The Sonnets (4)

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That Time of Year: sonnets 12, 18, 64, 65, and 73

It would be unfair to the beauty, if not to the power of Shakespeare's sonnets to leave our discussion of them with the bitter aftertaste of sexual disillusionment. The sonnets which deal with a different, and ultimately a more universal destroyer of beauty are to my mind among the most moving poems ever written.

What answer can a poet find to the destrucion of beauty, physical or spiritual, by time and death?

The first group of sonnets (numbers 1-20) propose fertility as an answer: a child will re-create the beauty lost by the parent. Look at sonnet 12, and you will see, I think, why this solution is abandoned in what are presumably the later sonnets. Read it, substituting two nonsense syllables for "Save breed" in the last line. The whole poem then presents a powerful and consistent argument for the ruthlessness of Time's scythe. Summer itself dies by the same mechanism which caused it to grow--the striking image is of the hay-cart as a bier, with the hay as summer's "white and bristly beard"--(l.12).

How convincing are the two words "Save breed" when you put them back in the poem?

An alternate answer is the traditional one that art provides a means of preserving beauty. You will probably have read sonnet 18 before; read it again, remembering this time the positive power of love as Castiglione presents it. Summer, and the loved one's beauty, will be preserved in the sonnet. And indeed, in some sort they are, by the very fact that you and I are reading the poem, though it is more the love itself than the loved one's beauty which we respond to.

But how permanent is art itself?

And how much is the preservation of beauty in art an answer to the death of the individual?

Two sonnets form a unit, a "fearful meditation" on these questions: numbers 64 and 65.

In sonnet 64, Shakespeare is perhaps thinking of the monasteries ruined in the reign of Henry VIII, with their towers and their vandalized brass monuments. And he must have seen or heard of those areas of England, where within the living memory of people in his time towns now inland had been ports on the south coast, and where on the east coast villages had been drowned by the advancing sea. The whole effect is of a terrifying instability--the renaissance word was "mutability"--or, in this poem, "interchange of state" (9).

The illustration is of the ruins of Tintern Abbey (later made famous by Wordsworth).

Ruins of Tintern Abbey

In a world of such terrifyingly cosmic change, how can individual love survive?

Sonnet 65 begins with a summary of Sonnet 64: the relentless mutability of seemingly permanent human monuments (brass and stone) and even the massive monuments of nature, the sea and the land. Mutability is not only powerful, its action is passionately destructive, a "rage."

And how can beauty survive, if its most characteristic action is the fragile unfolding of a flower?

Look at the density of image in lines 9-10; we keep jewels in chests to preserve them in safety, but the greatest jewels Time produces--flowers, people--are fated to end in (or on) "Time's chest," a coffin. And notice the rhythmic power of the almost monosyllabic lines from line 10 on. No wonder that the cheerfully confident final couplet of sonnet 18 is modified: black ink may preserve beauty, by a miracle, but nothing can be certain in the face of the strength of Time's assault.

As a final meditation, read and re-read sonnet 73. The dramatic situation is one where the Poet sees himself as much older than the Loved One (no pronoun, again). In 1609 when the sonnets were (apparently without Shakespeare's approval) printed, he was only 45 years old, and the general agreement is that most of the sonnets were written quite a bit earlier. But here the Poet says through the images that he is on the very threshold of death. Dwell on line 4; the image is of ruined monasteries again, the "choirs" referring to the benches where the choir sat during the service.

How do you feel about night and death when you read line 8?

Look carefully at lines 9-12, where there is an almost metaphysical image of the fires of life which must inevitably consume the very fuel that keeps them burning.

Did you notice that the couplet refers not to the Poet's love, but the Loved One's love for he Poet? What effect does this change have on the poem?

Does the sonnet attempt in any way to propose a way of preserving love in the face of death?

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This page last updated April 20, 1997. Enquiries to Michael Best,
© Michael Best, The University of Victoria, and the Open University of B.C.