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The Role of Time in Shakespeare’s Sonnets
When you go grocery shopping for the week, you usually write a list so that you can get everything that you need. If you forget to write your list down, you will most likely have a harder time remembering everything, and you may even realize that you forgot some items after you get back from the store. From this, we can conclude that writing things down allows you to remember things for longer periods of time. This idea that writing helps improve memory has been studied by countless researchers (e.g. Bohay, Blakely, Tamplin, and Radvansky in their paper, “Note Taking, Review, Memory, and Comprehension.”) If it is not written down, then Time itself will destroy it- at least in the context of Shakespeare.
William Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets in his lifetime, which explore deep themes such as the fleeting nature of human life. In them, he introduces four main characters: the Speaker, Fair Youth, Time, and the Dark Lady. One might assume that Shakespeare is writing these sonnets as himself, but since the speaker never identifies himself, scholars are unsure whether or not this is the case. Shakespeare addresses the entirety of sonnets 1-126 to Fair Youth, a beautiful young man whom many consider to be Shakespeare’s lover. Another character, Time, is personified as an enemy who “robs youths and lovers of their beauty and reduces the world to dust and ruin.” He is based off of the Greek deity Kronos, the god of Time. The last character, the Dark Lady, appears after sonnet 126, now that the Speaker finishes addressing Fair Youth. Their relationship in the sonnets is overtly sexual, and “sparks shame, guilt, and regret in the speaker.”
I will be focusing on Time in this thesis because it is a theme in most of the sonnets, whether explicitly or implicitly. Shakespeare presents the argument that poetry is immortal- it is relevant in the context of the sonnet sequence, and it also happens to apply to us readers as well. In this paper, I argue that Shakespeare’s unique view of time allowed his sonnets to be read and praised even hundreds of years after his death. I also believe that we can apply his view of time to other authors’ works, and even to our own writing. I do this by fully analyzing sonnet 18, his most famous one, as well as talking about a number of his other sonnets that mention time in the Fair Youth sonnet sequence. Afterwards, by using his Time argument, I will present ways that we can apply it to reading and writing.
Before I analyze sonnet 18, there is some controversy behind the order of the sonnets that needs to be addressed. Some scholars say that the sonnets are meant to be read in order. For example, Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye comments:
It is a reasonable assumption that Sonnets 1 through 126 are in sequence. There is a logic and rightness in their order which is greatly superior to that of any proposed rearrangement… Sonnet 126, a twelve-line poem in couplets containing a masterly summary of the themes and images of the beautiful youth group, is inescapably the envoy of the series – any interpretation that attempts to remove it from this position must have something wrong with it.
However, other interpreters conclude the opposite: “As for the larger structure of the sonnet sequence, it is important to note that, as Shakespeare provided no explanation for the intentions behind his sonnets, the order in which he intended them to appear is unknown.” While it is true that Shakespeare provided little context for the sonnets, I agree more with Frye’s statement because of the summary and conclusion in sonnet 126, which I will analyze later.
This controversy is important because Shakespeare describes time in two different ways, distinguished by the order in which they are read. Scholar Yonkun Wan says this about time in Shakespeare’s sonnets:
Shakespeare is hauntingly preoccupied with the passing of time and everything that it entails, including mortality, memory, inevitability, and change. Although he is distressed over such things that he has no control over, he devotes much of his writing in the sonnets to how to fight a great and vain battle against time itself with two kinds of choices: breed and verse.
In the first seventeen sonnets, Shakespeare discusses “breed,” in which he encourages the young man, Fair Youth, to have children in order to preserve his beauty. This is shown through lines such as in sonnet 3, “But if thou live, remember’d not to be / Die single, and thy image does with thee,” meaning that if Fair Youth dies without having children, then his image and legacy die with him. Within these first seventeen sonnets as well, Shakespeare shows a burning hatred towards time, seen in sonnet 12, “And nothing ‘gainst Time’s scythe can make defence / Save breed, to brave him when he takes thee hence;” and sonnet 16, “But wherefore do not you a mightier way / Make war upon this bloody tyrant, Time?” Since the young man will die, Shakespeare sees Time as the enemy, so he is frantically trying to come up with a solution.
Lastly within the “breed” sonnets is sonnet 17, which I would say is a transition between the first group of sonnets and the second group, the “verse” sonnets. In the last two lines of sonnet 17, Shakespeare says, “But were some child of yours alive that time, / You should live twice, in it and in my rhyme.” This is a beautiful transition to the next group of sonnets, because as Fair Youth has shown he is unwilling to have children, Shakespeare has the realization that he can preserve his beauty in his poetry. This is a better solution to breeding because it is not realistic. Expecting someone to have children for the sole purpose of preserving beauty is unrealistic and quite creepy. Although writing hundreds of love poems is not any less creepy, Shakespeare’s goal of preserving Fair Youth’s beauty is achieved. And so, sonnets 18 through 126 attempt to praise Fair Youth as well as show a larger goal: poetry can indeed last forever. Now, I will be focusing on analyzing sonnet 18.
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date;
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm'd;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm'd;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
In this sonnet, Shakespeare compares Fair Youth to summer, a metaphor for beauty throughout the entire poem. He describes all the things wrong about summer in the first two quatrains, such as it being too short, or the sun being too hot and too dim. Shakespeare sighs in lines 7-8 about how everything eventually loses its beauty, “accidentally or by the action of time,” In line 9, he says, “But thy eternal summer shall not fade,” which is the main turning point in this sonnet, fittingly starting off the third quatrain. He is now talking about how his beauty will never go away, contrasting the previous lines. The speaker concludes by saying that every man, not just him, will see the young man’s beauty for generations to come. Scholar Moreira says in response, “as long as there are men living, the poet’s verse will live too and allow the Youth’s beauty to live in it.”
Time plays a major role in this sonnet, especially in the third quatrain and concluding couplet. Since Shakespeare is now concerned with preserving the young man’s beauty for the rest of time, he must present a convincing argument for why anyone should listen, and does so by providing the metaphor of summer. These last two lines, “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, / so long lives this, and this gives life to thee,” are essential to understanding not only this poem, but to how we as readers can apply it. “The speaker is concerned with time, decay, and aging. These topics of mortality trouble him more because of his infatuation with the youth. He personifies Time as a villain. He maps mortality onto the youth’s eventual fading beauty and the reason the youth needs his poetry.”
As long as men live, the sonnet still remains, and will remain until the end of time. Men are mortal beings, and Shakespeare writes these sonnets in order to preserve aspects of humanity. As men die off, and as the young grow old, Shakespeare’s sonnets continue to give life to those who read them. This is why I think Time is supposed to be a villain, because it causes nature and humans to die. However, the speaker pushes back against Time, saying that no matter what, words will never die, and that poetry is immortal. “We continue to read the poems partly because of this sense of contact with Shakespeare as he reaches out into the future, a sense of presence as well as a reminder of his absence.” To summarize, while Shakespeare is writing his sonnets to preserve the young man’s beauty, we as readers can also sympathize with that view outside of the context of the sonnets, and see that his poetry did in fact have an impact.
However, is there a reason that this particular sonnet gets more credit than the rest? Does Shakespeare’s view of time extend that far? Some say that the sonnet was “designed to be memorable.” Sonnet 18 begins the “verse” sonnets, so it is quite possible that it was meant to stick out to people who read them. Shakespeare’s claim that Fair Youth’s beauty will be remembered for countless generations because of his poem is very powerful, and could be a reason for why the sonnet is quoted often as a way for people to express love to their own lovers. Greg Jackson at the University of Massachusetts Boston, says:
Unlike most of the other sonnets, Shakespeare makes the speaker of this poem self-aware. While the poet praises his love's beauty, he also praises his own poetic ability in a way… This sense that a poem can grant immortality gives it a dramatic air of self-importance. He downplays the role of nature and builds up the role of art to transcend nature, time, and even death.
The stance above is extremely powerful when we think about it from our point of view, not just in the context of the sonnets. As a preview of what I am going to say later, art and poetry can make anything last forever, and sonnet 18 does just that. In short, Shakespeare’s self awareness is one of the reasons why Sonnet 18 is so well-known.
Some have other interpretations for why it is so famous- the lines in this poem are captivating and memorable. Professor Suman Chakraborty at the University of Glasgow claims: “In this sonnet all lovers discover their own voice. The lover Shakespeare in ‘Sonnet 18’ understands the significance of love as a life-giving force.” This interpretation along with Jackson’s explains why we should care about this sonnet. It is not only relatable, but Shakespeare’s goal of capturing Fair Youth’s beauty and carrying it on for generations was met; both the sonnet’s beauty and Shakespeare’s self awareness are what makes this sonnet so memorable.
The rest of the sonnets that address Fair Youth are a continuation of Shakespeare’s argument that “Poetry alone creates an imperishable image of the youth.” There are a few sonnets where Shakespeare draws back on his initial statement. He starts to concede that Time indeed is inevitable in sonnet 60: “And yet to times in hope my verse shall stand / Praising thy worth, despite his cruel hand.” Shakespeare is only hoping that his verse will remain against “his cruel hand,” (which is referring to Time itself) but he seems unsure of it in this particular sonnet. In the rest of the sonnet sequence, Shakespeare’s stance shifts slightly again, and almost combines sonnet 18 and sonnet 60’s view on time. “Now, the poet’s own sonnets are the only security the youth needs to gain eternal worth.”
The final sonnet in the Fair Youth Sequence, sonnet 126, is structured differently than all of the others because it is a conclusion to his argument. In lines 1-2, Shakespeare says, "O thou, my lovely boy, who in thy power / Dost hold time’s fickle glass, his sickle, hour,” which suggests that the young man now has power over Time itself. Shakespeare introduces Nature as well, who seems to have power over Time. He says in lines 5-8, “If nature, sovereign mistress over wrack, / As thou goest onwards still will pluck thee back, / She keeps thee to this purpose: that her skill / May time disgrace, and wretched minute kill.” Nature herself has chosen to keep Fair Youth away from destruction in order to destroy Time for good. However, Nature is not perfect and can even be synonymous with Time, looking back to sonnet 18, lines 7-8: “And every fair from fair sometimes declines, / By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d.” Moreira again says, “although Nature is ‘sovereign mistress over wrack’, she is not sovereign mistress over Time, that is, she cannot reverse Time’s action but only decide when it will take place.” To conclude the Fair Youth sonnet sequence, Shakespeare’s final statement is that Time is able to be beaten, but only temporarily, and the solution to destroying it is poetry.
Shakespeare, however, likely did not want any of these sonnets to be published in the first place. If this is the case, then how does his poetry help preserve the young man’s beauty? How does his view of time extend to the real world if he never intended for readers to ever see them? Some scholars suggest that Shakespeare needed to keep them private. Author Clinton Heylin suggests:
If the sonnets are interpreted in what I think these days would be considered a fairly normal way, which is that they are about a homosexual affair with a peer, [Shakespeare] was committing several criminal offenses… It would have been extremely socially sensitive to have a scandal come out that involved him and a male peer.
The two themes that Shakespeare intended to write about in his sonnets addressed to Fair Youth were breed and verse. Since Shakespeare basically gives up on the idea of convincing the young man to have children, the only other option was to write about how beautiful he was, even if no one ever saw his work. His poems were deeply personal, and some say that he “reveals far more about himself in the sonnets than he ever did in the plays.” A possible answer could be that he sent them to the Fair Youth himself, whoever he may be. Either way, since the sonnets did end up being published, we can still confidently say that his view of time extends to other areas of literature, even though it is not the way he intended.
Finally, what does this view of time do for us as readers and writers? The main point in the sonnet sequence is that poetry and writing can be used as a tool to make certain things or people immortal. If we want to remember something, we write about it, even for simple things like groceries. The human mind is flawed; we cannot remember every moment or detail of our lives, so we use writing to extend our memories. So what is so different about Shakespeare’s view of time as opposed to historians who do the same thing? To start, he sees Time as an enemy who brings about the destruction of humanity. He writes so that Fair Youth’s beauty will last forever, and his poetry does last forever, seeing that the sonnets are still widely known and are taught in most literature classes. “Nowadays, Shakespeare’s sonnets have been receiving high praise for their exquisite wording and imagery and for their refusal to stoop to sentimentality, and thus time witnesses these sonnets’ immortality just as he boasts.”
If we look at time through a historian’s perspective, they would likely say that it is important to look at events in the context they occurred in. Ari Helo, writing for the European Journal of American Studies, claims: “Everything the historian explains about the past rests on the notion of linearity of time.” If Time is the enemy as Shakespeare claims, then how can this be true? It is crucial to note the context of the word “time” in Helo’s quote and in Shakespeare’s sonnet sequence. Shakespeare argues that Time is the enemy because it destroys life and humanity, while Helo argues that all past events rely on time. Helo would not see Time as an enemy per se, but instead as a tool to help us recall past events. Still, both of these views can be held simultaneously because Shakespeare essentially says the same thing, just in a different way. The passage of time can destroy our memories, however, the only reason we remember significant historical events is because others before us wrote them down; this is what Shakespeare was trying to get at in the first place.
As readers of Shakespeare, I suggest that when looking at a sonnet or even one of his plays, we should look deeper into the work to see if Time plays a part in it. Even poems like sonnet 98 are concerned with time, although it does not seem like it at first glance. Lines 2-4 say, “When proud-pied April, dressed in all his trim / hath put a spirit of youth in everything, / That heavy Saturn laughed and leaped with him.” Through closer inspection, we learn that Saturn is a god whose history and mythology has been commonly interchanged with Kronos, the god of time. With this knowledge, we can attempt to see where Shakespeare’s argument stands in this particular sonnet.
However, we should not keep these analyses only within the realm of Shakespeare. When reading other poets and authors, I believe we should be analyzing their work by looking closely at whatever they are writing about and associate it with Time. If they are writing about how they’re feeling, then they are trying to preserve the memory of that emotion. If they are writing about a particular object, then they are trying to preserve the associations they have with that object. Even though implicitly, most poets seem to defy Time in their work by preserving what they are writing about. This goes back to the claim of “[building] up the role of art to transcend nature, time, and even death.” When time passes, the human mind forgets, and thus Time can be seen as an enemy in this sense. So whenever you write even a simple line down, try to keep time in mind, because writing things down automatically lasts longer than a thought.
In conclusion, Shakespeare’s view that Time is an enemy is useful for our understanding of not only his work, but other authors’ works, and even our own work. Time causes change, ruin and death, but words never change. Although we might not see it ourselves, even the simplest of writings can defy Time.
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see /
So long lives this and this gives life to thee.
A Guide to Shakespeare's Sonnets, Full Text - Characters and Themes - Owl Eyes, owleyes.org/text/a-guide-to-shakespeares-sonnets/read/characters-and-themes
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Chakraborty, Suman; Why is Shakespeare's Sonnet 18 so famous?, eNotes Editorial, 17 June 2008, enotes.com/homework-help/why-is-shakespeare-s-sonnet-18-so-famous-387045
Crawforth, Hannah; An Introduction to Shakespeare’s Sonnets, The British Library, June 20 2017, bl.uk/shakespeare/articles/an-introduction-to-shakespeares-sonnets
Helo, Ari; Letting Go of Narrative History: The Linearity of Time and the Art of Recounting the Past, 2016, doi.org/10.4000/ejas.11648
Field, Wallace; Why is Shakespeare's Sonnet 18 so famous?, eNotes Editorial, July 7 2020, enotes.com/homework-help/why-is-shakespeare-s-sonnet-18-so-famous-387045.
Heylin, Clinton; Did Shakespeare Want To Suppress His Sonnets? NPR, May 20 2009, npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=104317503
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Moreira, Lidia; The Conception of Time in Shakespeare’s Sonnets, A Cor das Letras, Vol. 9, March 3 2017, pg 247-264
Shakespeare’s Sonnet Sequence, British Literature Wiki, sites.udel.edu/britlitwiki/shakespeares-sonnet-sequence/
Wan, Yongkun; Time: A Major Thematic Study of Shakespeare’s Sonnets,
Proceedings of the 2018 8th International Conference on Management, Education and Information (MEICI 2018), pg 471-473
William Shakespeare’s Sonnet Sequence; 1609