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Personification in Shakespeare's Sonnets

Personification Examples in Shakespeare's Sonnets:

Sonnets 11–21

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"But I forbid thee one most heinous crime..."   (Sonnets 11–21)

Sonnet 19 establishes Time as a villainous force that destroys the body, plucking the teeth from a tiger and blunting the paws of a lion. The speaker tells Time to do what it will, but he “forbids” it to allow his love’s face to be spoiled by wrinkles or other signs of age. This sonnet is addressed directly to Time, contributing to the personification of the abstract concept as something tangible that can be reasoned with. The concept of time as a villain is a common theme. Andrew Marvell’s 1681 poem [“To His Coy Mistress”] (https://www.owleyes.org/text/to-his-coy-mistress) is another famous example that portrays aging and time as the enemies of lovers.

"So I, for fear of trust, forget to say The perfect ceremony of love's rite,..."   (Sonnets 21–30)

The speaker uses the metaphors of a forgetful actor and a raging beast to convey the state of being unable to portray his feelings accurately. He worries that the depth of his feelings cannot be communicated through words alone and beseeches his beloved to “hear with his eyes” and see the love in the way the speaker looks at him. This is a play on the metaphor that the eyes are the window to the soul, a metaphor found in literature dating back to Roman times. The speaker personifies his loving looks as messengers of his affection that seek out and “plead” with the fair youth. The speaker hopes for “recompense,” or reciprocal affection, from his beloved.

"churl Death..."   (Sonnets 31–40)

The word “churl” refers to a rustic, ill-mannered man. By personifying “Death” as a “churl,” the speaker demonstrates his disdain towards death for inevitably destroying the love between himself and the fair youth. He envisions himself dying before the fair youth, but hopes that through his poetry, their love will survive.

"Which heavily he answers with a groan,..."   (Sonnets 41–50)

In Sonnet 50, the speaker’s dreaded separation from the fair youth has arrived, and the speaker travels forth reluctantly. His misery is so great that it is depicted as a physical presence weighing down his journey. As the speaker angrily digs his spurs into the horse, the beast’s pained groan reminds the speaker of the woe he feels from being so far from the fair youth. Both speaker and horse are depicted as beasts of burden, with the horse having to carry the literal weight of the speaker and the speaker having to carry the burden of love.

"For nimble thought can jump both sea and land,..."   (Sonnets 41–50)

Throughout this sonnet, the speaker contrasts the corporeal with the cerebral by personifying thought as someone or something capable of jumping across “sea and land.” Despite the physical distance between himself and the fair youth, his thoughts “leap” and “jump” to reach the fair youth. The physical marks of their separation—“earth and water wrought”—remain stagnant, manifesting in the form of “heavy tears” on both their parts.

"To tie up envy, evermore enlarg'd,..."   (Sonnets 61–70)

The speaker denounces envy, personifying it as a savage beast which needs to be tied up and constrained. In contrast to the somber tone of the previous sonnet, the final couplet ends Sonnet 70 on a more hopeful note. The speaker suggests that if envy were abolished, the fair youth would be praised by “kingdoms of hearts.”

"Time's thievish progress to eternity...."   (Sonnets 71–80)

In Sonnet 77, one of the final sonnets from the decay and time sequence, the speaker despairs about the deterioration of time, memory, and beauty. Here, he personifies “Time” as a thief who bores on stealthily and incessantly. In the following line, he laments the fallibility of memory to capture human experience. These lines contribute to the sonnet’s theme of the fleeting nature of humanity as time inevitably progresses.

"the very worst of fortune's might;..."   (Sonnets 81–90)

Rather than Time or Death, Fortune has become the speaker’s adversary. In Elizabethan England, Fortune was viewed as an all-powerful and fickle force. The speaker urges his beloved to “join with the spite of fortune,” personifying fortune as a force actively working against the speaker’s happiness. Though the sonnet is addressed to the fair youth, and the woe the speaker predicts is due to the loss of the youth’s affections, it is still fortune that the speaker blames for his misery. Losing his beloved is “the very worst of fortune’s might,” implying that there is an external force working against the speaker and the fair youth. Even as he pleads with the youth for a swift desertion, the speaker still attributes the abandonment itself to an external entity.

"Sweet thief, ..."   (Sonnets 91–100)

In a continuation of Sonnets 97 and 98, Sonnet 99 associates the fair youth with the natural beauty of various flowers. Throughout the sonnet, the speaker alleges that the violet, personified as a “sweet thief,” has dipped its petals into the fair youth’s veins and stolen his color and vitality. Unlike the previous sonnets, however, Sonnet 99 stands out for its 15-line structure. The sonnet opens with a quintain, or five line stanza, thus forming a fifteen line sonnet. Readers and scholars can only conjecture for the reason behind this anomaly.

"Return forgetful Muse,..."   (Sonnets 91–100)

The speaker externalizes and personifies his inspiration in the form of a “Muse,” one of the goddesses of artistic inspiration from Greek mythology. His Muse has been “forgetful” and “resty,” meaning that the speaker has not had the will or inspiration to write about the youth. This sonnet is addressed directly to the “forgetful Muse” as the speaker chides her for focusing on “worthless” subjects rather than his beloved fair youth. The dramatic and impassioned language of previous sonnets fades as the speaker adopts a more detached and dutiful tone. Rather than being overcome by despair at the thought of the youth’s beauty fading, he simply asks his Muse to help him preserve it before Time catches up.

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