Sonnet 53

Shakespeare. Sonnet 1

«What is your substance, whereof are you made,
That millions of strange shadows on you tend?».

A more relaxed poet appears to have forgotten his previous doubts about his relationship with the young man, who is still attractive but whose true self is elusive.

Sonnet 53
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What is your substance, whereof are you made,
That millions of strange shadows on you tend?
Since every one hath, every one, one shade,
And you, but one, can every shadow lend.
Describe Adonis, and the counterfeit
Is poorly imitated after you;
On Helen’s cheek all art of beauty set,
And you in Grecian tires are painted new:
Speak of the spring and foison of the year;
The one doth shadow of your beauty show,
The other as your bounty doth appear;
And you in every blessed shape we know.
In all external grace you have some part,
But you like none, none you, for constant heart.

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Ironically, the poet’s lavish and ornate eulogy of the youth — for example, when he compares him to Adonis, a legendary classical beauty — is exactly the kind of affected, stilted, and insincere-sounding poetry which the poet earlier criticized his rivals for indulging in.

The extravagance of the poet’s figures of speech hints at an illusory creature, subtle and complex, perhaps beyond the poet’s powers to describe. Images of shadows, shades, and painting run throughout the sonnet, and the poet’s language employs ambiguous terms — for example, “shadow” may mean silhouette, picture, reflection, symbol, or ghost. Other abstract terms are “substance,” “tires,” and “blessed shape.” Such language indicates the indefinable, cryptic nature of the youth.

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