One of the many mysteries of Shakespeare’s personal life is how did he acquire all the vast areas of expertise needed to write about so many characters and so many avocations? For example, his knowledge of horticulture, herbalism and botany are evident in many of his plays (think of A Midsummer Night’s Dream). We really don’t know for sure where Shakespeare learned all this–though there a bunch of ‘missing years’ from his youth.
In Sonnet 54, Shakespeare utilizes this knowledge of botany to create a complicated metaphor, where he likens the beauty in his Young Man to a rose’s beauty, which is both outer and inner. Elizabethans extracted perfume from roses. However, canker-blooms were also visually beautiful, but unlike roses, contained no lovely scent. And so here comes a life lesson: When looking for beauty in others, don’t just look for the outer 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 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 fade, my verse distills your truth.
As complicated and delicate as this construction is, Shakespeare’s rose metaphor extends beyond a mere characterization of his Young Man’s beauty: Shakespeare means to liken his rose to the Art of poetry too. The inner-sweetness of the rose can only be enjoyed because perfumers distill it; likewise does the Poet distill his Young Man’s beauty into the lines of this sonnet. Already, it’s lasted for over four hundred years.
The image is of the Tudor Rose, one of Queen Elizabeth’s royal symbols, for she was of the House of Tudor.