's Sonnet 54
uses an extended metaphor
to develop the theme of the beauty of the beloved and the preservative power of verse.
Beauty itself seems more beautiful when it is accompanied by honesty. We love the rose for its looks, but its beautiful smell endears us to it even more. The dog rose
(or canker-eaten rose) looks as beautiful as a genuine rose, but because that beauty is solely in appearance, dog-roses live unadmired and die alone. Not so with roses: sweet smells arise from their sweet deaths. And so of you, beautiful youth; when your beauty and youth die, my poetry will still display the truth of you.
Source and analysis
was the first to identify the "canker rose" with the dog-rose. His conjecture is generally accepted, although George Steevens
notes that this comparison makes nonsense of line 5, as the dog-rose is far lighter in color than the rose. Almost alone, George Wyndham
argues that "canker rose" refers, rather, to a canker-eaten rose (as in 35
Henry Charles Beeching noted verbal parallels to a scene in Hamlet.
Stephen Booth perceives a pun on "dye" in line 11's "die".
Quarto's "by" in line 14 is almost universally amended to "my"; however, "by" is defensible if "distill" is intransitive.