Analysis of Sonnet 2 by William Shakespeare

Updated on February 20, 2018
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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 Sonnet 2

Sonnet #2 is one of seventeen such poems in the so called 'Fair Youth' sequence, the central theme being procreation, the getting of children for beauty's sake, before youth's freshness runs out.

This theme was quite common in Shakespeare's time, when average life expectancy for some could be as low as thirty five years. This was the age of plague, diseases, poverty and violent end, hence the rather urgent pleas for the fair youth to commit to fatherhood, or forever be shamed.

Mystery surrounds the actual historical name of this 'fair youth' but it seems likely that the sonnets were written to persuade either William Herbert, 3rd earl of Pembroke, or Henry Wriothesley, 3rd earl of Southampton, to marry and have children. Both were patrons of Shakespeare.

In truth, no specific evidence identifies any person as the young man in these seventeen sonnets. William Shakespeare left no letter, no manuscript, no clues as to who this individual might have been.

This is why many scholars doubt the autobiographical argument for the sonnets. They support the idea that Shakespeare was a poet for all and the sonnets are universal in nature, not based on his sexuality, more on his humanity.

Lacking absolute proof, all we have are the sonnets themselves and they are each a glimpse into the heart and mind of a master craftsman taking his art to another level, focusing on beauty, love, time and inevitable change.

Interestingly, the speaker in the sonnet, because there is no mention of male or female, could be a man speaking to a man for example, or a woman to a woman, or man to woman, or older woman to younger man and vice versa.

It could be interpreted in terms of seduction, appraisal, veiled threat. Actors and dramatists could deliver this sonnet with a touch of anger, with a quiet persuasiveness, with grim determination.

And don't be fooled by those who claim that Shakespeare's sonnets are all written in 100% iambic pentameter. They're not. If they were they would tend to plod along to a hidden robotic metronome and never veer off course.

So please note that:

  • Sonnet #2 does have lines of pure iambic pentameter but Shakespeare varied the feet in several lines ( he used pyrrhic, trochaic and spondaic feet), which alters the rhythms, brings contrast and added interest for the reader.
  • Note that this sonnet does not mention the gender of the addressee, although it is accepted among critics that it is meant for the ears and eyes of the fair youth.
  • The use of a conceit, an Elizabethan poetic technique using metaphor, is clear. Specifically, this is a siege conceit involving terms like besiege, livery, trenches.
  • Note the additional use of agricultural metaphor too, with terms such as field and weed.
  • Shakespeare borrowed these classic metaphors - 'he ploughs the brow with furrows' and 'furrows which may plough your body' - from the ancient Roman writers Virgil and Ovid.

Sonnet 2

Sonnet 2 by William Shakespeare
Sonnet 2 by William Shakespeare

Analysis of Sonnet 2

Sonnet 2 uses metaphor and antithetical elements to argue the case for procreation. The speaker pleas on behalf of common sense and logic and aims directly for the conscience of the subject - the presumed fair youth - hoping to persuade him to have children and thus preserve his beauty.

It's a convincing line of persuasion. Using figurative language, the metaphor of field and livery, the conceit of warfare, Shakespeare sets the opening scene by suggesting that the subject's good looks won't be worth a tattered weed in forty years time.

That stressed spondaic emphasis on dig deep trenches really hits home, and the imagery of a worthless weed, planted in an alliterative fourth line, is striking.

The second quatrain piles on the potential pain for the subject, the speaker putting forward a future scenario where the subject is questioned about his former beauty, his former (hidden) treasure and sparkling lusty energy.

Note the association between so gazed on now and deep-sunken eyes connecting quatrain to quatrain in extreme contrast.

The third quatrain answers the rhetorical question posed in the second, rather cheekily putting the words into the mouth of the subject, imagining a scene whereby the subject's future child appears to tie up loose ends and justify him in his old age.

The final couplet wraps it all up by implying that beauty will be refreshed in the shape of a child newly made, with warm blood, despite the subject being old and cold.

Further Analysis of Sonnet #2

Sonnet #2 is a typical Shakespearean sonnet, 14 lines long, made up of three quatrains and a final couplet with the 'turn' or conclusion.

Rhyme

This sonnet has a rhyme scheme of ababcdcdefefgg with all but one of the rhymes being full:

  • lines 2 and 4 - field/held which is a slant or near rhyme.

Metre (meter in American English)

Many online sites glibly state that all of Shakespeare's sonnets are written in iambic pentameter and, whilst it is true that most lines in the sonnets are dominated by the iambic foot, not all lines are in pure iambic pentameter, far from it.

Shakespeare varied the metric rhythm in certain lines to strengthen meaning and contrast between soft and hard emphasis. This brings added interest and challenge for the reader.

For example, the first quatrain starts off in conventional manner, with iambic feet, da-DUM da-DUM the beat, but soon changes:

When for / ty win / ters shall / besiege / thy brow (2 iambs + pyrrhic + 2 iambs)

And dig / deep tren / ches in / thy beau / ty's field, (iamb + spondee + pyrrhic + 2 iambs)

Thy youth's / proud liv / ery, / so gazed / on now, (iamb + spondee + pyrrhic + 2 iambs)

Will be / a tott / ered weed / of small / worth held. (3 iambs + pyrrhic + spondee)

  • It's quite plain to see that the regular, steady iambic pentameter is interspersed with unstressed pyrrhics and double stressed spondees, bringing stark contrast. The pyrrhics provide what has been called a softer base out of which spring the spondees and to a lesser extent the iambs.

The fact that the opening line has three unstressed syllables and the second and third lines three stressed, reflects the argument put forward by the speaker - namely, there is a stark choice to be made: grow old, lose your beauty or marry, have a child and so keep the beauty in the family line.

Other lines with metrical variation include:

To say / within / thine own / deep-sunk / en eyes (3 iambs + spondee + iamb)

Were an / all-eat / ing shame / and thrift / less praise. (pyrrhic + spondee + 3 iambs)

How much / more praise / deserved / thy beau / ty's use, (iamb + spondee + 3 iambs)

If thou / couldst ans / wer, "This / fair child / of mine (iamb + spondee + 3 iambs)

Proving / his beau / ty by / success / ion thine. (trochee + iamb + pyrrhic + 2 iambs)

And see / thy blood / warm when / thou feel'st / it cold. (2 iambs+ trochee+ 2 iambs)

More Analysis of Sonnet 2

Structure

Fourteen lines split into three quatrains and a concluding couplet.

The sequence is logical. Each quatrain is a single sentence. The first quatrain starts off with the premise...When forty winters....and the second follows....Then being asked....and the third continues...How much more....before the conclusion of the couplet....This were to be....

  • The first quatrain has a noticeable sentence structure because the subject isn't introduced until line 3 and the verb delayed until line 4, so building up a powerful effect - from inevitable aging (forty winters) to proud youth.

Tone

There is a tone of quiet desperation in this sonnet, the speaker imploring the young man or woman to stop delaying, stop being so vain, and think about future prospects for their beauty.

Having children is the only solution and the tone is persuasive and perhaps a little cruel.

Repetition

There are examples of a repeated phrase or word reinforcing the argument:

...where all thy beauty lies -

Where all the treasure...

and the word beauty (beauty's) occurs four times. And praise is mentioned twice.

Language/Diction

There are certain words related to war fare and the battlefield - besiege, deep trenches, livery.

Agricultural associations in the words - field, tattered weed.

Value is related to phrases words such as - small worth held, treasure (which may also have sexual associations), thriftless praise.

Alliteration

Alliterative phrases - besiege thy brow....dig deep...weed, of small worth...much more....Shall sum...make my....blood warm when.

This helps create bonds and texture within lines.

Antithesis

Contrasts exist within this sonnet that add to the overall tone and argument. Just think about:

youth's proud livery/tattered weed

where all the treasure/thriftless praise

new made/old

blood warm/feel'st it cold.

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Andrew Spacey

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