Analysis of Sonnet 15 by William Shakespeare

Updated on April 4, 2020
chef-de-jour profile image

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 | Source

William Shakespeare and Sonnet 15

Sonnet 15 is full of rich pickings for the reader and is one of Shakespeare's most popular mainly due to the opening pair of lines in which the exquisite phrase holds in perfection but a little moment sets the scene up nicely for the theme of time versus decay.

This theme runs throughout the sonnet, which has horticultural and astrological side shoots, as well as metaphor and personification, more of which a little later.

  • And please note that not every line of this sonnet is iambic pentameter, as some authorities would tell you. There are several lines containing spondees and trochees, where the stresses differ from the steady and reliable da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM. All will be explained.
  • There are also different published versions of this sonnet, where the punctuation and spelling can change in certain lines. The version shown here is taken from the original 1609 Quarto.

William Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets in total, an unprecedented body of work inspired by love, friendship and affection for a fair youth and dark lady, who remain unknown to this day.

Sonnet 15 is an English (or Shakespearean) sonnet with three quatrains leading up to the turn, then comes the concluding couplet. Some scholars think it should be read together as a pair with sonnet 16, which starts with the word obvious follow on from line 14 of the fifteenth sonnet.

Like all of Shakespeare's sonnets though, it is strong enough to stand alone as a great love poem, giving back to the reader a timeless quality.

Sonnet 15

Sonnet 15
Sonnet 15

Analysis of Sonnet 15

Sonnet 15 has as its main theme the growth and decay evident in the battle against time, specifically with reference to the fair youth, who is being encouraged to procreate and so sustain his beauty before it's too late.

The speaker is insistent, initially proposing with a universal statement in those well known opening two lines, enjambment encouraging the reader to continue on from first to second.

From the classic pure iambic pentameter opening line to the trochaic first foot of the second line, with the stress on Holds....and the fading unstressed extra beat of moment....there is something profoundly moving about the idea of perfection lasting only a little moment.

  • This is one of the great introductions to the concept of time and its withering effects on all things.

In lines three and four the speaker adds a dramatic element, a metaphor, of the stage, surely a favourite of Shakespeare's. Here the stage is the world, all of life, the universe, and on it there are fake performances, sham and illusory scenes that are mere surface material. Life is a series of appearances, revealed fleetingly.

And these life performances are somehow influenced by stars. In Shakespeare's time it was generally believed that an invisible fluid came down from the heavens to effect life on earth, including human decisions and actions. Astrologers would interpret these movements of the stars and predict outcomes and best practice.

Progressing, the next sub-clause in line 5 turns to the observation of the plant world, comparing humans to plants - both grow in similar ways - cheerèd and checked (encouraged and stopped) by the weather.

Both vaunt (exult) as the fresh sap rises, displaying all they've got to full effect until having reached their maximum, their brave state which they wear - like clothing -they then start to fade.

Note the rhymes of increase/decrease (antonyms) and sky/memory (lives were said to be written in the sky or in the stars). They will eventually be forgotten.

  • Because of this notion of the little moment, this transient existence - inconstant stay - this unpredictable life, the fair youth's beauty comes through even stronger in the eyes of the speaker.

Time is a waster, fighting with decay, changing the fair youth's young looks (day) to that of night (soiled/darkened).

The language here reflects the feeling of the speaker - wasteful/decay/sullied/war - who is adamant that, despite this battle and time's undermining effects, the poetry will renew his beauty.

Rhyme in Sonnet 15

Sonnet 15 has the usual rhyme scheme of an English (Shakespearean) sonnet:

abab cdcd efef gg

all the end rhymes being full, for example grows/shows and you/new. The only exception is found with sky/memory, which is a near rhyme.The full rhyme tightens up the poem and brings a familiar sense of wholeness and is also traditionally memorable.

Internal Rhyme

Words found inside the lines sometimes rhyme or relate to others, producing echoes and associative sounds. Note the following:




When two words are close together in a line and start with the same consonant:

That this/stars in secret/perceive that men as plants/Cheered and checked/Then the/debateth with decay/your day of youth/war with


When two words are close together in a line and have similar sounding vowels:


Some analysts focus on these lines and the repeated use of:


This almost obsessive use reflects the poet's focus on his subject

Metrical Analysis of Sonnet 15

Metre (meter in American English)

It is true that iambic pentameter dominates the sonnet but please note that several lines vary a great deal metrically, altering stress patterns and emphasis, producing a varied experience for the reader.

1. When I / consid / er eve / ry thing / that grows

2. Holds in / perfect / ion but / a litt / le mo / ment.

3. That this / huge stage / presen / teth nought / but shows

4. Whereon / the stars / in se / cret in / fluence com / ment.

5. When I / perceive / that men / as plants / increase,

6. Cheerèd / and checked / ev'n by / the self- / same sky:

7. Vaunt in / their youth / ful sap, / at height / decrease,

8. And wear / their brave / state out / of mem / ory.

9. Then the / conceit / of this / incon / stant stay,

10.Sets you / most rich / in youth / before / my sight,

11.Where waste / ful time / deba / teth with / decay

12.To change / your day / of youth / to sul / lied night,

13. And all / in war / with Time / for love / of you,

14. As he / takes from / you, I / engraft / you new.

  • Lines 1,5,8,10-13 are iambic pentameter.
  • Line 2: trochee + 4 iambs + extra unstressed beat.
  • Line 3: iamb + spondee + 3 iambs.
  • Line 4: 5 iambs + extra unstressed beat. (influence as 2 syllables)
  • Line 6: trochee + iamb + trochee + iamb + spondee.
  • Line 7: trochee + 4 iambs.
  • Line 9: trochee + 4 iambs.
  • Line 14: iamb + 2 trochees + 2 iambs.


Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005

The Poetry Handbook, John Lennard, OUP, 2005

© 2018 Andrew Spacey


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment
    • chef-de-jour profile imageAUTHOR

      Andrew Spacey 

      2 years ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

      Thank you. Appreciate the visit. Shakespeare's passion for words and form comes through loud and clear in his sonnets.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      2 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Time certainly has its effect with both plants and people. Shakespeare just said it more eloquently and melodically. Your analysis was right on point.


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
    ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)