremonies
Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 - Let Me Not to the Marriage of True Minds has become a popular sonnet reading at weddings simply because of its celebratory tone and the fact that it refers to marriage – albeit the marriage of minds rather than the actual ceremony.
Also, the sonnet describes love as eternal and unfaltering, an idea reminiscent of the wedding vow, “in sickness and in health”.
Here’s the full text to Sonnet 116 - Let Me Not to the Marriage of True Minds
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
Please see our Sonnet 116 - Study Guide for an indepth analysis of this text.
Sonnet 73: Shakespeare’s Most Beautiful Sonnet
This sonnet has been described as Shakespeare’s most beautiful sonnet – but it is also one of his most complex. Certainly, it is less celebratory in its treatment of love than the two examples above, but no less powerful.
The sonnet considers aging – and hopes that as the lover nears the end of his life his love will grow stronger.
Here’s the full text to Sonnet 73 - That Time of Year Thou Mayst in me Behold:
That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou seest the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consumed with that which it was nourish'd by.
This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.
Please see our Sonnet 73 - Study Guide for an indepth analysis of this text.