With some wonderful imagery of landscape and nature, this sonnet projects the capricious Fate of men onto a picture of the sun’s influence over the earth. Shakespeare uses an allegory quite typical of his history plays in likening a man to the sun, and the language of the poem certainly contains echoes of that dramatic verse. Like a prism acting on a ray of light the final couplet reveals and scatters many potential meanings lying hidden in the preceding lines, with a daring pun on ‘heaven’s sun’ that probes at the nature of divine Providence. Continue reading
This sonnet employs a mixture of theatrical, financial and religious imagery to convey a complex feeling the speaker towards his lover. It stretches between the bashful embarrassment of the first two lines and the implicit threatening of the speaker looking ‘for recompense’. The sonnet’s basic meaning, that love is better communicated in verse than face to face, is just the canvas onto which these nuances of tone and attitude are painted.
The first two images used by the speaker are striking for their difference in mood – the first a simple shyness, the second a more complex blend of ferocity and tameness. The simile of the actor is naturally a favorite of Shakespeare’s, drawing from the much used Elizabethan idea of ‘theatrum mundi’, ‘All the world’s a stage’ etc. The simple likeness between the nervous actor forgetting his lines and the nervous suitor unable to find the right words therefore carries with it all the associations of the ‘life as a play’ idea. This emphasizes the transience of life and humanity’s constant dissembling and is interested in ritual and ceremony. It conveys to the reader the fact that we ought to mistrust the eloquent rival suitor of line 12, just as we would in a play, and also promotes a kind of carpe diem attitude which clearly has a pertinence for the maiden being addressed. The essence of the simile – shyness in the speaker – is, however, simple in comparison with the image that follows. It is startling in its vagueness, ‘some fierce thing’ suggests an animal but clearly the intention is not to give us a clear mental picture. The point of contact between vehicle and tenor is the magnitude of feeling, but how strange that the emotion described here is not love but ‘rage’. As if the speaker was wary of sounding pitiable in the ‘actor’ simile, he here tries to assert a ferocity that rings hollow in its generality and lack of logic – why should ‘strength’s abundance’ weaken ‘his own heart’?
The ‘ceremony of love’ is both undermined and affirmed in the poem – where a contradictory attitude towards courtship itself is analogous to the speaker’s complex love for the maiden. The idea of ritual is closely linked to the theatrical imagery of lines 1 and 2, and therefore carries forward the idea of theatrum mundi which emphasizes the gap between superficial ceremony and genuine humanity. However, there is also a religious significance to the idea of ceremony which acts against the theatrical to affirm the role of ritual. The final couplet of the poem reveals that the speaker’s intention is not to invalidate ceremonial courtship but to reposition it from the physical to the visual: ‘silent love hath writ’ suggests a kind of scripture in poetry with love as the deity, and ‘hear with eyes’ sounds like the Biblical paradoxes beloved of Donne.
The seeming ugliness of the mixed metaphor in lines 7 and 8 implies a darker element within the speaker’s feeling. The incongruous images of ‘decay’,’burden’ and ‘might’ can all be accounted for individually. ‘Decay’ acts as a suppressed carpe diem motif, reminding the addressed lover that time is passing. The paradoxical ‘burden’ of ‘might’, when might would surely assist with a burden, is perhaps a continuation of the hollow assertion of strength in lines 3 and 4. The overall effect of the mixed metaphor, however, is to seem fragmentary and jagged. This signals an equally contradictory, equally ugly side to the speaker’s love, shown in the financial imagery of the poem. The pun on ‘rite’ in line 6 introduces the idea of ‘right’ or inheritance, suggesting the feeling of being owed something by the maiden the speaker is addressing. This is continued in ‘recompense’, implying through the image of commerce a lower, corrupted form of passion that works in opposition to the high, courtly ceremony operating explicitly in the poem. The speaker’s slight on his rival suitor, in whom the three ‘mores’s comically and subtly have us imagine a boorish, dull tone of voice, might suggest a reason for this darker current. Deep in the poem or in the imagined speaker’s mind, there is a subconscious, misogynistic ‘rage’ at the idea of the woman having two suitors, that gives rise to these suggestions of commoditized love with inevitable associations of prostitution.
The far dominant current of meaning in this sonnet presents a bashful, slightly comical speaker, light-heartedly dismissing his failures as a suitor by invoking the immortality of poetry and wittily ridiculing his rival. However, there is a small suggestion that his love isn’t as innocent as laudable as it seems, but rather based in a misogynistic notion of commoditized femininity.
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’.