In celebration of the first week of Autumn, I’d like to share one of my favorite darker sonnets. If you read or hear even a little bit of Shakespeare, it doesn’t take long to realize this Elizabethan poet and playwright was obsessed with time: time’s passage and its inevitable destruction of everything living, of everything we poor mortals love.
When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defaced
The rich proud cost of outworn buried age;
When sometime lofty towers I see down-razed
And brass eternal slave to mortal rage;
When I have seen the hungry ocean gain
Advantage on the kingdom of the shore,
And the firm soil win of the watery main,
Increasing store with loss and loss with store;
When I have seen such interchange of state,
Or state itself confounded to decay;
Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate,
That Time will come and take my love away.
This thought is as a death, which cannot choose
But weep to have that which it fears to lose.
This verse is part of the long cycle of Young Man sonnets, and in some ways this sonnet is very similar to others in that it bemoans the destructive nature of time’s passage. But whereas other sonnets find a way to uplift–usually by attesting that the power of Poetry will defeat time–this one gives up in despair.
Such beauty in these dark rhymes: ‘Increasing store with loss and loss with store’, or ‘Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate.’
Ironically, these verses do have the power to endure, for they speak to the universal truth of our humanity: we live and inevitably love. But we’re mortal, and so eventually all of those things we love so dearly pass from the Earth. Or we pass. It’s a tough thing to accept, something we try–for a while at least–to hide from our children.
Why hide it? For despite this sonnet’s despair, we do have Art, we do have Poetry. These simple etched lines shall outlive all of us, the closest any of us can ever come to defeating time.
The image is of Great Saint Mary’s clock, an Elizabethan timepiece.