What's he saying?
"O! how much more doth beauty beauteous seem / By that sweet ornament which truth doth give."
Being honest and truthful makes an already beautiful thing even more beautiful.
"The rose looks fair, but fairer we it deem / For that sweet odour, which doth in it live."
Even though the rose looks beautiful, it is made even more so by its lovely smell.
"The canker blooms have full as deep a dye / As the perfumed tincture of the roses,"
The dog roses have the same color as sweet roses,
"Hang on such thorns, and play as wantonly / When summer's breath their masked buds discloses:"
And they have the same thorns, and bloom the same way in the summer:
"But, for their virtue only is their show, / They live unwoo'd, and unrespected fade;"
But they only look beautiful, so nobody loves them or respects them;
"Die to themselves. Sweet roses do not so; / Of their sweet deaths are sweetest odours made:"
And they disappear when they die. In contrast, sweet roses are distilled into perfume when they die:
"And so of you, beauteous and lovely youth, / When that shall vade, my verse distills your truth."
So it is with you, fair lord, that when you die, your inner beauty and virtue will be immortalized in my poetry.
Why is he saying it?
The comparison of the fair lord to a rose is prevalent throughout the sonnets, beginning with Sonnet 1, in which the fair lord is characterized as "beauty's rose" in the first line, a conceit that continues throughout the sonnet. The metaphor next appears in Sonnet 67, in which the poet asks, "Why should poor beauty indirectly seek / Roses of shadow, since his rose is true?" In this case, "roses of shadow" correlates with the idea of "canker blooms" in Sonnet 54; these roses do not measure up to the beauty of the fair lord.
The "canker blooms" that the poet compares unfavorably to the rose that is the fair lord are reminiscent of certain ideas in Shakespeare's plays. For example, in Henry IV Part I, Henry Percy scolds the Earl of Northumberland and the Earl of Worcester, "To put down Richard, that sweet lovely rose, / An plant this thorn, this canker, Bolingbroke?" (I.iii.176-7). They have replaced Richard with Bolingbroke as ruler, and the comparison using the metaphor of a rose is very similar to that in Sonnet 54.
Lines 7-8, "Hang on such thorns, and play as wantonly / When summer's breath their masked buds discloses," describe the behavior of the wild roses that would deceive someone into thinking they are worth as much as the fair lord. The promiscuity of these people is hinted at in the use of the word "wantonly," which implies sexual immodesty. Their "masked buds" are perhaps their naked bodies, revealed by "summer's breath" as they "play" in the wind. However, the attention the wind pays them is insincere; they are neglected rather than married, and "die to themselves."
In contrast, "sweet roses" live beyond their own deaths, because when they die their petals are distilled into perfume. This process is referred to in line 12: "Of their sweet deaths are sweetest odours made;" the "sweetest odours" refers to the rosewater. Here, the distillation process is compared to the immortality the poet hopes to create for the fair lord through his "verse." In the "procreation" sonnets, the distillation process refers to the passing on of the fair lord's beautiful essence in his children.
The final couplet of Sonnet 54 reveals the comparison of the fair lord to a sweet rose. The word "vade" in line 14 is a variant of "fade," and can be understood as referring to the beauty of the fair lord's youth, the fair lord himself, or both. The "truth" that is "distilled" by the poet refers to the essence of the fair lord, or his inner beauty. In line 2 it is described as giving a "sweet ornament," or decorating a person who is already beautiful in the way a piece of furniture is decorated.