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Analysis of Poem "Sonnet 3" by William Shakespeare

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare and a Summary of "Sonnet 3"

William Shakespeare's "Sonnet 3" is part of a set of 17 referred to as the procreation sonnets, which urge the Fair Youth to find a partner and carry on his lineage.

"Sonnet 3" is one of 154 sonnets, first published in 1609, that deal with a multitude of topics, including desire, misogyny, love, beauty and mortality. They are acknowledged as the finest ever written.

Summary

Basically the speaker is saying:

  • Look in the mirror and tell yourself that now is the time to have a child, who will look like you. If you don’t, you are depriving the world of your beauty.
  • What woman is so beautiful that she wouldn’t want to sleep with you? Or who is so foolish as to make vanity his tomb? You are a mirror of your mother and, in you, she can see herself as she was when she was younger.
  • So, looking back through the window of your old age, despite your wrinkles, NOW is your golden time. But if you want to not be remembered, die single and your image dies with you.

"Sonnet 3" is typically Shakespearean with 14 lines, made up of three quatrains (4 lines each) and a concluding rhyming couplet (2 lines).

This sonnet, like many in the 154 Shakespeare wrote, mostly follows the metric of iambic pentameter—that is, each line has 5 feet and each foot of two syllables has one unstressed and one stressed, following the beat daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM—but this one (like many) has some interesting deviations, which we will look at in more detail a little later.

There is much debate about whether the Fair Youth (young man) is a real person, or if he is a wholly fictional character. Could it be argued that the Fair Youth is the poet himself, even though he had had three children by the time the sonnets were published? Or does the act of procreation stand metaphorically for artistic creation?

The truth will never be known for sure, but perhaps the answer could well be a combination of all three. What isn't in doubt is the quality of the sonnet sequence.

If you want to know more about Shakespeare's sonnets you can find useful information in my article, William Shakespeare's Love Sonnets: Summary and Guide.

William Shakespeare's "Sonnet 3"

Look in thy glass and tell the face thou viewest
Now is the time that face should form another;
Whose fresh repair if now thou not renewest,
Thou dost beguile the world, unbless some mother.
For where is she so fair whose uneared womb
Disdains the tillage of thy husbandry?
Or who is he so fond will be the tomb,
Of his self-love, to stop posterity?
Thou art thy mother's glass and she in thee
Calls back the lovely April of her prime,
So thou through windows of thine age shalt see,
Despite of wrinkles, this thy golden time.
But if thou live, remembered not to be,
Die single and thine image dies with thee.

Line-by-Line Analysis of "Sonnet 3"

Lines 1 and 2

Look in thy glass, and tell the face thou viewest

Now is the time that face should form another;

The opening lines are unusual in that the speaker urges the young man to tell his face to form another, that is, the image in the mirror (glass) is all important. It is the beauty that should be passed on.

Lines 3 and 4

Whose fresh repair if now thou not renewest,

Thou dost beguile the world, unbless the mother.

The word repair in this context means restoration/renovation; the word beguile means to deceive or cheat and unbless means to make unhappy.

So these lines convey the idea that, if the young man does not go ahead and produce a child to carry on his beauty, he's cheating everyone, and making the mother (to be) unhappy.

Lines 5 and 6

For where is she so fair whose uneared womb

Disdains the tillage of thy husbandry?

The word uneared means unploughed (without ears of corn), the word tillage means the ploughing and sowing of seed and husbandry is the looking after of a whole farm, being skilled in all aspects of farming.

The speaker asks where is the woman so beautiful who wouldn't want to have your child? To disdain is to think unworthy.

Uneared womb also has a sexual meaning. To plough and sow seed has a parallel with the male entering the female, hence sowing the seed for future generations.

Lines 7 and 8

Or who is he so fond will be the tomb,

Of his self-love, to stop posterity?

The word fond means foolish in this context. The fair youth is asked a question—does he love himself so much (self-love) that he'll die childless, so there'll be no future generations, no descendants of his line?

This is all getting pretty serious. Mention of the word tomb points solidly to one conclusion: procreate or die.

Lines 9 and 10

Thou art they mother's glass and she in thee

Calls back the lovely April of her prime,

The fair youth's face is in essence his mother's, he mirrors her beauty and vice versa. This will help to recall her own loveliness, when she was at her best, in springtime (April, when the world is fresh and new and beautiful).

To call back is to recall, bring back to mind.

Lines 11 and 12

So thou through windows of thine age shalt see,

Despite of wrinkles, this thy golden time.

When the fair youth is old he'll be able to look back and acknowledge that yes this was his best time—when he chose to procreate and carry on the line of beauty.

Despite means in spite of, and golden means the best. A window can be opportunity and transparency, offering a view of the world as well as being a limitation.

Lines 13 and 14

But if thou live, remembered not to be,

Die single and thine image dies with thee.

This is rather a blatant imperative, direct and blunt. Basically the speaker is saying: You fair youth will not be remembered if you don't have offspring. You'll die and that'll be the end of it. Your beauty will be lost forever.

What Is the Metre of "Sonnet 3"?

"Sonnet 3" has some unusual lines, breaking away from the traditional 10-syllable iambic pentameter beat, in that they contain an extra syllable, an eleventh.

Look at lines 1–4, for example. They're all 11 syllables. All the rest are 10 syllables. Some call this extra beat a hyperbeat, some say the extra syllable is the classical feminine ending, dropping away unstressed.

Others see the amphibrach foot (unstressed-stressed-unstressed: daDUMda) at play. There's no doubting the extra syllable prolongs each line for the reader. Lingering on . . . the longer lines reflecting length of time perhaps?

Trochee feet in lines 1 and 2 open, heavy stressed first syllable contrasting with the last. And note the spondee in line 14, reinforcing the idea of death for the Fair Youth if he doesn't marry and have children.

Look in / thy glass / and tell / the face / thou viewest
Now is / the time / that face / should form / another;
Whose fresh / repair / if now / thou not / renewest,
Thou dost / beguile / the world, / unbless / some mother.
For where / is she / so fair / whose un / eared womb
Disdains / the till / age of / thy hus / bandry?
Or who / is he / so fond / will be / the tomb,
Of his / self-love, / to stop / poster / ity?
Thou art / thy moth / er's glass / and she / in thee
Calls back / the love / ly Ap / ril of / her prime,
So thou / through win / dows of / thine age / shalt see,
Despite / of wrink / les, this / thy gold / en time.
But if / thou live, / remem / bered not / to be,
Die sin / gle and / thine im / age dies / with thee.

Rhyme Scheme

The rhyme scheme of a Shakespearean sonnet is:

ababcdcdefefgg

All of the rhymes are full, for example be/thee and prime/time which brings closure and familiarity.

From "husbandry" in the sixth line, five more words fit that ee sound, "posterity," "thee," "see," "be" and "thee."

It is as if the rhyme initiated by "husbandry" and "posterity" and which concern the continuation of the Fair Youth’s lineage, are being repeated throughout the rest of the poem, like the genes that are being urged to be passed down could echo forward in time.

The dual use of "thee" mirrors the multiple "faces" of lines 1 and 2, signifying both the looking glass and the division, or multiplication that takes place in the conception of a child.

Feminine Rhymes

Another noticeable technique used in the first quatrain is that all four lines have feminine rhymes, that is, rhyme schemes that encompass two or more syllables, with the final syllable unstressed. "viewest" (2 syllables) rhymes with "renewest" (3 syllables) and "another" (3 syllables), rhymes with "mother" (2 syllables).

By the second quatrain, this glut of feminine rhyme, has shrunk to two examples—"husbandry" and "posterity." In the second quatrain, "womb" and "tomb" are both masculine rhymes (rhymes which are stressed), and by the third quatrain, all rhymes are masculine.

So we can see that the feminine rhyme dissolves throughout the poem, halving from four in the first quatrain to two in the second and then disappearing completely in the third.

The Mirror or Glass (Looking Glass)

The mirror, a conceit and metaphor, is introduced in the first quatrain as a representation of vanity, of "self-love" reflecting only the looker themselves. By the third quatrain, the mirror is reflecting someone else—the Fair Youth’s mother, and the gaze has shifted from the self to an external body, as the argument for procreation progresses.

Finally, the mirror imagery becomes transparent in the volta (turning point) before the final rhyming couplet, and instead of a looking glass there is a window.

Now, instead of being concerned with the self in the mirror and the ensuing vanity, the Fair Youth is urged to look outside of himself to what could be. The window in the volta is both a chance to look back on one’s self as a child but also a chance to look forward. This stands in contrast to the single sided looking glass.

What Are the Literary Devices in "Sonnet 3"?

Alliteration

Shakespeare uses plenty of alliteration in "Sonnet 3." The "f" sound is repeated numerous times in the first two quatrains, in "face," "face," "form," "fresh," "if," "for," "fair," "fond" and "self."

The use of the word "face" in the first two lines further mimics the looking glass effect. The face which appears in the first line is reflected in the second, with the syntax (word choice and order) mimicking the semantics (meaning of the words).

This both emphasizes the potential vanity of the Fair Youth and suggests that the face viewed in the glass should double itself by fathering a child.

Note also:

beguile/be/be......unbless/uneared....repair/renewest/remembered.

Puns

There are several puns intended:

tillage (age)

image (age)

husbandry (husband)

golden time (old)

Sources

© 2020 Andrew Spacey