Shakespeare Sonnet 104: "To me, fair friend, you never can be old"

Updated on April 30, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

The real "Shakespeare"
The real "Shakespeare" | Source

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 104

While this speaker knows that through language evolution sometime in future his tropes may lose their special nuances, still he remains convinced that their agelessness will compare well with the seasons that change constantly.

Sonnet 104

To me, fair friend, you never can be old
For as you were when first your eye I ey’d,
Such seems your beauty still. Three winters cold
Have from the forests shook three summers’ pride,
Three beauteous springs to yellow autumn turn’d
In process of the seasons have I seen,
Three April perfumes in three hot Junes burn’d,
Since first I saw you fresh, which yet are green.
Ah! yet doth beauty, like a dial-hand,
Steal from his figure, and no pace perceiv’d;
So your sweet hue, which methinks still doth stand,
Hath motion, and mine eye may be deceiv’d:
For fear of which, hear this, thou age unbred:
Ere you were born was beauty’s summer dead.

Commentary

First Quatrain: "To me, fair friend, you never can be old"

The creator of the Shakespearean sonnets is often addressing his poem, as he fashions a near personification. Sonnet 104 thus finds the speaker addressing his poem as "fair friend"; however, he makes it quite clear that this "fair friend" is not a human friend, as he asserts "you never can be old." Such a statement could never be made truthfully about a human being. As this speaker does often exaggerate, he never makes statements that are flat out false.

The speaker is now addressing a sonnet that he wrote three years ago. He tells the piece that its beauty is as abundant as it was at the time it first came into his vision. Even following on three winter seasons that had changed the "forest" that had shone with "summer’s pride," the poem remains fresh with a youthful beauty.

Second Quatrain: "Three beauteous springs to yellow autumn turn’d"

Again the speaker emphasizes the age of the poem as three years old. He reports that three springs have transformed themselves through three "yellow autumn[s]." Three cool Aprils have been burned up by three hot Junes. The freshness of the poems remains unchanged, however, unlike the seasons that swallow each other up, one after the other.

As readers have on many other occasions in many other sonnets discovered, the speaker continues his obsession with the aging process in human beings. While the human body will continue to transform itself through decrepitude and decay, the poem will remain as fresh as ever. The poem is not subject to the unpleasant transformation that the human physical encasement must undergo. The poem will continue to remain ever beautiful, as it glows with youth and vitality.

Third Quatrain: "Ah! yet doth beauty, like a dial-hand"

The speaker then hedges somewhat in speculating that his "eye may be deceiv’d" by beauty alone because beauty, being in the eye of the beholder, may behave "like a dial-hand," and "steal from his figure."

The poet cannot predict how language might change down through the centuries. His "figures" that work so well during his own lifetime might become worn out or change meaning over time, despite the skillful talent of the poet.

And because the evolution of the language is something the poet cannot control, he has his speaker make his future disclaimer as subtly as possible. But the declaimer remains important for the speaker to continue to assume the superiority of his works for now and all time.

The Couplet: "For fear of which, hear this, thou age unbred"

But because the poet/speaker does consider himself tainted with this "fear," he redounds with a strong assertion that despite such mutability, before his poem was written there existed no height of beauty.

Even if the speaker exaggerates the power of his poem to exude beauty, he can assuage any negativity with the awareness of the special attributes his own poem will contribute to the creation of beauty because he knows the poem lives in perpetuity, "thou age unbred."

The heart of the poet, Edward de Vere, if he could visit the world today in the 21st century surely would be gladdened by the long-standing reception of his poetry and his works having earned him the title of "the Bard." This despite the fact that he has been confused with the actor named William Shakespeare who resided at Stratford-upon-Avon.

The Earl of Oxford would also likely be somewhat dismayed by the onslaught of postmodernism whose influence has caused his works to become nearly incomprehensible in many circles. And you would not want to get him started on the issue of "political correctness" and its disastrous influence on all the arts.

A Brief Overview: The 154-Sonnet Sequence

Scholars and critics of Elizabethan literature have determined that the sequence of 154 Shakespeare sonnets may be classified into three thematic categories: (1) Marriage Sonnets 1-17; (2) Muse Sonnets 18-126, traditionally identified as the "Fair Youth"; and (3) Dark Lady Sonnets 127-154.

Marriage Sonnets 1-17

The speaker in the Shakespeare “Marriage Sonnets” pursues a single goal: to persuade a young man to marry and produce beautiful offspring. It is likely that the young man is Henry Wriothesley, the third earl of Southampton, who is being urged to marry Elizabeth de Vere, the oldest daughter of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.

Many scholars and critics now argue persuasively that Edward de Vere is the writer of the works attributed to the nom de plume, "William Shakespeare." For example, Walt Whitman, one of America's greatest poets has opined:

Conceiv'd out of the fullest heat and pulse of European feudalism — personifying in unparalleled ways the medieval aristocracy, its towering spirit of ruthless and gigantic caste, with its own peculiar air and arrogance (no mere imitation) — only one of the "wolfish earls" so plenteous in the plays themselves, or some born descendant and knower, might seem to be the true author of those amazing works — works in some respects greater than anything else in recorded literature.

For more information regarding Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, as the real writer of the Shakespearean canon, please visit The De Vere Society, an organization that is "dedicated to the proposition that the works of Shakespeare were written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford."

Muse Sonnets 18-126 (Traditionally classified as "Fair Youth")

The speaker in this section of sonnets is exploring his talent, his dedication to his art, and his own soul power. In some sonnets, the speaker addresses his muse, in others he addresses himself, and in others he even addresses the poem itself.

Even though many scholars and critics have traditionally categorized this group of sonnets as the "Fair Youth Sonnets," there is no "fair youth," that is "young man," in these sonnets. There is no person at all in this sequence, with exception of the two problematic sonnets, 108 and 126.

Dark Lady Sonnets 127-154

The final sequence targets an adulterous romance with a woman of questionable character; the term “dark” likely modifies the woman’s character flaws, not her skin tone.

Two Problematic Sonnets: 108 and 126

Sonnet 108 and 126 present a problem in categorization. While most of the sonnets in the "Muse Sonnets" do focus on the poet's musings about his writing talent and do not focus on a human being, sonnets 108 and 126 are speaking to a young man, respectively calling him "sweet boy" and "lovely boy." Sonnet 126 presents an additional problem: it is not technically a "sonnet," because it features six couplets, instead of the traditional three quatrains and a couplet.

The themes of sonnets 108 and 126 would better categorize with the "Marriage Sonnets" because they do address a "young man." It is likely that sonnets 108 and 126 are at least partially responsible for the erroneous labeling of the "Muse Sonnets" as the "Fair Youth Sonnets" along with the claim that those sonnets address a young man.

While most scholars and critics tend to categorize the sonnets into the three-themed schema, others combine the "Marriage Sonnets" and the "Fair Youth Sonnets" into one group of "Young Man Sonnets." This categorization strategy would be accurate if the "Muse Sonnets" actually addressed a young man, as only the "Marriage Sonnets" do.

The Two Final Sonnets

Sonnets 153 and 154 are also somewhat problematic. They are classified with the Dark Lady Sonnets, but they function quite differently from the bulk of those poems.

Sonnet 154 is a paraphrase of Sonnet 153; thus, they carry the same message. The two final sonnets dramatize the same theme, a complaint of unrequited love, while outfitting the complaint with the dress of mythological allusion. The speaker employs the services of the Roman god Cupid and the goddess Diana. The speaker thus achieves a distance from his feelings, which he, no doubt, hopes will finally liberate him from the clutches of his lust/love and bring him equanimity of mind and heart.

In the bulk of the "dark lady" sonnets, the speaker has a been addressing the woman directly, or making it clear that what he is saying is intended for her ears. In the final two sonnets, the speaker is not directly addressing the mistress. He does mention her, but he is speaking now about her instead of directly to her. He is now making it quite clear that he is withdrawing from the drama with her.

Readers may sense that he has grown battle-weary from his struggle for the woman’s respect and affection, and now he has finally decided to make a philosophical drama that heralds the end of that disastrous relationship, announcing essentially, "I’m through."

Questions & Answers

    © 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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