sonnet-19

As the sequence of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets dives into its second section–the love poems to the Young Man–in number 19 we get a taste of Shakespeare’s sense of ‘Time.’ It’s nice to be right (in my own life I’m occasionally right) but here Shakespeare was right now only when he wrote this sonnet, but he’s still right four hundred years later: the only thing that can combat the destruction of Time is the power of Art.

This sonnet is not considered to be among his greatest, but I think it’s fantastic for its vivid animal imagery describing time’s devouring power. It starts with:

            And Earth devour her own sweet brood;  

            Pluck the keen teeth from the fierce tiger’s jaws…

In addition to being a sonnet that’s a lot of fun to read aloud, if you remember my little tutorial from a week ago, Sonnet 19 breaks one of the rules of the Shakespearean sonnet. The ‘turn’ in the argument begins one line early; not at the start of the third quatrain, but in the last line of the second quatrain:

             But I forbid thee one most heinous crime.  

I don’t know if this should be considered a ‘flaw’ in this sonnet or not. Certainly Shakespeare was aware of it; perhaps for the sake of balance and argument, he chose to place the turn in his argument one line early. Or I perhaps it was too hard to fix. That I kind of doubt–he was the master of this form. I’ve tried writing Shakespearean sonnets, and it’s incredibly difficult to construct anything that makes sense, reads well, doesn’t mix metaphors, follows the proscribed meter and rhyme, follows the sonnet form, and is good enough to still be read four hundred years later.

Flaw or not, Time devours everything but Art.

19

Devouring Time, blunt thou the lion’s paws,
And make the earth devour her own sweet brood;
Pluck the keen teeth from the fierce tiger’s jaws,
And burn the long-lived phoenix in her blood;
Make glad and sorry seasons as thou fleet’st,
And do whate’er thou wilt, swift-footed Time,
To the wide world and all her fading sweets;
But I forbid thee one most heinous crime:
O, carve not with thy hours my love’s fair brow,
Nor draw no lines there with thine antique pen;
Him in thy course untainted do allow
For beauty’s pattern to succeeding men.
Yet, do thy worst, old Time: despite thy wrong,
My love shall in my verse ever live young.

 

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