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Imagery in Shakespeare's Sonnets

Imagery Examples in Shakespeare's Sonnets:

Sonnets 1–10

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"When forty winters shall besiege thy brow, And dig deep trenches in thy beauty's field,..."   (Sonnets 1–10)

The speaker employs words and images associated with war in order to establish a conflict between age and beauty. To “besiege” is to surround an enemy in order to capture them, implying that the fair youth’s face is a battleground and the “trenches” in the “field” are a metaphor for wrinkles caused by age. The youth wears “proud livery,” or a uniform, further evoking the idea that his youthful beauty is being attacked by time and aging. The trope of Time as an enemy is continuous throughout the sonnets and forms the basis for the speaker’s arguments encouraging the fair youth to have a child.

"To change your day of youth to sullied night,..."   (Sonnets 11–21)

Notice the similarity in imagery between Sonnet 12 and Sonnet 15. Both poems invoke visual images of nature, specifically associating youth and beauty with daytime and aging and death with nighttime. They also share a similar structure, employing “when” clauses at the beginning of each quatrain and ending on a couplet that offers a way to defend against time. The main difference can be seen in the thematic shift that takes place in sonnet 15, with the emphasis moving away from the youth’s procreation to the speaker’s “war” against time. The speaker posits that even if time takes away his beloved’s beauty, the speaker’s poetry will preserve it.

" And nothing 'gainst Time's scythe can make defence      Save breed..."   (Sonnets 11–21)

Color imagery is prevalent in this sonnet, often in the context of decay. The “sable [black] curls” of youth turn to white with age, and the green foliage of summer is bundled up and stored away. Time is depicted as a destructive force which pushes away the “brave day” and ushers in the “hideous night.” The personification of Time also carries a “scythe,” a visual image associated with the figure of the grim reaper, a personification of death popularized in the 14th century during the outbreak of the Black Plague. This imagery makes the connection between the passage of time and mortality more explicit. The speaker reiterates that the only way to defend against “Time’s scythe” is to procreate.

"Looking on darkness which the blind do see..."   (Sonnets 21–30)

In a metaphor characteristic of Shakespeare, the speaker draws on a universal human experience. Here, the speaker conjures a terrifying moment of waking up in the middle of the night in a strange, pitch-dark room. The speaker is overcome with a metaphorical blindness even though his eyes are “open wide.”

"Roses have thorns, and silver fountains mud: Clouds and eclipses stain both moon and sun, And loathsome canker lives in sweetest bud. All men make faults,..."   (Sonnets 31–40)

In Sonnet 35, the speaker explains the misdeed the fair youth has commited, first mentioned in sonnet 33 at the start of the “estrangement sonnets.” Unlike the preceding sonnets, here the speaker takes on a more respectful and forgiving tone. Through nature-based imagery, the speaker says that human error is as natural as roses with thorns or trees with canker—a type of fungal disease that damages bark. He claims that since the fault has already been made, there is nothing he or the fair youth can do.

"whose shadow shadows doth make bright,..."   (Sonnets 41–50)

In a stark departure from the previous three sonnets, Sonnet 43 takes on a more lively and jubilant tone. Expressed through dichotomous imagery, the speaker dreams of the fair youth’s shadow, which makes his night as bright as day. The speaker expresses how “all days are nights” when he is alone, and how the fair youth’s shadow—which would normally darken the space around it—provides light, making “nights bright days.” The inversion of night and day, shadow and light, speak to the fair youth’s bright presence in the speaker’s nightly dreams, and the speaker’s anticipation about reuniting with his loved one.

"Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,..."   (Sonnets 61–70)

Through a series of questions, the speaker asks how beauty will survive the inevitable passing of time, especially if it is not as strong as “brass,” “earth,” “stone,” or “sea,” objects which exemplify stability, resistance, and endurance. His hopeful answer, which arrives toward the end of the sonnet, is that he will preserve and immortalize his love—the fair youth—through his poetry, whose “black ink” he envisions will “shine bright” in perpetuity.

"   This thought is as a death which cannot choose      But weep to have, that which it fears to lose...."   (Sonnets 61–70)

The cruelty of time continues to haunt the speaker as he ruminates on images of decay. “Rich-proud cost of outworn buried age” refers to elaborate burial structures and emphasizes that even the monuments people build to preserve their memories are subject to the ravages of time. The ocean is presented as “hungry” as it advances on the “kingdom of the shore,” conjuring images of an advancing army or siege. Unlike the previous sonnet, in which the speaker fights against Time with his poetry, this sonnet ends on a more pessimistic note. The speaker knows that Time will take his love away and that his poetry, like the burial monuments, is just as susceptible to decay as anything else.

"No longer mourn for..."   (Sonnets 71–80)

The assonance of the o sounds in the first four words of the sonnet, in combination with the evocative imagery and consonance in phrases like “surly sullen bell” and “this vile world with vilest worms to dwell,” establish a morose mood as the speaker envisions his own passing.

"sweet birds sang..."   (Sonnets 71–80)

The consonance of three s sounds in "sweet," "birds," and "sang," helps to create the auditory imagery of birds chirping. The image of songbirds alludes to the joyful and poetically productive past that the speaker nostalgically laments.

"proud-pied April..."   (Sonnets 91–100)

First attributed to Shakespeare, the word “proud-pied” means splendidly colored. The former adjective, “proud,” is generally associated with lavish clothing and the latter, “pied,” means variegated. Personifying April as someone lavishly and colorfully clothed, the speaker incorporates olfactory imagery of the “sweet smell of flowers” and the visual imagery of the redness of the rose and the whiteness of the lily flower. Summertime, according to the speaker, is bright and radiant.

"How like a winter hath my absence been From thee, the pleasure of the fleeting year!..."   (Sonnets 91–100)

Through dichotomous imagery, the speaker describes a period of separation from the fair youth. Although it is summer, the speaker experiences the frigidity of winter in the fair youth’s absence. He likens this separation to the barrenness if a widow’s womb, the quietude of mute birds, and the paleness of winter leaves. Contrasted against the “teeming” and “rich” fecundity of summer, the atmosphere of emptiness and hollowness during wintertime provides a glimpse into the speaker’s state of mind.

"For if it see the rud'st or gentlest sight, The most sweet favour or deformed'st creature, The mountain or the sea, the day or night: The crow, or dove, it shapes them to your feature...."   (Sonnets 111–120)

The speaker’s eyes deceive him now that he and the fair youth are physically apart. Authentic images of birds and flowers cannot take hold in his mind. Meanwhile, objects both of beauty and deformity—beasts, mountains, seas, day, night, crows, and doves—transform into the image of the fair youth. The speaker is so tortured by the fair youth’s absence that his image begins to permeate and and subsume everything he sees.

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