Summary: The Concept Of Time In Shakespeare's Sonnets Through Children, Nature, Love and Death

Categories: William Shakespeare

Shakespeare has explored the concept of time throughout his life, whether within his plays or in sonnets. In Shakespeare's Sonnets, three sonnets that stand out, in particular, are sonnets 12, 19 and 60. Each show perhaps, how individuals handle the passing of time and where its passing is noted. In sonnet 12 Shakespeare explores time through a clock, as nature decays and fair beauty dies in an inevitable cycle yet finds hope in the form of children. Sonnet 19, however, explores time as something animalistic as it ravages young beauties' faces and pleads for the youth of a lover.

Finally, sonnet 60 explores the passing of time as it acts on human life, using strong imagery of humans as pebbles on the shore. This essay hopes to explore all the techniques used by Shakespeare to create the in-depth, beautiful and intricate works for which he is known.

Shakespeare often tackles the concept of time by referring to offspring as a way of continuing one's legacy and that by having children, fair youth lives on.

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Sonnet 12's main focus is on having children and how that will continue fair youth; ‘the brave day sunk in hideous night' is a metaphor for the passage of time and towards death. However, in the last line when referring to facing death again, ‘save breed to brave him' the concept that having children, breeding, will triumph over death. This relates to ‘the brave day' as it is a metaphor for the sun and Shakespeare uses this wordplay because when originally spoken aloud, the sun sounds like son.

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Though the sun is killed by the night it rises again in the morning, just as when a son dies his son shall live on. line 7 also emphasises that it is the fair youth who should have children as they are in their prime ‘and summer's green all girded up in sheaves' the grass has been harvested just as the fruit is ripe, this is a juxtaposition to line 8 where the man is dead, too late for children just as it is too late to harvest. There is also the use of alliteration in line 6 the emphasis being placed on the sounds S and G, reminding the reader of summer being the prime of their lives and again drawing emphasis to the metaphor of harvesting. This relates to sonnet 60 as the second quatrain relates purely to the cycle of the sun rising and falling in relation to human life. It is a particularly strong metaphor as it seems to have biblical references, as the sun is crowned at midday so was Jesus. Line 8 of sonnet 60 relates time to God ‘And time, that gave, doth now his gift confound' (sonnet 60, line 8) perhaps this metaphorically be seen as humans being the children of time, just as Jesus was the child of God; time is what creates humans and also takes them away, it is something that no one can control or stop, it is almighty, much like God. Sonnet 19 focuses more on the preservation of youth through verse rather than offspring. ‘My love shall in my verse live ever young.'Sonnet 19 seems to struggle more with the concept of time passing and fair youth fading but instead of producing offspring to replace it, the speaker tries to battle time instead.

Another common theme used when exploring the concept of time is nature. In sonnet 19 Shakespeare uses variation between the meter which is iambic pentameter and spoken rhythm which can be heard when reading aloud. In the first quatrain time is seen plucking teeth and blunting paws from fierce animals, the destructive nature in the quatrain is brought out by metrical inversion. ‘blunt' in ‘blunt though the lion's paw' is a trochee instead of iamb putting more emphasis on the word. ‘sweet brood' in the second line is a spondee, which is two heavy stresses, this again replaces an iamb. Both examples place far more significance on the action highlighting the power time has over everything even the fiercest of beasts. At the beginning of line three there is a metrical inversion called trochaic that again highlights the word ‘pluck, this is followed by two spondees in the line ‘keen teeth'and ‘fierce tiger a large number of stresses in line three highlight the aggression and dominance that time has over the natural world. The sonnet progresses to a very calm and rhythmically stable poem as if the turbulence from the first quatrain is gone.Sonnet 12 discuses nature at great lengths yet remains an almost perfect iambic pentameter throughout containing no metrical inversions. This could be explained as the first line of the sonnet 12 refers to counting the clock, being made to keep time and consciously move minute by minute would explain the lack of diversity within the form. As well as this the sonnet itself shows more of an acceptance to the passing of time, there is no argument or plea for it to leave fair youth alone ‘and nothing ‘gainst times scythe can make defence'. Though there seem to be some dark undertones as time is shown as a reaper and therefore as death. Yet still, there is a feeling of acceptance and calm within the poem that perhaps would not have benefited from over stressed syllables.

Time may not be something that most people would immediately link with love, however, in many of Shakespeare's sonnets there is a clear link between, wanting more time or the fear of running out if time with those held dear. Both sonnet 60 and 19 show the struggle of watching a loved one age, while also exploring the emotions surrounding acceptance of time. Sonnet 60 shows that time may destroy everything around the speaker but that their love may live on in verse despite the passing of time. The concept of love is introduced only in the final couplet of the poem creating a twist like ending, offering that the love the speaker has may be able to beat time by intrusting fair beauty to the written language. The third quatrain of the poem time becomes a personified force that digs trenches reaping age upon fair youth. The strong imagery of time digging war trenches links back to love as it parallels how war rips young men away from home and life, dying far too young, running out of time before they had to chance to get old and experience love. However; it can be taken in a more figurative sense of time digging these war trenches on the faces of fair youth creating caricatures ‘time does transfix the flourish set on youth' time has not destroyed beauty but exaggerates features, creating something grotesque. Sonnet 19 is a direct address to time as the speaker pleads for the preservation of their love and for time ‘carve not with thy hours my love's fair brow', this seems more of a request from time yet at points grows more desperate. An interesting piece of imagery is the referral to time using an ‘antique pen' to draw lines on the lover's face, as the speaker is a poet it seems almost as though it is a battle to see who will prevail on deciding whether fair beauty shall live. Yet as the speaker later acknowledges, even winning the battle the love shall grow old but will remain a fair beauty within the verse. The constant referral to time as an artist as it carves brows and uses an antique pen links back to sonnet 60. It is as though time is again creating a grotesque caricature but unlike an artist creating something beautiful, whatever time touches is tainted with age although in both sonnets the speaker tries to preserve their fair beauty from time through their verse.

Finally, a concept that is inevitable when exploring time is the concept of death, as seasons change and humans grow old it becomes inevitable within the sonnets Shakespeare has written. Sonnet 12 has a unique perspective on death in comparison to the other two sonnets as from the start fully accepts aging and death as an inevitable state. The use of alliteration in lines such as ‘Bourne on the bier with white and bristly beard' makes for a stark contrast for the grizzly reality of the conceit of perhaps an old dead man being pulled away on a wagon. The extended metaphor of comparing human life to the seasons was highlighted by the use of alliteration as it relates to winter being death, with the repetition of the B sound has a much harsher sound than softer S sound used to describe summer. Yet the sonnet ends with not a conclusion but an opportunity for life and fair beauty to continue through offspring, reading the sonnet for a second time reveals that sonnet that once seems about only death could say that death is not the end but instead a legacy will live on through family. Both sonnet 19 and 60 also offer the notion that death is not the end, for those they love will live on despite time ending their lives and sonnets, poem and song of their beauty will possibly outlast time itself. In sonnet 60 Shakespeare opens with a beautiful metaphor comparing waves to minutes of the human life, ‘like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore, so do our minutes hasten to their end' the first quatrain matches with the idea of continuous motion, although normally iambic pentameter the use of trochee and spondee in the first two lines creates the effect of replacing the lines before it, just as the waves do. Unlike the ocean, however, the minutes of human life is limited. Much like the tranquil sonnet human lives come to an end.

Although no one can ever know what the true meanings and intentions in Shakespeare's sonnets it can be argued that once they were published it is as much the reader's opinion to interpret his work as it is his. Time is something that each individual must come to terms with and these three sonnets show the range of emotions that to this day are relatable to those worried about the future. Sonnet 60 stated ‘and yet to times in hope my verse shall stand' and around 430 years later people still discuss and study his work, marvelling at the craftsmanship. The desire that Shakespeare installed in many of the speakers of his sonnets came true, fair beauty has beaten time and lives on in verse.

Updated: Feb 19, 2024
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Summary: The Concept Of Time In Shakespeare's Sonnets Through Children, Nature, Love and Death. (2024, Feb 19). Retrieved from

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