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Analysis of Poem Sonnet 6 by William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare (the Martin Droeshout portrait)

William Shakespeare (the Martin Droeshout portrait)

William Shakespeare and a Summary of Sonnet 6

Sonnet 6 continues the urgent call for the fair youth to prolong his beauty by breeding, distilling his essence in a vial, denying death victory and the worms their future inheritance.

Shakespeare sticks to the familiar iambic pentameter metre (with a slight variation here and there, see below) and English sonnet form of 14 lines, with full rhyme (except for loan/one) following the scheme ababcdcdefefgg.

The speaker is again persistent, focusing on the contrasts between nature and human essence, death and beauty, logic and feeling, treasure and usury.

  • Sonnet 6 is also notable for its repeated use of the number ten—five times—the suggestion being that the fair youth have ten children, and those ten have ten more each, so multiplying his beauty, on and on into future generations. It's quite a thought.
  • Money-lending in Elizabethan times was a complicated business. Who could lend; how much interest could they apply? In 1571 the law was altered to allow for up to 10% interest on money loans. (Usury and The Merchant of Venice: An excerpt from London's Triumph, Stephen Alford, Dec 2017 (folger.edu)

This sonnet is one of seventeen (1–17, the procreation sonnets) urging the fair youth not to waste his beauty but to guarantee its longevity by having children. In each, the speaker seeks to broaden his mind, suggesting he break free of his bubble, his self-containment, his self-focus. If not, time and death will be the winners.

Sonnet 6 is a natural follow-on from sonnet 5, whereby each quatrain builds up the argument for him breeding, beginning with summer's distillation, then part-echo of previous sonnet 4 and money-lending mode, with an added amplification clause—ten times thyself refigured.

It ends in the couplet with death and worms. Should the fair youth not have offspring, then death will be the victor, and only the worms will gain from his beauty by gorging on it.

Fundamentally the speaker is suggesting that the fair youth can cheat death, should cheat death, by promoting his line, sowing his seed, sustaining his natural beauty. Selfishness has to be put aside and the wider world considered.

Sonnet 6

Then let not winter's ragged hand deface,
In thee thy summer, ere thou be distilled:
Make sweet some vial; treasure thou some place
With beauty's treasure ere it be self-killed.
That use is not forbidden usury,
Which happies those that pay the willing loan;
That's for thy self to breed another thee,
Or ten times happier, be it ten for one;
Ten times thy self were happier than thou art,
If ten of thine ten times refigured thee:
Then what could death do if thou shouldst depart,
Leaving thee living in posterity?
Be not self-willed, for thou art much too fair
To be death's conquest and make worms thine heir.

Analysis Line by Line of Sonnet 6

Sonnet 6 is paired with sonnet 5, which ends:

But flowers distilled, though they with winter meet,

Leese but their show; their substance still lives sweet.

Lines 1–4

Then let not winter's ragged hand deface

Winter here is seen as dressed in rags, tatty and scraggy, personified, ready to disfigure the fair youth's beauty, related to the summer season. His essence would be nullified.

There's a metaphorical shift, to that of a vial (a small glass bottle used for perfumes and oils) and treasure and sweet distillation. The fair youth needs to find a special place in which his beauty will live on—a female womb.

Note the use of treasure as verb and noun, a favourite ploy of Shakespeare in his sonnets.

Lines 5–8

The next quatrain echoes sonnet 4 with its use of monetary language. A usurer, or money-lender, lent money with high interest (and so seen as forbidden), but should the youth decide to use his essence that would be fine—everyone would be happy being a party to the 'loan.'

In plain terms the speaker continues the argument for the youth's progeny. Make another one of you! Breed! Not one child, but ten!

Note the use of happies and happier, lines 6 and 8, again reinforcing the sense

Lines 9–12

The numerical fun continues. Shakespeare enjoyed the number 10 (he employed it in sonnets 37 and 38), implying that the fair youth would become ten times happier if he had ten children, and they also had ten each. It's multiplication gone mad, kids running everywhere, each with a little bit of the original beauty.

This much breeding would certainly cock-a-snook at death. The fair youth's fairness would still be 'living' in future generations.

Lines 13–14

The couplet underlines all that's gone before. Don't be so selfish the speaker emphasises, your beauty shouldn't be to the benefit of death, it shouldn't simply die out just to fatten a few worms.

Sonnet 6 Words and Their Meanings

ragged - pertaining to rags. Winter was often portrayed in rags and scrappy tattered clothing.

deface - disfigure

ere - before (archaic)

distilled - being reduced into an essence

vial - a small bottle made of glass to hold perfume or essences.

forbidden usury - a usurer, a money-lender, often one who charged high interest. Think of sonnet 4 and Shakespeare's economic language.

happies - to make happy

willing loan - those happy to go ahead and repay.

breed - have children, to continue the youth's beauty.

ten times - with ten children there'd be ten times the happiness. In Shakespeare's time loans were usually given at 10% interest.

ten times refigured thee - think of your ten children themselves having ten children each.

living in posterity - with the children you've created going on into the future.

self-willed - stubborn, in a bubble, selfish.

death's conquest - a victim of death.

worms thine heir - when you're in the ground only the worms eating you up will prosper from your beauty.

What Is the Metre of Sonnet 6?

Paired with sonnet 5, this sonnet continues in the strong iambic vein common to most of Shakespeare's sonnets. There, however, are always variations in certain lines—trochees (stress on the first syllable in the foot) and spondees (double stress)—that bring subtle changes in emphasis for the reader.

The opening Then let is a good example of a spondaic foot reinforcing the sentiment.

A closer look will reveal more:

Then let / not win / ter's rag / ged hand / deface,
In thee / thy sum / mer, ere / thou be / distilled:
Make sweet / some vi / al; trea / sure thou / some place
With beau / ty's trea / sure ere / it be / self-killed.
That use / is not / forbid / den u / sury,
Which hap / pies those / that pay / the will / ing loan;
That's for / thy self / to breed / anoth / er thee,
Or ten / times hap /pier, be / it ten / for one;
Ten times / thy self / were hap / pier than / thou art,
If ten / of thine / ten times / refig / ured thee:
Then what / could death / do if / thou shouldst / depart,
Leaving / thee liv / ing in / poster / ity?
Be not / self-willed, / for thou / art much / too fair
To be / death's con / quest and / make worms / thine heir.

All lines are classic iambic pentameter except for lines 1, 12 and 13.

Line 1 starts off with a spondee (double stress).

Line 12 has two trochees, the first foot and fourth.

Line 13 as with the first line begins with the spondee, a reinforcing foot.

Sources

© 2022 Andrew Spacey