Sonnets 11–21

Sonnet 11
As fast as thou shalt wane, so fast thou grow'st,
In one of thine, from that which thou departest;
And that fresh blood which youngly thou bestow'st,
Thou mayst call thine when thou from youth convertest,
Herein lives wisdom, beauty, and increase;
Without this folly, age, and cold decay:
If all were minded so, the times should cease
And threescore year would make the world away.
Let those whom nature hath not made for store,
Harsh, featureless, and rude, barrenly perish:
Look, whom she best endow'd, she gave thee more;
Which bounteous gift thou shouldst in bounty cherish:
     She carv'd thee for her seal, and meant thereby,
     Thou shouldst print more, not let that copy die.

Sonnet 12
When I do count the clock that tells the time,
And see the brave day sunk in hideous night;
When I behold the violet past prime,
And sable curls, all silvered o'er with white;
When lofty trees I see barren of leaves,
Which erst from heat did canopy the herd,
And summer's green all girded up in sheaves,
Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard,
Then of thy beauty do I question make,
That thou among the wastes of time must go,
Since sweets and beauties do themselves forsake
And die as fast as they see others grow;
     And nothing 'gainst Time's scythe can make defence
     Save breed, to brave him when he takes thee hence.

Sonnet 13
O! that you were your self; but, love you are
No longer yours, than you your self here live:
Against this coming end you should prepare,
And your sweet semblance to some other give:
So should that beauty which you hold in lease
Find no determination; then you were
Yourself again, after yourself's decease,
When your sweet issue your sweet form should bear.
Who lets so fair a house fall to decay,
Which husbandry in honour might uphold,
Against the stormy gusts of winter's day
And barren rage of death's eternal cold?
     O! none but unthrifts. Dear my love, you know,
     You had a father: let your son say so.

Sonnet 14

Not from the stars do I my judgement pluck;
And yet methinks I have astronomy,
But not to tell of good or evil luck,
Of plagues, of dearths, or seasons' quality;
Nor can I fortune to brief minutes tell,
Pointing to each his thunder, rain and wind,
Or say with princes if it shall go well
By oft predict that I in heaven find:
But from thine eyes my knowledge I derive,
And constant stars in them I read such art
As Truth and beauty shall together thrive,
If from thyself, to store thou wouldst convert;
     Or else of thee this I prognosticate:
     Thy end is truth's and beauty's doom and date.

Sonnet 15
When I consider every thing that grows
Holds in perfection but a little moment,
That this huge stage presenteth nought but shows
Whereon the stars in secret influence comment;
When I perceive that men as plants increase,
Cheered and checked even by the self-same sky,
Vaunt in their youthful sap, at height decrease,
And wear their brave state out of memory;
Then the conceit of this inconstant stay
Sets you most rich in youth before my sight,
Where wasteful Time debateth with decay
To change your day of youth to sullied night,
     And all in war with Time for love of you,
     As he takes from you, I engraft you new.

Sonnet 16
But wherefore do not you a mightier way
Make war upon this bloody tyrant, Time?
And fortify your self in your decay
With means more blessed than my barren rhyme?
Now stand you on the top of happy hours,
And many maiden gardens, yet unset,
With virtuous wish would bear you living flowers,
Much liker than your painted counterfeit:
So should the lines of life that life repair,
Which this, Time's pencil, or my pupil pen,
Neither in inward worth nor outward fair,
Can make you live your self in eyes of men.
     To give away yourself, keeps yourself still,
     And you must live, drawn by your own sweet skill.

Sonnet 17
Who will believe my verse in time to come,
If it were fill'd with your most high deserts?
Though yet heaven knows it is but as a tomb
Which hides your life, and shows not half your parts.
If I could write the beauty of your eyes,
And in fresh numbers number all your graces,
The age to come would say 'This poet lies;
Such heavenly touches ne'er touch'd earthly faces.'
So should my papers, yellow'd with their age,
Be scorn'd, like old men of less truth than tongue,
And your true rights be term'd a poet's rage
And stretched metre of an antique song:
     But were some child of yours alive that time,
     You should live twice,--in it, and in my rhyme.

Sonnet 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-liv'd phoenix, in her blood;
Make glad and sorry seasons as thou fleets,
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.

Sonnet 20
A woman's face with nature's own hand painted,
Hast thou, the master mistress of my passion;
A woman's gentle heart, but not acquainted
With shifting change, as is false women's fashion:
An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling,
Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;
A man in hue all 'hues' in his controlling,
Which steals men's eyes and women's souls amazeth.
And for a woman wert thou first created;
Till Nature, as she wrought thee, fell a-doting,
And by addition me of thee defeated,
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
     But since she prick'd thee out for women's pleasure,
     Mine be thy love and thy love's use their treasure.

Footnotes

  1. The speaker shifts back to his procreation arguments here, describing his own ability to preserve the beauty of the fair youth through poetry as inadequate in comparison to the physical evidence that a child would provide. “Barren” typically refers to land that cannot be used to grow crops, but it is also a derogatory term used to describe infertility. In the context of his encouraging the fair youth to have a child, the speaker labels his verse barren, indicating that he is unable to successfully reproduce the beauty of the fair youth in his works.

    — Marissa, Owl Eyes Staff
  2. 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.

    — Marissa, Owl Eyes Staff
  3. The verb “prognosticate” means to foretell or prophesize. However, the speaker does not base his predictions on astronomy or religion, but rather on the feeling he has when looking into his beloved’s eyes. The speaker’s love for the fair youth has led him to believe that upon the death of his beloved, all that is beautiful and true will cease to exist. He uses this idea to bolster his argument that the fair youth needs to have a child. He raises the stakes by insinuating that it is not just the fair youth’s beauty that is at stake, but the very ideals of truth and beauty.

    — Marissa, Owl Eyes Staff
  4. The speaker employs a metaphor that compares the fair youth’s family lineage to a house. Family lines are often referred to as “houses,” especially amongst the nobility. The speaker extends this idea and compares the fair youth’s body to a house that needs upkeep. If the fair youth dies without a male heir, then his house will fall to decay since there will be no one to continue the legacy of his beauty. The specific reference to a son invokes the patrilineal nature of succession in Elizabethan England, where sons inherited the titles and wealth of their fathers, just as the speaker hopes the fair youth’s son will inherit his beauty.

    — Marissa, Owl Eyes Staff
  5. 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.

    — Marissa, Owl Eyes Staff
  6. For in-depth look at “Sonnet 19,” read our expert analysis on its own page.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  7. For in-depth look at “Sonnet 18,” read our expert analysis on its own page.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  8. One of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593), is often cited as a major influence on his works. Marlowe was well noted for depicting homosexuality and homoeroticism in his writings, taboo subjects in Elizabethan England. In order for works which featured homosexual relationships or sentiments to be palatable to the general public, writers often had to “disclaim” the content as morally transgressive by punishing homosexual characters within the narrative. Alternatively, they could include passages which assured readers that nothing “deviant” was happening by emphasizing the pure, platonic nature of the relationships and rejecting the idea of carnal contact. The speaker acknowledges these realities in his lament over Nature’s decision to make his beloved a man.

    — Owl Eyes Reader
  9. Sonnet 17 ends with a final appeal to the fair youth to have a child. It also marks the transition between the first 17 sonnets, which are often called the “Procreation Sonnets,” and the rest of the Fair Youth sequence, which extends to Sonnet 126. The speaker assures the fair youth that if he has a child, not only will his beauty live on and lend credence to the speaker’s verse, but he will also “live twice” after his death since both his child and the speaker’s poetry will preserve him.

    — Owl Eyes Reader
  10. The speaker continues to insist that the fair youth should have a child by crafting a metaphor that compares procreation to print publication and the youth to “nature’s seal.” In order to print a book on a Renaissance-era printing press, developed by Johannes Gutenberg in 1440, metal blocks were carved with letters and symbols, a process that could take hours or days, before being set into the press. Nature “carved” the fair youth so that he would go on to procreate, or “print more” copies of himself, adding an element of obligation to the speaker’s encouragement. It is no longer just the speaker that the fair youth must appease, but nature herself, who took care to “carve” him so beautifully.

    — Owl Eyes Reader
  11. The speaker compares his addressee (likely a young, male aristocrat) to a summer's day. However, the comparison is backwards. Summer is measured against the young man and found lacking: he is "more lovely and more temperate," given that summer is short and can be brutally hot. Though the young man's beauty and youth cannot last forever, the speaker concludes that both can be immortalized through poetry.

    — Sarah, Owl Eyes Staff
  12. The personification of death as a character who is proud of bringing about mortality is further explored in the sonnet [“Death Be Not Proud”] (https://www.owleyes.org/text/death-be-not-proud) by John Donne, published in 1633. In Sonnet 18, and throughout the entire sonnet sequence, the speaker casts death and time as enemies who seek to destroy humans. Donne’s sonnet further explores this concept, with a specific focus on the ways that humans overcome death.

    — William Delaney
  13. The speaker speculates about how his poetry will be perceived by future generations if he writes about the beauty of the fair youth. He worries that no one will believe his descriptions and that he will be seen as an old man prone to exaggeration and falsehood.

    — William Delaney
  14. The speaker praises the fair youth as having all the beauty and gentleness of a woman, but none of the fickleness that the speaker attributes to them. He goes on to say that he believes his beloved was “first created” as a woman. However, Nature ended up “doting” on the fair youth and added an “addition” during his creation, which is implied to be male genitalia. Sonnet 20 is often contested in terms of the relationship between the speaker and his beloved. Some scholars interpret the speaker’s lament over Nature’s decision to make the fair youth male as an indication of a deep platonic affection. Others view the sonnet as a whole as an admission of the speaker’s homosexual interest in the youth.

    — William Delaney
  15. 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.

    — William Delaney