Sonnet 60

Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore,
So do our minutes hasten to their end,
Each changing place with that which goes before,
In sequent toil all forwards do contend.
Nativity, once in the main of light,
Crawls to maturity, wherewith being crowned
Crooked eclipses 'gainst his glory fight,
And Time that gave doth now his gift confound.
Time doth transfix the flourish set on youth,
And delves the parallels in beauty's brow,
Feeds on the rarities of nature's truth,
And nothing stands but for his scythe to mow.
     And yet to times in hope my verse shall stand
     Praising thy worth, despite his cruel hand.

Footnotes

  1. The number 60 was chosen for this sonnet as 60 is a signifcant number for time. 60 is the number of minutes per hour and hours per minute.

    — nina
  2. As soon as the youth is referenced in the poem, Time is once again figured as “cruel.” “Despite” means in contempt of, or in opposing for to. This language recalls the tone of the sonnets that preceded Sonnet 60 in which the speaker threatened Time and claimed that his poetry could preserve the youth. This final turn challenges the tranquil and resigned tone of the rest of this poem.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  3. “Eclipses” reiterates the “sun” imagery suggested by “nativity.” In this metaphor, each human is born a sun, flooded in light, and then slowly broken down by time and age. Time “eclipses” innocence with the harsh realities of the world.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  4. “Thy” in this final line refers to the youth. This is the first time in this sonnet that the speaker has directly spoken to or referenced the addressee, the fair youth. The rest of his arguments about death, Time, and the human life cycle are abstract concepts. This offers one reason why the speaker can be more objective and rational about Time and aging in this poem: he is not imagining them as directly threatening his beloved.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  5. “Crooked” suggests the state of being bent in character, twisted, tortured, or malignant. It can also signify being bent by age, having a crooked spine. Within this metaphor, the speaker aligns old age with a corrupt character to suggest that age and time corrupt the glorious innocence of childhood.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  6. In the final couplet, the speaker makes a familiar argument that his verse can protect the fair youth from the destruction of time and aging. However, unlike the strong claims he makes in previous sonnets, the claim here is a “hope” rather than a guarantee. Instead of confidently claiming that his verse “will” stand against time, he “hopes” his verse will persist. This signals a change in the sonnet sequence: the speaker has become more humble and realistic about the power of his art.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  7. With this reference to the Christ narrative, the speaker likens “maturity” or adulthood to suffering. However, he also creates an implicit connection with the idea that suffering brings redemption. Unlike the previous sonnets in the sequence that considered aging and maturity a violent tragedy, this sonnet seems to consider aging to maturity a necessary process.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  8. The pluralization of time to “times” points back to the first quatrain, in which time is related through plural metaphors: time as waves, time as minutes. This pluralization also doubles as personification: future “times” can refer, then, to future people who might read “my verse.”

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  9. “Crown’d” once again evokes the Christ narrative. Leading up to his crucifixion, Christ was inflicted with mockery and torture by Roman soldiers. They placed a crown of thorns on his head to mockingly crown him the “King of the Jews.” Though it was a intended to cause pain and humiliation, the crown has come to represent two things for Christians. First, that Christ is indeed king of man worthy of all our praise; and second, that he was willing to suffer for us in order to redeem our souls. The crown of thorns has come to represent all suffering and the redemption that comes with suffering.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  10. The child “crawling” represents the passage of time from birth to adulthood. “Crawls to” suggests that this child is moving towards maturity with purpose; the child intentionally leaves the innocent edenic paradise of the “open main” in order to reach maturity. However, “crawling” also has connotations of slow movement, dragging, or laboring across the ground. This depiction of stunted movement suggests that man’s life is never more glorious than his birth: all actions after birth are labored and crooked.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  11. “Main of light” can also mean flooded by light or sea of light. This metaphor layers more images on “nativity”: nativity could be the birth of the sun, or the sun rise, bathing the earth in a sea of light. In this way, the metaphor conflates nature, the human life cycle, and religion.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  12. “Main of light” refers to the open sea. Unlike the “pebbled shore” that signaled the end of life in the first quatrain, this open sea represents a state of pure Edenic innocence; the child is out on the sea as far from the shore as it is from death.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  13. The “and yet” that begins this couplet signals a tonal shift, a final challenge to the argument of the poem. The first three quatrains argue that time is cyclical and will destroy all things. This final couplet undermines the argument by offering one final complication to the logic of the poem thus far.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  14. The symbol of the “scythe” in this line weaves together multiple metaphorical threads. The scythe maintains the agrarian imagery of the third quatrain. It also alludes to Chronos, the Greco-Roman god of time—Chronos is the origin of “chronology.” This allusion casts time in a distinctly negative light, for Chronos, with his scythe, represents time in all of its destructive force. Finally, on the level of imagery, the curved scythe brings to mind again the symbols of crookedness and eclipses found in the second quatrain.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  15. “Nativity” was the general term used to refer to the birth of a newborn infant. This moment of birth was thought to mark one’s place in reference to astrological influences which could map out one’s destiny. Astrological charts predicting one’s future based on their birth date were called “nativities.” The word “nativity” also has a strong cultural association with the birth of Christ. The following quatrain describes the human life cycle using language with strong religious undertones such as this.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  16. The extended agricultural metaphor finds its conclusion. In the previous line, the act of harvesting is limited to the “rarities,” the most beautiful people. Here, the metaphorical scope widens as “nothing stands” against the scythe.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  17. The words “toil” and “contend” contribute a sense that, along with being relentlessly linear, human life is laborious and competitive. Overall, the opening quatrain espouses a dire perspective: our lives are short, relentless, and full of struggle.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  18. The word “sequent” suggests that each human life is part of a successive sequence. Taking into account as well the characterization of human lives as “forwards,” this line describes human life as a narrow, linear march towards death.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  19. The agricultural metaphor continues in line 11. After the stage of cultivation, the “rarities of nature’s truth” are harvested and eaten. In a sense, this line narrows the scope of the metaphor to the “rarities” alone—the cream of the crop, so to speak. This focus on nature’s “rarities” harkens back to the first line of Sonnet 1: “From fairest creatures we desire increase.” The speaker laments that even nature’s finest specimens are destroyed.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  20. The third quatrain develops a subtle, extended agricultural metaphor to describe the cycle of human life. On one level, the “parallels” being “delve[d]” in “beauty’s brow” continue the theme of time taking away beauty, with the literal image of an aging face developing wrinkles. On another level, the delving of the parallels also evokes the tilling of fields at the start of the farming season. The cultivation of the soil marks the beginning of the life cycle.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  21. Scholar Stephen Booth points out that the logical structure of the first quatrain imitates its own content—the movement of the waves. According to Booth, the first two lines form a combined unit which is then modified by the third line. As the reader encounters the notion of “each changing place,” her understanding of the waves/minutes in the first two lines is retroactively altered. Arriving at the fourth line, it becomes clear that the phrase “each changing place” actually serves as an adjectival modification of “all forwards.” Once again, the new line alters the reader’s understanding of “that which goes before.” Each successive line “chang[es] place with its predecessor.” As Booth puts it, the “physics of the quatrain” imitates the physics of the described wave pattern.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  22. The word “minutes” takes on two meanings here. On one level, “minutes” works temporally, marking the brevity of human life. “Minute” comes from the latin adjective “minutus,” meaning “small” or, more accurately, “diminished.” Thus, “our minutes” characterizes human lives in terms of their smallness and their state of constant diminishment. This second reading of “minutes” refers back to the pebbles on the shore in the previous line. The pebbles represent humans in their entirely diminished form.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  23. Notice that in this poem the speaker is talking about youth as a general theme rather than focusing on his beloved fair youth. Throughout the first three quatrains, when the speaker talks about aging, time, and the fading of youth, it is an abstract concept rather than a concrete reality of his own life.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  24. The “flourish set on youth” describes the transient beauty of the young, a favorite theme of Shakespeare’s. Beauty cannot last; eventually time “transfix[es]” it. The word “transfix” is powerful in that it operates metonymically. The notion of transfixion— of piercing—brings to mind flesh, which is where beauty resides.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  25. The image of time “transfix[ing]”—or stabbing—serves as a final reference to Christ. The direct allusion is to a passage from John which describes the crucifixion: “Instead, one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear” (John, 35). This allusion reinforces the metaphor of each human life as a Christlike journey from a state of perfection at birth to inevitable destruction.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  26. “Confound” means to bring to ruin, spoil, or destroy. Within this metaphor, the speaker makes youth and beauty a “gift” that belongs to time. Time can therefore give and destroy this gift. Because it belongs to time, there is not the same violence, anger, or sense of violation that comes with the speaker’s previous descriptions of time destroying youth. Here the speaker seems to recognize that Time “confounds” the gift of youth as part of a continual, cyclical process.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  27. Shakespeare scholars dispute how meaningful the ordering of the sonnets within the sequence is because Shakespeare did not have a direct hand in the publication of the sequence during his life. There are, however, numerous cases in which a sonnet’s numerical placement in the sequence is significant to the content of the poem. In Sonnet 60, the “minutes [which] hasten to their end” are thematically connected to the title. There are, after all, sixty minutes in an hour.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  28. “Time that gave” is an allusion to the Biblical quote “The lord giveth and the lord taketh away” (Job 1:21). Within this allusion, Time is aligned with God, the giver and destroyer of all things. Unlike its depiction in the previous sonnets in the sequence, Time is no longer seen as an enemy that is blamed for stealing and devouring youth, but an entity that can “give.” The speaker takes on a more rational view of time, acknowledging its necessity, in spite of the tragedy it brings. The speaker will turn away from this rationalization as the poem comes to a close.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  29. As the second line makes clear, the “pebbled shore” represents the destination of each human life. The image of the afterlife as a shore points to ancient Greek mythology, in which Hades—the underworld—lies across the vast river Styx. The pebbles, tiny and numerous, represent all the deceased who have reached the end.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  30. The opening line is noticeably rich with internal rhyme. The words “waves” and “make” are related through assonance, as are “towards” and “shore.” This pair of internal rhymes grabs the reader’s ear at the start and imitates the repetitive movement of breaking waves.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff