Sonnet 106

When in the chronicle of wasted time 
I see descriptions of the fairest wights, 
And beauty making beautiful old rhyme,
In praise of ladies dead and lovely knights,
Then, in the blazon of sweet beauty's best, 
Of hand, of foot, of lip, of eye, of brow, 
I see their antique pen would have expressed 
Even such a beauty as you master now.
So all their praises are but prophecies 
Of this our time, all you prefiguring,
And, for they looked but with divining eyes, 
They had not skill enough your worth to sing:
     For we, which now behold these present days, 
     Have eyes to wonder, but lack tongues to praise.

Footnotes

  1. The poem’s final phrase, the concession that “we… lack tongues to praise” the fair youth in all his beauty, expresses one of the central themes of the sonnet sequence: the shortcomings of language. While the speaker often boasts of the power of his verse, there are many sonnets in which he laments his inability to do justice to the fair youth’s perfection.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  2. The use of “we” may also refer to the “rival poet” sequence in Shakespeare’s sonnets, a series of eight poems in which the speaker agonizes over the arrival of another poet who courts the fair youth. “We” includes all poets who “behold” the same youth and attempt to praise him.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  3. The speaker shifts his pronoun use from “I” to “we,” marking a depersonalization of his relationship with the fair youth. The majority of the Shakespeare’s sonnets are accounts of the personal, private love the speaker holds for the youth. Sonnet 106, however, makes the private public. The fair youth becomes an object for all to praise.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  4. This condemnation of past poets suggests that it was their lack of skill that prevented them from fully describing the youth’s beauty. The logical turn after this claim is that the speaker is the only poet who can properly sing his praises. However, the poet does not make this claim. He instead focuses on the instability and inadequacy of language rather than trumpeting his own talents.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  5. “Divining” means to have supernatural or magical insight into future events. This metaphor connects the eyes of the ancient poets to the speaker’s gaze on the youth. All of their perceptions of their individual love objects were moments in which they would peer into the future and witness the true beauty of the youth.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  6. The speaker uses “prefiguring” in both its connotative and literal meanings. Generally, to prefigure is to imagine an a future outcome or event. Tracing its Latin etymology, however, “prefigure” stems from the verb “figurare,” which means to create a representation of an object. In the context of Sonnet 106, this use of the word suggests that past poets were predicting the fair youth but also, more literally, depicting him in advance.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  7. The volta marks a shift from vague descriptions of love poetry and poets to a more literal sentiment: all love poetry of the past was a mere preparation for the beloved. The alliteration between “praises” and “prophecies” cements the connection between the old poetry and the speaker’s youth.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  8. “Master” is conspicuously the male form of “mistress.” Thus the use of “master” underscores the unusual nature of the poem. While a typical blazon describes the poet’s mistress, a female character, the subject of the sonnets is the male youth. The speaker keeps this reversal of “mistress” subtle by using “master” in its verb form.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  9. The speaker refers to past love poetry through the metonym of the “antique pen.” The word “antique” ages the work in a somewhat negative light. The speaker is subtly labeling all past love poems outdated.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  10. The blazon in line 6 is noticeably gender-neutral in its choice of body parts. While a classic Petrarchan sonnet might describe the beloved’s long, flowing hair or fair breast, Sonnet 106 follows an androgynous list: hands, feet, lips, eyes and brows.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  11. Nancy Vickers argues that the blazon tradition is a reaction to the myth of Diana and Actaeon. In the myth, the hunter Actaeon is punished for his lustful gaze on the bathing goddess Diana by being turned into a stag and ripped apart by his own dogs. Vickers claims that the blazon is a way in which the poet fragments his love object before she is able to shred him to pieces.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  12. Here, “sweet beauty’s best” takes the form of this catalogue of physical parts: hands, feet, lips, eyes, and brows. While these are common tropes within love poetry, these items are surprisingly gender neutral because of their lack of physical comparison. With this move, the speaker foreshadows his later claim, that language lacks the power to describe or truly praise pure beauty—a single word cannot get at the essence of the object, it can only approximate the essence by using metaphors.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  13. The blazon tradition is a poetic trope in which the speaker of the poem fragments the love object into her parts in order to describe each part as perfect and beautiful. For example, lips as red as a rose, eyes as bright as the sun, etc. Notice that this is not a blazon, but rather a description of the process of blazon.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  14. The speaker understands that his love poetry is unusual in that his subject, the fair youth, is male. He prepares the reader for a repurposing of the blazon tradition with the image of “ladies dead and lovely knights.” The phrase connotes that the tradition of praising ladies is “dead” in favor of “lovely knights”—male objects of desire.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  15. “Wights” are supernatural spirits or fairies. By “wights,” the speaker refers to the subjects of Petrarchan love poetry, the ethereal women to whom poets would sing praises. However, a “wight” also means a person who is regarded as unfortunate. The double meaning of this word hints at the later turn in the poem where the speaker claims that all previous love objects were but incarnations of his own beloved.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  16. “Wasted time” takes on two meanings here. It signifies both that this time has passed and that the time was used poorly. This suggests that the endeavors of ancient writers, who we will later find out are those who wrote love poetry, were a waste of time. The speaker will go on to claim that these writers did not have the skills or the proper object to describe.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff