William Shakespeare 1609
Shakespeare’s Sonnet 19 is about the destructive power of time which consumes everything in its path. Eventually, time will also destroy the poet’s beautiful young friend. However, although the poet can do nothing to prevent this, he defies time by asserting that the friend will live forever through his verse.
The sonnet is one of a collection of 154 sonnets by Shakespeare that were first published in 1609. Probably written in the early to mid-1590s, when the sonnet was a fashionable literary form, these poems are generally regarded as the finest sonnet sequence in the English language. The collection as a whole appears to tell a story, of the love of the poet for a young man of great beauty and high rank, and the frustration and anguish, as well as the joy, the poet experiences as a consequence of his love. The young man is unnamed, but many scholars believe he may have been Henry Wriothesley, the 3rd Earl of Southampton, to whom Shakespeare dedicated his long poem, Venus and Adonis, in 1593.
Other characters who appear in the sonnet sequence are the poet’s mistress, a dark woman who seduces the poet’s friend, and a rival poet, who competes with the poet for the friend’s attention. Attempts to identify the “Dark Lady” have proved fruitless; the “Rival Poet” may have been Shakespeare’s contemporary, Christopher Marlowe, but this cannot be known for certain.
Perhaps more important than trying to identify any historical characters that Shakespeare may have had in mind is to appreciate the sonnets as
sustained meditations on the human emotions and aspirations aroused by intense love. These include the appreciation of beauty and the longing to make it permanent; affirmations of the transcendent power of art; and emotions ranging from elation to jealousy, guilt, forgiveness, sorrow and desire.
William Shakespeare’s exact birthdate is unknown, but he was baptized on April 26, 1564, in Stratford-upon-Avon, the eldest son of John Shakespeare, a glove maker and wool merchant, and his wife, Mary Arden, the daughter of a prominent landowner. Details of Shakespeare’s early life are conjectural, since no records exist. He probably attended the local grammar school and may have studied there until the age of sixteen, during which time he would have received a thorough grounding in the Latin classics. Documents show that in 1592, at age eighteen, Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, a woman eight years his senior. The following year, Shakespeare’s first child, Susanna, was born. Two years later came twins, Judith and Hamnet.
Sometime in the mid-1580s, Shakespeare left Stratford and eventually came to London. Legend has it that he was forced to flee his hometown because he was caught poaching deer, but this cannot be verified. Nothing is known for certain of this period of Shakespeare’s life until 1592. In that year, Robert Greene, a university-educated playwright, warned his friends of an “upstart crow,” an actor who had turned to playwriting and was “in his own conceit the only Shakes-scene in a country.” It is clear from this reference that Shakespeare had already made an impact on the London theatre business.
Within two years, Shakespeare published two long poems, Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594). It was also during this period, perhaps 1592 to 1595, that the sonnets were probably written. Shakespeare’s chief work, however, was for the theatre. In 1594, he was a charter member of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, which became the King’s Men in 1603. Shakespeare continued to act as well as write. The roles he played are not known, although legend has it that he played the ghost in Hamlet and the servant, Adam, in As You Like It. He also acted in two of Ben Jonson’s plays.
Shakespeare was also, it appears from the records, an astute businessman. From 1599, he held a one-tenth interest in the Globe Theatre, where the Lord Chamberlain’s Men performed and therefore had an influence on the policy of the company. He prospered financially, making investments in Stratford real estate. These included the purchase of New Place, the second largest house in town, in 1597.
Shakespeare remained a member of the same theatrical company until his retirement to Stratford in about 1612. Over a period of twenty years he had become the most popular playwright in London, writing a total of thirty-seven plays.
Shakespeare died in Stratford on April 23, 1616, and was buried within the chancel of the Holy Trinity church.
Devouring Time, blunt thou the lion’s paws,
And make the earth devour her own sweet brood;
Pluck the keen teeth from the fierce tiger’s jaws,
And burn the long-lived phoenix in her blood;
Make glad and sorry seasons as thou fleets, 5
And do whate’er thou wilt, swift-footed Time,
To the wide world and all her fading sweets;
But I forbid thee one most heinous crime:
O, carve not with thy hours my love’s fair brow,
Nor draw no lines there with thine antique pen; 10
Him in thy course untainted do allow
For beauty’s pattern to succeeding men.
Yet, do thy worst, old Time: despite thy wrong,
My love shall in my verse ever live young.
The entire sonnet is in the form of an apostrophe to Time, which is capitalized to establish it as an immensely powerful, all-consuming force. (An apostrophe is a direct address to an inanimate entity, such as a force of nature, or to an absent person.) Time eats up (“devours”) everything. In line one, the poet chooses an animal of great power, the lion, in order to highlight the fact that Time eventually reduces even the strongest, the fiercest, the kingliest of creatures to powerlessness. This is conveyed in the image of the lion’s sharp claws becoming blunt: Time will take away his ability to hunt and therefore to survive. In line two, the theme of the destructive nature of Time is expanded; it now applies not only to one specific creature but to everything in nature. The poet, still speaking directly to Time, instructs it to compel the earth to take back into herself everything that she has produced (“her own sweet brood”) however beautiful and delightful (“sweet”) those products may be. In these two lines, for reasons that he will later explain, it is as if the poet is egging Time on to perform the work that he knows Time will do anyway, without any encouragement from him.
In line 3, the poet further builds on the idea expressed in the first two lines. He selects another powerful wild creature, the tiger, and urges Time to pull out its teeth, thereby reducing to impotence the creature that most embodies the raw power and energy of the life force. In line 4 the poet shifts his thought from the natural world to the mythological realm. Referring to the phoenix, a mythical bird, he urges Time to burn her alive (“in her blood” means while the blood still courses through her veins). The phoenix is referred to as “long-lived” because it was said to live about five hundred years. In these first four lines then, neither immense power, embodied in lion and tiger, nor mythical longevity, are any match for time. Nothing escapes; everything is felled by Time eventually.
The poet now moves to a more general invitation to Time to carry out its work. Since it is time that produces all change and fluctuation in the world, the poet urges Time to go ahead and produce through its passing the different, “glad and sorry” seasons. Glad seasons refers to spring and summer, which are associated with renewal, hope
- The sonnets have been recorded on audiotape and there are a number of different versions available. Sonnets by William Shakespeare, issued in 1988 by Caedmon, features the eminent British Shakespearean actor Sir John Gielgud reading 120 of the sonnets.
- All 154 sonnets are available on the CD, The Sonnets, by William Shakespeare, with Alex Jennings as reader, issued by Naxos Audio Books in 1998.
- Another unabridged version is the audiocassette, The Complete Shakespeare Sonnets, read by Jane Alexander, Patrick Stewart, and Alfred Molina. This was issued by Airplay Inc. in 1999.
- Shakespeare’s Sonnets, by William Shakespeare, read by Simon Callow, an audiocassette issued in 1996 by HighBridge Company.
and love, when the sun rises high and blesses all things with life. The “sorry” seasons are those of fall and winter, which are associated with decline, loss and death. (“Sorry” is used in the sense of miserable or dismal.) In line 6, the poet encourages Time to do whatever it chooses and addresses it as “swift-footed.” This is a reference to how quickly time seems to pass, how soon summer turns to fall, and youth to age. In line 7, the poet gives his permission to Time to act on everything under the sun (“the wide world”), letting nothing escape, not even earth’s “fading sweets,” a phrase which suggests flowers in the process of losing their beauty. The emphasis on the fragile beauty of a flower leads into the surprising plea that the poet makes in the lines that follow.
Having in the previous seven lines allowed Time to do what it will—all the while speaking as if Time needed his permission—the poet suddenly changes tack. He has only been appearing to accept everything that Time does. In allowing Time to do its destructive work throughout the world, the poet has in fact been hiding his true intention, which is to set up the initial conditions for a bargain with Time. In lines 8-10, the poet attempts to strike this incredible, impossible bargain. He states that Time can do whatever it wants except for one hateful (“heinous”) act which the poet would regard as a crime. This act, which the poet implores Time not to do, is Time’s carving of its marks on the forehead (“brow”) of the poet’s dear friend. In other words, the poet is asking that his friend’s face should never bear the wrinkles that are the marks of age. The poet repeats this in line 10, referring to Time’s “antique pen.” Antique means old—Time has been doing its work for as long as there has been creation—and may also carry the sense of “antic,” which means a prank. Time therefore wields a pen that plays a prank on beauty by despoiling it.
In these lines the poet continues his plea that his friend be spared the ravages that time inflicts on everything else. As time runs its course, it must allow the friend to remain “untainted,” that is, untouched or unblemished. The poet desires this not for his own selfish pleasure, but so that his friend can be seen by all subsequent generations (“succeeding men”) as the true model of beauty (“beauty’s pattern”), a kind of template of human beauty for others to follow.
The point of the sonnet now makes a rapid turnaround. It is as if the poet is now ready to acknowledge the impossibility of what he has demanded. Time is not a force that can be bargained with. It is impersonal; its progress cannot be halted or even modified. Time cannot be petitioned for mercy as a person might petition God. No one, not even the poet’s friend, is going to be untouched by time. The poet now appears to accept this hard fact, but at the same time he manages to sound defiant (“Yet do thy worst, old Time”), thus developing the more muted challenge he first expressed in line 6 (“And do whate’er thou wilt”). In the last line, the poet has a surprise for Time: in spite of the harm that Time will inflict (“despite thy wrong”) the poet’s friend will indeed live forever, as beautiful and as youthful as he is now, through the poet’s verse in praise of him. Thus the destructive “antique pen” of Time in line 10 is contrasted with the creative pen of the poet which can bestow a kind of immortality.
The main theme of Sonnet 19 is the destructiveness of Time. Time lays waste to all things: the powerful, the beautiful, the long-lived. Shakespeare develops this theme relentlessly through the first seven lines of the sonnet, the effect building up through repetition and variety. Particularly when read aloud, these seven lines leave no listener or reader in any doubt about the universal power of Time—the formidable last enemy. It is a theme that is universal in its relevance and needs no sophistication to grasp, since everyone at some point in their lives experiences the ravages of time and contemplates what time has taken from them.
Sometimes referred to as mutability (which means change), this theme was a common one in Renaissance literature. Everything is in flux, nothing is stable or permanent, but all is subject to change and decay. In this particular sonnet, Shakespeare appears to have been inspired by the ancient Roman poet Ovid, since the phrase “Time the devourer destroys all things” occurs in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which was one of Shakespeare’s favorite sources.
Shakespeare explores the same theme of the destructiveness of time in many other sonnets, including numbers 15, 16, 59 and 60.
Although the beauty of the friend is mentioned in only one line, and the poet gives no specific details about the nature of this beauty, it is clear that he regards his friend’s beauty to be of a special nature. It is this that makes the conflict in the sonnet between beauty and time so poignant. The concept of beauty that the poet presents is a very high-minded one: The friend is not beautiful in any ordinary way; he is “beauty’s pattern to succeeding men” (line 12). The friend is thus presented as the archetype of beauty; in his physical form the friend embodies the perfection of creation that can never be surpassed. In the friend, the process of creation has reached its summit, and all that is necessary now is to preserve it or copy it. Nothing new is required.
This is not an isolated theme in the sonnets. Shakespeare employs it frequently in others, such as numbers 1, 104, and 106. In sonnet 14, the poet writes of the friend, “Thy end is truth’s and beauty’s doom and date.” In other words, when the friend dies, all truth and absolute beauty dies with him. As in sonnet 19, the friend is beauty itself, the model of beauty to which all creation aspires.
The final couplet of the sonnet proposes a solution to the destruction wreaked by time. It promises that although time will cut the friend down like everything else, he will attain immortality through the poet’s verse (“My love shall in my verse ever live young.”) It should be noted that the poet does not propose a religious solution to the devastating effects of time. He does not take refuge in the Christian promise of an afterlife for all those who believe in Christ. Nor is there any reference to the eternity of the soul. In this sense, the sonnet is somewhat bleak, for there will be no personal survival of the friend, either as body or spirit. He will age and die like everyone else. Whatever eternal life there may be is bestowed entirely by art.
This gives to art a very high status indeed, and it is one that has been echoed by poets and artists throughout the ages. Not only did some of Shakespeare’s contemporaries among the Elizabethan sonneteers, such as Michael Drayton, employ the same theme, it can be found in the fourteenth-century Italian sonnets of Petrarch as well as in the work of ancient writers such as Horace and Ovid. The same theme can be found in more modern poetry, such as the Romantic poet John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and in the twentieth-century work of W. B. Yeats, including his poem, “Sailing to Byzantium.” Shakespeare himself employed the same theme on a number of occasions throughout the sonnet sequence, including sonnets 18, 100-108, and elsewhere.
A sonnet is a fourteen-line poem that follows certain well-established conventions in its rhyme scheme. The Shakespearean sonnet is composed of three quatrains (a verse of four lines) which develops the thought or argument, followed by a concluding couplet (two lines), which resolves the issue, often with a witty or unexpected turn in the thought. The rhyme scheme is abab cdcd efef gg. That is, line 1 rhymes with line 3, line 2 with line 4, line 5 with line 7, and so on.
Shakespeare’s sonnets are written in iambic pentameter, which means that each line consists of five metrical feet, each foot made up of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. A
Topics for Further Study
- On the World Wide Web, go to http://www.bluemountain.com/eng/shakespeare/index.html, a site which sends out e-greetings cards made up of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Compare Sonnet 116, which the site selects, to Sonnet 18, another favorite sonnet. Which would be more suitable to send to a beloved friend as a greeting, and why? Would these sonnets be a better choice than Sonnet 19?
- Describe some of the many ways that individuals and societies memorialize their loved ones and their heroes. Which ways are the most effective and long-lasting?
- Is it easier or more difficult to express emotions and ideas in a 14-line sonnet, with its rigid structure, than in free verse? To find out, write a sonnet, and then express the same feelings and ideas in a poem written in free verse.
- America is a society that tends to value youth and beauty at the expense of age. Do all societies around the world value youth in this way, or do some view the later stages of life differently? What advantages might age possess that would compensate for the loss of youth and beauty?
foot consists of two beats. However, Shakespeare makes many variations on this basic metrical rhythm. The result is a counterpoint between the fixed metrical base (what we usually hear and are expecting to hear) and the variable element (what we actually hear). The variations create subtle emphases and effects that would not otherwise be present.
Sonnet 19 has many examples of metrical variation. In the third foot of line 1, the poet has substituted a trochaic foot, which is a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable, for the regular iambic foot. The expected rhythm has been reversed so that the word “blunt” is emphasized. The effect is to give more force to the actions of time. A similar inversion occurs in line 3, in which the first foot consists of a trochee rather than an iamb. The effect is that the word “Pluck” stands out strongly against the metrical base, once more emphasizing the destructive actions of Time. These two words, “blunt” and “pluck,” are linked still further by another poetic device: assonance, the repetition of vowel sounds.
Yet another variation in the metrical rhythm occurs in line 3. The second foot (“keen teeth”) is a spondee, which means it has two stressed syllables. Following so soon after the inversion that emphasized “pluck,” the effect is to drive home Time’s act of pulling out even the sharpest of teeth. This effect is further emphasized by the assonance of the long vowel sounds, and the fact that in the act of pronouncing these two words, the teeth are bared.
The metrical rhythm settles down into a more regular iambic pattern with the beginning of the third quatrain. As the poet recalls his friend, the smoother rhythm and the absence of harsh consonants convey a sense of calm. The most notable metrical variation is at the beginning of line 11, in which the inversion of the first foot produces the trochee, “Him in,” in which the stress falls on the first word. This clearly brings out the importance and significance of the poet’s friend.
Alliteration, the repetition of consonants, is another device used in this sonnet to reinforce meaning. In line 4, for example, the repetition of “b” sounds in “burn” and “blood” serve to link the destructiveness of time with the full vigor of life (expressed in “blood”). A second example is in the alliteration of the “c” sound in the last word of line 8, “crime,” with “carve” in the following line, a device which reinforces the poet’s view that it is a crime for time to create lines on a person’s face. Finally, the “b” sound in “beauty” in line 12 harks back to “burn” and “blood,” (line 4), which serves to underline one of the sonnet’s main themes: the transience of beauty.
More examples of assonance provide further evidence of the subtle meanings that the use of such poetic devices can convey. In line 1, the long vowel sound in “Devouring” is repeated in “thou.” Given the fact that in the act of pronouncing the vowel, the mouth must open wide, as if ready to consume something, the assonance emphasizes the consuming nature of time. Finally, in the concluding couplet, the assonance of the vowel sound in the repeated “thy” (line 13) with the repeated “my” of line 14 emphasizes the contrast between time as destroyer and the poet as creator.
As a literary genre, the sonnet originated in Italy and is associated with the name of Francis Petrarch (1304–1374). Petrarch was inspired by the first sight of a woman he referred to as “Laura,” and whom he loved and worshipped from afar for a period of twenty years until her death in 1348, and for ten years after that. The poems Petrarch wrote describing his hopeless love for Laura inspired a vogue that lasted for centuries in Western poetry.
The characteristic Petrarchan sonnet consists of an octave (eight lines) in which the subject is described and developed, and a sestet (six lines) in which the thought takes a turn and there is a solution to the problem or an easing of it.
This sonnet form reached England two hundred years after Petrarch. The first English sonneteers were Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503–1542) and Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey (1517–1547). Many of their sonnets were virtual translations of Petrarch, but eventually a new sonnet form evolved, which became known as the English sonnet. In the English sonnet (also called the Shakespearean sonnet) the argument or thought is presented and developed over three quatrains and then resolved in a concluding couplet.
By the time Shakespeare wrote his sonnets in the 1590s, the sonnet was the latest literary fad. It must have seemed at the time that almost every poet in England was turning out sonnets by the sack-load. Sonnet cycles became fashionable. These told a story of how the poet first met his love and the trials and tribulations he has endured as a consequence. Sometimes the sonnet cycles were based on autobiographical situations, but others were simply literary inventions. The most well known sonnet cycle was Astrophil and Stella (1591), by Sir Philip Sidney. Once that became popular, it spawned many imitations, such as Samuel Daniel’s Delia (1592), Ideas Mirrour, by Michael Drayton (1594), and Edmund Spenser’s Amoretti (1595). The sonnet fad was quite short-lived, however, and by 1597, with the publication of Robert Tofte’s Laura, it had virtually played itself out.
With the exception of Sidney’s work, few of these sonnets are read today, and then mostly by scholars of the period. To the modern reader, many of them seem dull, artificial, and trite. But it is important to remember that this is the literary background against which Shakespeare wrote his own sonnets. He was working in a traditional form, with rigid requirements and conventions. Some of the
Compare & Contrast
- 1590s: Writers who were not courtiers or nobles had to find a wealthy patron to support them financially. The writer would dedicate his work to the patron and praise him lavishly, in the hope that the nobleman would be sufficiently flattered to further advance the writer’s career. Sometimes writers would be admitted to the patron’s literary or intellectual circles.
Today: Rather than cultivating private patrons, poets and writers often seek sponsorship in the form of grants from government-funded organizations such as the National Endowment for the Humanities. They may also receive advances against future royalties from publishers, or be employed as professors of creative writing by colleges and universities.
- 1609: Shakespeare’s sonnets were published apparently without his permission. In Elizabethan and Jacobean England the author held no copyright to his work, and a publisher was under no obligation to seek the author’s permission to publish it. After publication, the copyright belonged to the publisher. Authors did not receive royalties from the sales of their books. All published books had to be approved by the political and ecclesiastical authorities.
Today: Strict copyright laws ensure that a writer’s work cannot be published without his permission. Legally enforceable contracts between author and publisher uphold the rights of both. Authors are paid royalties based on sales. In the United States and most other democratic countries, neither the government nor religious organizations have any control over what a commercial publisher may publish.
- 1564-1616: During every year of Shakespeare’s lifetime, Europe was engaged in war. From 1585 onwards, England was at war in the Netherlands, in Ireland, and at sea. In 1588, England defeated the Spanish Armada, and for much of this period England held the balance of power between the great powers of France and Spain.
subject matter was fixed. The poet would confess his love and praise his beloved in exaggerated language that included the use of “conceits,” or unusual comparisons. But he would also complain about her “cruelty” in dismissing or ignoring him, and lament the sighing, the sleepless nights, and the pain that he suffered because of his separation from her. He would also worry about losing her to a rival suitor, and would frequently assert the immortality of his verse.
However, Shakespeare was no slave to convention. His sonnets differ in important ways from the work of his predecessors and contemporaries. The majority of Shakespeare’s sonnets are addressed to a young man, not a woman, and the young man appears to belong to a higher social class than his admirer. Also, the black-eyed, black-haired Dark Lady who is addressed or referred to in over twenty sonnets is very different from the conventional sonnet lady. Shakespeare says as much in Sonnet 130, which is a parody of the customary ways that sonneteers described the object of their love:
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun / Coral is far more red than her lips’ red / If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun / If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
“Dun” is a dull grayish-brown, and is hardly a complimentary term. And the blackness of the lady’s hair is the opposite of the traditional golden hair of the loved one.
This sonnet is often thought to be a parody of a sonnet published by Thomas Watson in 1582, which begins:
Hark you that list to hear what saint I serve / Her yellow locks exceed the beaten gold / Her sparkling eyes in heaven a place deserve / Her forehead high and fair of comely mould.
Shakespeare further departs from tradition when he makes it clear that the Dark Lady is not a paragon of virtue. Even though, almost against his will, he is in love with her, he does not regard her as a woman of sound moral character. On the contrary, he presents her as promiscuous and untrustworthy, unlike the usual chaste and virtuous sonnet lady.
In the descriptions of the range of emotions the poet experiences as a result of his relationships with the friend and the Dark Lady, Shakespeare’s sonnets attain a psychological complexity that his contemporaries could not match. Taking themes and a poetic form that already permeated Elizabethan literary culture, Shakespeare’s creative and deeply probing mind took them to heights not attained before or since. Ironically, by the time Shakespeare’s sonnets were published in 1609, the sonnet craze that had inspired them was over.
The sonnets appear to have attracted little attention when first published in 1609, and they have not always enjoyed the high reputation they do today. Indeed, the sonnets were reprinted only once during the seventeenth century, and it is possible that the original edition was withdrawn by Thomas Thorpe, the publisher, perhaps after a complaint by members of the aristocracy about the intimate nature of the love portrayed in some of the sonnets. However, this cannot be known for certain.
In the eighteenth century most readers regarded the sonnets as inferior to the plays of Shakespeare, and editions of Shakespeare’s works sometimes omitted them. In the nineteenth century, the poet William Wordsworth dismissed the sonnets as “tedious and obscure,” although he later changed his mind.
During the nineteenth century scholars mainly occupied themselves with trying to identify the characters in the sequence with actual people that Shakespeare may have known. It was generally assumed that the sonnets were autobiographical. Opinion was sharply divided as to their merit.
Modern critics have been less willing to assume that the sonnets tell an autobiographical story and have been more inclined to analyze them simply as literature, assuming that whether they are truth or fiction can never be known for certain. Critics today have no doubt about the high quality of the sonnets, and not since John Crowe Ransom’s The World’s Body (1938) has there been a major dissenting view.
Sonnet 19 has not attracted as much comment as some of the more famous sonnets. This may be because it does not present any interpretive difficulties. Its meaning is plain, and it has little complexity either in form or thought. However, the sonnet has had its admirers. It appealed to the Romantic poet John Keats, who quoted from line 10 (“Nor draw no lines there with thine antique pen”) in a letter of 1817. Keats also seems to have been recalling Sonnet 19 in his phrase “fast-fading flowers” in “Ode to a Nightingale” (1819), which echoes the “fading sweets” of Shakespeare’s sonnet (line 7). Keats’s ode, like Sonnet 19, deals with beauty and time.
Another appreciation of Sonnet 19 came from the mid-twentieth-century poet Edith Sitwell, who described it as
“one of the greatest sonnets in the English language, with its tremendous first lines … The huge, fiery, and majestic double vowel sounds contained in ‘Devouring’ and ‘Lion’s’ (those in ‘Lion’s’ rear themselves up and then bring down their splendid and terrible weight)—these make the line stretch onward and outward until it is overwhelmed, as it were, by the dust of death, by darkness, with the muffling sounds, first of ‘blunt, ’ then of the far thicker, more muffling sounds of ‘paws.’”
Several other critics have commented favorably on the exquisite musical effects of the first quatrain.
Opinion has not been unanimous, however. In 1964, A. L. Rowse called Sonnet 19 a “somewhat laboured poem,” contrasting it unfavorably with the sonnet that precedes it (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”). Philip Martin complained that the sonnet lacked profundity and the couplet was “unsatisfactory.” The latter point echoed the view of C. L. Barber, who commented that the claims made in the concluding couplet “have not weight enough to make a satisfying balance.”
Screenwriter, poet, and essayist Chris Semansky’s most recent collection of poems, Blindsided, has been published by 26 Books of Portland, Oregon. In the following essay, Semansky examineshow Shakespeare’s Sonnet 19 suggests that art transcends time.
The idea that human beings can immortalize themselves in their art is popular among artists and writers and serves as an alternative to notions of immortality rooted in an afterlife or in one’s progeny. In antiquity, Horace and Ovid held this belief, just as today many poets do. Shakespeare also subscribed to this idea of creative immortality, and made it the topic of many of his poems. In Sonnet 19, one of a number of sonnets which praise the beauty of the Earl of Southhampton, the speaker desires that the young man he writes about never age. The speaker explicitly addresses Time, asking it to spare his beloved, and then, after acknowledging the impossibility of that, states that his love will live on in his poetry regardless of Time’s effects.
We can think about the desire to have our creative work live on past our deaths as a feature of evolution. That is, our work functions in a way like our children. It comes from us, and after we die we have no say in how it will behave or how others will respond to it. The first four lines of the sonnet remind us not only of our mortality but of our animal nature, and how it, rather than our souls, minds, or the work that we produce, is the real enemy of time.
Devouring Time, blunt thou the lion’s paws, And make the earth devour her own sweet brood; Pluck the keen teeth from the fierce tiger’s jaws And burn the long-lived phoenix in her blood;
By focusing on what Time does to the fiercest of animals—the lion and the tiger—the speaker by extension suggests what it will also do to human bodies. Ironically, Time is figured as a predator and predators presented as prey. The very tools of hunting—paws and jaws—are rendered useless by Time. Time makes the earth itself, represented as an animate creature, into a being which is self-destroying, a reluctant cannibal. This image suggests the Greek myth of Kronos, the god of time, who had been warned that one of his children would overthrow him. To preempt this he swallowed them when they were born. But how are we to make sense of the Phoenix as a predator or prey? A mythical creature, the Phoenix performs a ritual every five hundred years in which it builds itself a nest of fragrant herbs and spices and then dies in that nest. A new Phoenix is born just as the old Phoenix dies, and in five hundred years the ritual is repeated. By using this bird as an example of the devastation that Time can wreak, Shakespeare suggests
“But warning Time not to use ‘thine antique pen’ is unusual in that it matches the speaker’s own weapon against time … this metaphor also suggests that Time has the capacity to ‘rewrite’ the speaker’s love, to represent him in a way the speaker did not intend, as ‘tainted.’”
that even seemingly immortal beings are subject to death and annihilation. Rather than being reborn, the Phoenix is burned in its own blood. The cycle of time itself stops.
Time is sinister, these first lines proclaim, a killer who can demolish the real and the mythical alike. Emphasizing this contempt is the speaker’s use of apostrophe. Apostrophe is a rhetorical technique in which someone or thing is explicitly addressed. Use of apostrophe often draws attention to the tone of the poem, as an explicit address makes more concrete, more tangible the speaker and audience. We can make judgements about the speaker, his motivations and character, because we know to whom he speaks and the context of his words. Many poems using this device apostrophize things, personifying them. Personification can dramatize action, as it assigns human qualities to abstract entities or non-human beings. Shakespeare represents Time in a similarly malicious vein in “The Rape of Lucrece”:
Mis-shapen Time, copesmate of ugly Night,
Swift subtle post, carrier of grisly care,
Eater of youth, false slave to false delight,
Base watch of woes, sin’s pack-horse, virtue’s snare;
Thou nursest all and murd’rest all that are:
O, hear me then, injurious, shifting Time!
Be guilty of my death, since of my crime.
Here Time is a freak, a demon, messenger, and assassin. Shakespeare continues his catalogue of invective in Sonnet 19, making time into a malevolent force, a relentless hunter and destroyer, a lawbreaker.
What Do I Read Next?
- Shakespeare’s plays, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet, were both written at about the same time as the sonnets, and they both deal with the many different aspects, both positive and negative, of romantic love. Romeo and Juliet begins with a sonnet (“Two households, both alike in dignity”) and when the lovers meet their first dialogue forms a sonnet (“If I profane with my unworthiest hand”).
- Later writers have used the sonnet form to explore subjects other than love. Some of the most notable examples are John Donne’s “Holy Sonnets,” which are expressions of religious faith; sonnets by William Wordsworth (“Composed upon Westminster Bridge,” “It Is a Beauteous Evening,” “London, 1802,” and “The World Is Too Much With Us” are some of the best known); and John Milton’s sonnet on his blindness (“When I Consider How My Life Is Spent”).
- Metamorphoses, Book 15, by Ovid (43 B.C.A.D. 17), particularly the section given to Pythagoras to explain his philosophy. This contains a number of passages that inspired Shakespeare’s sonnets, especially sonnets 19, 59, and 60.
- The subject of beauty has occupied philosophers as well as poets. In The Symposium, Plato investigated the ultimate nature of beauty, which he finally located, not in human form (unlike Shakespeare in Sonnet 19), but in a timeless, absolute, eternal dimension of existence.
- Like Sonnet 19, “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (1819), by John Keats, and “Sailing to Byzantium” (1927), by William Butler Yeats, both deal with the themes of transience, eternity, and the nature of art. “Oxymandias” (1817), a sonnet by Percy Bysshe Shelley, and “The Old Men Admiring Themselves in the Water” (1903) by Yeats, are both powerful evocations of the remorseless passage of time.
- Einstein’s Dreams, by Alan Lightman (1993) is a fascinating series of fables that play with the nature of time. In the fables, which are presented as if they are the dreams of Albert Einstein immediately prior to his discovery of the special theory of relativity, time can manifest in many ways, or not at all—time may not always or inevitably be the all-consuming “devourer” of Sonnet 19.
- In “The Biology of Beauty” (Newsweek, June 3, 1996, pp. 60-69), journalist Geoffrey Cowley explores what we consider to be beautiful in humans. He finds among other things that beauty is related to symmetry, and that certain criteria of beauty are applied with remarkable consistency, even in cultures that differ widely from each other.
The speaker, however, is not cowed by Time’s prowess as a killer but rather, seeks to duel with Time, addressing it with hostility, daring it to “do whate’er thou wilt.” Exhibiting confidence that his own powers are greater than Time’s, the speaker addresses his adversary as if it were a criminal, forbidding it “one most heinous crime.” That crime is making his beloved grow older. The speaker tells time:
O, carve not with thy hours my love’s fair brow,
Nor draw no lines there with thine antique pen;
Him in thy course untainted do allow
For beauty’s pattern to succeeding men.
What is interesting here is not that the speaker represents one of Time’s weapon as “hours”; that is predictable. But warning Time not to use “thine antique pen” is unusual in that it matches the speaker’s own weapon against time. A wrinkled brow shows the ravages of physical aging, and that the speaker fears his love’s beauty would be diminished. But this metaphor also suggests that Time has the capacity to “rewrite” the speaker’s love, to represent him in a way the speaker did not intend, as “tainted.” That Time itself is subject to its own processes is evident in the speaker’s characterization of the pen as “antique.” It has worked its evil upon others before and continues to do so. The speaker is disingenuous, however, in asking Time not to taint his love so that his love can remain “beauty’s pattern to succeeding men,” for it is not succeeding men’s beauty that concerns the speaker, but his own love’s beauty and the speaker’s representation of that love. By suggesting that his motivations are for the better of all men, the speaker presents himself as altruistic, someone who would willingly sacrifice self-interest for the good of others. This makes it easier for readers to see the speaker in heroic terms, and hence assist him in his quest to immortalize his love in verse.
After twelve lines of bluster, accusation, and false praise, the speaker relents, saying “do thy worst, old Time / My love shall in my verse ever live young.” The tone here changes. The speaker sounds almost resigned that regardless of his own efforts, Time will take his love’s beauty and, eventually, his love’s life. What consoles the speaker in the face of this loss is his belief that his love will live on in his poetry. The last line, however, is ambiguous. Does “love” here mean an idea of the person he loves, or does it mean the affection he holds for that person? The former would be in keeping with the speaker’s representation of himself as an enemy of Time, someone committed to preserving the image of someone else. The latter would tell us that perhaps the speaker’s motivations are not as selfless as he would have readers believe. The irony is that in ending the poem on an ambiguous note, the protagonist of the poem adopts some of the characteristics of his proclaimed antagonist. Time, in Shakespeare’s case, has been his ally, not his foe, as a virtual industry dedicated to figuring out just what he did mean, in his poems as well as his plays, has grown throughout the years.
Source: Chris Semansky, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 2000.
Booth, Stephen, Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Yale University Press, 1977.
Hardin, Craig, Ed., The Complete Works of Shakespeare, Scott, Foresman and Company, 1973.
Martin, Philip, Shakespeare’s Sonnets: Self, Love and Art, Cambridge University Press, 1972.
Muir, Kenneth, Shakespeare’s Sonnets, George Allen and Unwin, 1979.
Rowse, A. L., Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Harper and Row, 1964.
Sitwell, Edith, A Notebook on William Shakespeare, Beacon Press, 1961.
Smith, Hallett, The Tension of the Lyre: Poetry in Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Huntingdon Library, 1981.
Auden, W. H. “Introduction,” in Shakespeare: The Sonnets, edited by William Burto, Penguin, 1999.
A lively, opinionated essay on the sonnets by one of the finest twentieth century poets. Auden pours scorn on the attempt to identify the real life characters in the sonnets, but he does argue that the primary experience that gave rise to the sonnets was a mystical perception of what he calls the Vision of Eros.
Bloom, Harold, Ed, William Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Modern Critical Interpretations, Chelsea House, 1987.
This is a collection of six critical essays on the sonnets. The essays are of varying difficulty; the most useful for the beginning student is C. L. Barber’s “An Essay on Shakespeare’s Sonnets,” in which he argues that Shakespeare uses the sonnets as a vehicle for the transformation of suffering into passion.
Blomquist, Eric, Sonnet Central Web Site. http://www.sonnets.org/
This is an excellent collection of sonnets from all periods, including a large selection of Elizabethan sonnets, as well as some critical essays. The essays are somewhat dated (date of publication ranges from 1885 to 1917) but are still useful. In addition, users may post their own sonnets and vote in a sonnet v. sonnet contest.
Fussell, Paul, Poetic Meter and Poetic Form, Revised edition, Random House, 1979.
This is a very clearly written guide to the varieties of meter and poetic forms in English poetry. It includes a chapter on the sonnet which explains the structure of the Shakespearean sonnet and how it differs from the Petrarchan form.
Leishman, J. B., Themes and Variations in Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Harper, 1963.
Leishman explores the theme of immortalization by means of poetry from Roman authors such as Pindar, to Petrarch, the French poet Pierre de Ronsard, and Shakespeare’s English predecessors. Leishman also examines the theme of “devouring time and fading beauty” from the ancient Greeks to Shakespeare. What emerges from the study is that Shakespeare’s treatment of these themes was subtly different from those of his predecessors.
Lever, J. W., The Elizabethan Love Sonnet, Methuen, 1956.
Lever includes chapters on the Petrarchan sonnet and Elizabethan sonneteers such as Wyatt, Surrey, Sidney, and Spenser. He follows this with a masterful and readable exposition of Shakespeare’s sonnets, which he sees as the finest examples of lyric poetry in the Elizabethan age.