Shakespeare: The 64th Sonnet

Preface


I will be publishing essays from now on analyzing individual poems on the blog. Rather than trying to cover broad topics, I find that this will be a more useful and focused exercise, for not only myself, but hopefully for any readers as well. It will also narrowly confine the discussion to poetry qua poetry, and not the million other topics which can go into making sense of poetry generally. It is time to descend into the thicket and look carefully at individual trees rather than mapping the whole forest while never seeing a single real life tree in the process.

We begin with Shakespeare’s 64th sonnet, which is one of my favorites personally, and I also think one of the better ones objectively. Shakespeare’s sonnets can sometimes feel like puzzles in the reading, and parsing their meaning becomes something like an intriguing game, mostly played by scholars or eager lovers of intricate poetry. But I have always thought that the best poems are those which, though rich with meaning, can be essentially understood by any decently attentive reader on a first and normally paced reading. You should be able to pursue that meaning down into deeper depths once you have already been introduced to the poem, but there should already be something for you at the surface. The proper poem of some significance, having many layers, will nevertheless not only be meaningful at each layer, but also have a coherence between the meanings found at each level. And I do think that the 64th sonnet is an exemplar of just such a poem.

When I write these essays, I will generally split them into two parts. The first will deal with reflections on the meaning of the poem, its sense. Then, secondly, I will deal in a following portion with the way in which the poem’s form, its sound, contributes to its meaning.

Sonnet 64 by William Shakespeare

When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defac’d
The rich-proud cost of outworn buried age;
When sometime lofty towers I see downraz’d,
And brass eternal slave to mortal rage;
When I have seen the hungry ocean gain
Advantage on the kingdom of the shore,
And the firm soil win of the watery main,
Increasing store with loss, and loss with store;
When I have seen such interchange of state,
Or state itself confounded to decay;
Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate –
That Time will come and take my love away.
This thought is as a death, which cannot choose
But weep to have that which it fears to lose.

The Sense

It is simply the case that in order to speak of everything one must choose to speak of something. Delving deeply into one arena usually gives someone insight into others. Now, the variability of success in such an endeavor depends much upon what one is studying. There are some subjects, which, to soak in them, is to come quite close to Reality itself. When our attention is focused upon one thing well, all things may open up to us.

And so Shakespeare, in his sonnets, narrows in upon the lover. Whether or not Shakespeare had a real lover of his own in mind when he wrote his 154 sonnets, it is the imaginary lover, the lover as encountered by the human in any particular place or time, that these poems are concerned with. And by selecting the experience of being enamored with passion and affection, drowned in eros, as the primary focal point for all these, he manages to say profound things about nearly everything. Being in love is a transformative experience, in that it can shift one’s being into a new relation with the entire cosmos, with something like an internal apocalypse, a revelation of the unity and significance of things. And so it is no accident that this is where Shakespeare chose to reside and reflect.

I do not think, though, that Shakespeare meant to write of everything and so chose a lover as the thing to write about in order to do so. Surely not. The sonnet as Shakespeare held it in his mind was exactly fit for love poetry, and the need to write about love is the one of the primary purposes for the existence of poetry in the first place. It’s a rather serious, even strange poet who never writes of love. But I think that Shakespeare was aware beforehand of the power of approaching metaphysics through love before he wrote a single line of any of these sonnets. And I think as well that he discovered, poem by poem, just how deep he could mine the mind for insights into our world through both the elixir and the poison of Aphrodite. And behind these pleasures and pains, there is something forlorn for a world that is dying with time. What is glimpsed beyond the raptures and then the disappointments of love is a vision, intimated behind a horizon, of an endless expanse of time, which is not indicative of progress, but instead of mournful dissipation sometimes disguised as vigor to some deceived individual, lost at some point along the eternal diagram of time. These poems are intensely secular, far far away from allegorical reflections on love in the Christian tradition, and also from any sentimental or mournful folk lyrics, or the frolics of the troubadours. Specifically, in this 64th sonnet, eternity is not hope, but neither is it despair; it is resigned.

Of course, one source that is likely more present in this sonnet goes back to the pre-Christian. The pagan classical poets, Horace, Virgil, Ovid, etc. Shakespeare betrays awareness of these influences and others in his writings. And some classical poets most certainly did think love poetry could have metaphysical significance. But I think that it is important to remember that reflections on the never-changing presence of change, and on the fleeting nature of life, is simply a universal thing, present to everyone. But classical poets would have been more likely to dwell upon it, since the Christian world of Europe had theological resources at hand that changed the way in which one approached eternity. Rather than the mortal being found, small and lost in the midst of Nature’s passage, Nature’s progress, which is Time itself, is not ultimate but the creation of God and intended to lead to his future. That future is indeed eternal in the durative quantitative sense, but all the quality of eternity as a kind of unfeeling master, a fate unyielding, all of that is now found in God. And God, unlike Nature, is not where the individual is lost but where they are found. There is a world of difference between submitting to God’s will in time for a time and finding oneself helpless within Time’s unavoidable grasp, which is forever. If one hasn’t heaven or hell, Nature herself becomes both heaven and hell, and it can be difficult to disentangle the two and distinguish one from the other. The poet has the lover, and this is heaven to him; he also will lose the lover, and this is hell to him. So Shakespeare I think should be seen as writing in a classical rather than medieval, or Christian, vein. But one can also sense something new, something, shall we call it, modern. Gone are the gods, even their shadows aren’t visible here. Instead there is the inner life of the poet and all the wide reaching metaphors within nature he can grasp, and of course there is the ever present Nature, which is concrete fate, dooming the whole process and experience of love, which is felt to deserve to be forever, but which vanishes quicker than life itself. The lack of concord between the intuition that eros brings, that it promises eternity, and the inevitable reality that it is lost to eternity is a consistent theme in Shakespeare’s sonnets, and I think most clearly here.

Leaving behind the wider significance of such a poem, what can we find more intimately in it? What strikes me at first in this sonnet is the contrast between the state of being caught up in the moments of time and feeling and the more objective state of observing all the changes that take place always, ceaselessly, and without our control. If there is any of reality in our control, it is a little part that is; the rest just marches on, and there is no act on our part that can transform it. There is no action here except to see and to feel the fear and the sadness of what is seen. Of course, this occurrence of the subjective and objective together is one of the purposes of poetry, to reach a kind of trans-subjectivity in which what happens to one is not distinct from what one does, and they occur together. But, surely, the emphasis here is on what the poet cannot help.

If the phrase in the fourth line “brass eternal slave to mortal rage” appears confusing on any reflection, you are not alone. I had to pause and work over this a few times. The main trouble is around whether or not “eternal” modifies “brass” or “slave.” It matters either way. In the first case, the enduring nature of brass is emphasized, which could then be contrasted with its slavery to “mortal rage,” a kind of paradox. In the second, the emphasis is upon the duration of brass’s slavery to “mortal rage.” I have concurred that probably you are meant to read it both ways and benefit from the double meaning, because they are not exactly contradictory. This bit of exegesis may be wrong on my part, but I think not. Double meanings are the fine art of a poet, and this particular instance would not be confusing or illogical, so I believe it is a plausible interpretation.

One other matters concerns the meaning of the word “state” in lines 9 and 10. I did not interpret “state” to refer to the government of a human society, or of society in general. Not long ago, I came across this political interpretation in a post by an academic (I did not happen to record the link to the page at the time, since it was still at least a month ago). Now given that the 16th and 17th centuries were a tumultuous time politically (all ages are, but the reformation shook Europe up in a manner that was internally rather traumatizing), Shakespeare is thought to have been referring to the interchange of political authority. But I think that Shakespeare here is rather providing a generalization of the more specific examples of transformation, interchange, and decay given previously. It is a capstone statement; the general following the particular in a summation of the theme. The interjection of the political into the poem is jarring to my reading eye, though intuitions can be wrong, and I respect the interpretations of scholars who understand social and cultural contexts in the past. Without such exegesis, the poetic interpreter is doomed. Nevertheless, for internal reasons, I don’t think I am wrong to be skeptical about this lexical interpretation.

The Form

When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defac’d
The rich-proud cost of outworn buried age;
When sometime lofty towers I see downraz’d,
And brass eternal slave to mortal rage;

When I have seen the hungry ocean gain
Advantage on the kingdom of the shore,
And the firm soil win of the watery main,
Increasing store with loss, and loss with store;

When I have seen such interchange of state,
Or state itself confounded to decay;
Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate –
That Time will come and take my love away.

This thought is as a death, which cannot choose
But weep to have that which it fears to lose.

I will provide a few points on form in this poem below:

  1. The poem marches on, line by line, mimicking the relentless march of time. It is in iambic pentameter, but it isn’t really that which makes it march like this. It is instead the repetition of words and phrases. Observe this tally (I have split the sonnet above into blocks to make all of this clear:
    i. “When” is repeated 4 times at the beginning of a line, out of the 12 lines of 4 line blocks that make up the body of the sonnet. Always in the first line of the block, but twice only in the first, so that the first block sets the pattern to the ear, and the following two blocks only have to take it up once.
    ii. The phrase (technically not a “phrase” grammatically, but it will do for here) “When I have seen” occurs in the first line of all three blocks in the body of the sonnet.
  2. The first block presents us with one example of Time’s work, giving us an image of the ruins of either ancient or medieval (Shakespeare is barely departed from the “medieval,” so that is to say “relatively recent”) human buildings, once fully formed and effective as spaces for some purpose, but now forgotten, abandoned, and decayed. The second block presents us with a picture of the ocean breaking down the shore, but also of the shore increasing its size against this erosion. The third block then reflects on these two images and brings it to a conclusion about the poet’s lover. The couplet of the 11th and 12th lines then reflects on this reflection and acts as it is meant to by stating the theme of the poem. That theme is thus:
    Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate –
    That time will come and take my love away.
    What the couplet does in this case is drive home the futility not only of the reality referred to in these lines but also the futility within the inevitability of the thought itself. Just as death is unavoidable, so the thought itself cannot be dodged. Just as death will come and take him and his lover, so also his fear of loss and the weeping over it.
  3. Note the use of alliteration, in line 11, “Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate.” Not only is this one of the most memorable lines I have ever read, but it is also an excellent example of the purpose of alliteration. It is used strongly here, while not being used too much elsewhere in the sonnet, because it pulls one’s focus into the line, which is, as we have already seen, the thematic climax of the poem. Now, with one’s attention grabbed, the poet can say “That Time will come and take my love away,” and we hear it. Alliteration is used in the 12th line too – between “Time” and “take” – and the solid dental “t’s” fall hard after the liquid “r’s” pull one in at the previous line. The main point here is this: poetic techniques don’t just sound pretty: they can, when used well, reinforce the meaning of a poem to the reader or hearer.

Featured image: ‘The Shore of the Turquoise Sea,” by Albert Bierstadt (1878), image in the public domain.

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2 thoughts on “Shakespeare: The 64th Sonnet”

  1. Thank God for eternity, Courage! The best poet, the best philosopher, truly the only true intellect of all time, has every earthly intellect begging for more meaning and depth! And, He gives eternal life to those who seek out His writings, His truth, His philosophy, and His gift of salvation through ChristJesus. What earthly intellect could ever offer such fare!?!

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