This poem follows all the principles of a Shakespearean sonnet, both in its form – crisply contained lines, standard rhyme scheme with a final couplet – as well as in theme – an idea pertaining to the basic essence of humanity, which is reflected upon and then twisted in the final couplet. In this case the theme is the transience of beauty, where the ravaging powers of time are considered through metephors, with the final suggestion that beauty might be immortalized in art, specifically poetry.
The list with which the poem opens aims to demonstrate the enormity of the problem described. The accumulation of objects, all with a figurative sense of power or endurance, are massed up and pitted against the strikingly apostrophised ‘sad mortality’, and are ‘o’erswayed’. This epithet, we feel, may have carried more force than the word ‘sad’ now contains. Nonetheless the image of a morose, melancholic force of destruction is perfectly apt for Time: its action is not deliberate, inspired by anger or hatred, but rather gradual and inevitable.
The first four lines conclude with the comparison of ‘beauty’ to a ‘flower’, emphasizing the vulnerability and fragility of beauty. Each of the 4 line ABAB sections in the sonnet end with a question – there is no enjamement. This taughtness and neatness of sense is an outworking of the poise and control that typify the ideal Shakespeare sonnet, demonstrating virtuosity and perfect manipulation of phrasing.
The following four lines bigin with a mixed metaphor, where ‘summer’s honey breath’ is laid under ‘siege’ by Time. This metephor contains echoes of the Hamlet soliloquy, ‘to take arms against a sea of troubles’, therefore the surface meaning of ‘something weak against something strong’ is superceded by the implicit suggestion that something in beauty is impervious to time. We are made to wonder if the very fact of beauty’s fragility and ephemerality makes it invulnerable, just as a ‘breath’ cannot truly be laid under siege. This image anticipates the final line’s suggestion that an element of beauty is eternal.
The third set of 4 lines open with a dramatic exclamation, as the tone becomes increasingly desperate. The anaphora of lines 11 and 12 add to this atmosphere with another listing effect, almost as an accumulation of emotion. The lines are reminicent of a psalm or Biblical lament, with their balanced phrasing and language such as ‘miracle’. Worded as a rhetorical question, we are also reminded of the Book of Job. These allusions have two effects; firstly, they invest the poem with a significance and drama through the use of elevated, Biblical language. Secondly, our attention is drawn to the personified ‘Time’ figure, that seems almost to replace God in the poem. Beauty is Time’s ‘best jewel’, and it is Time that takes it away. In an equivalent poem by Herbert or Donne, the conclusion reached from the question posed here would surely be that God propogates beauty on earth, and restores it in heaven. It is therefore striking that Shakespeare makes no suggestion of this, seemingly deliberate in drawing attention to God’s absence. It would not be going too far to say that this is an atheistic approach to beauty.
In the final couplet, the ‘miracle’ is not beauty’s preservation in heaven, as we might expect, but rather a form of imortalization on earth in verse – ‘black ink’. The image acts in antithesis with the love ‘shining bright’, but as well as a literal meaning, it might refer to the object of beauty – we assume the poet’s ‘love’ – in her real state of destruction, where darkness carries the meaning of death with implied uncertainty about the nature of an afterlife.
This final resolution is proposed tentatively relative to the rest of the poem, the poet suggests that it is possible but not certain through the use of conditionals, ‘unless’, ‘might’. We are struck by the humility and vulnerability of the writer – uncertain as he is that his writings will survive and be read, thereby serving a record of his ‘beauty’.