Shakespeare’s Sonnets have so far prompted very little eco-criticism, not because they lack references to the natural world but perhaps because the poems’ seasonal metaphors and flower images have seemed to reflect poetic conventions rather than any real interest in the natural world. Recently, however, there are some signs that scholars may be willing to reconsider this position. Robert Markley’s very fine chapter in Early Modern Ecostudies argues that the Sonnets’ insistence on the shortness of summer reflects a concern with actual climatic conditions in Europe’s “little ice age.” Robert Watson’s Back to Nature, while not commenting on the Sonnets themselves, tentatively offers the claim that Shakespeare’s response to the natural world blends the inherently conflicting poetics of what was to become metaphysical and cavalier poetry (373). Drawing in part on Watson’s suggestions, I argue that the seasonal and natural language of the Sonnets dramatizes an unresolved conflict at the heart of Shakespeare's poetic project. On the one hand, the poems approach the progress of the seasons as a process capable of being both countered and co-opted, literally in the case of distillation, harvest, or marriage, and poetically through the speaker’s often triumphant insistence on metaphor and simile, as in Sonnet 18’s “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day.” On the other hand, the poems simultaneously portray the natural world as an irreducible and immutable metonymic part of the larger drama of the vegetable soul, something many early modern natural philosophers saw as common to all living things, as in Sonnet 73’s “That time of year thou mayst in me behold.”
Markley, Robert. “Summer's Lease: Shakespeare in the Little Ice Age.” Early Modern Ecostudies: From the Florentine Codex to Shakespeare. Ed. Thomas Hallock, Ivo Kamps, & Karen Raber. New York: Palgrave, 2008. 131-142.
Watson, Robert N. Back to Nature: The Green and the Real in the Late Renaissance. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2007.