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

The Shakespeare sonnets play an essential rôle in my poetry world. Those 154 classic sonnets masterfully dramatize truth, beauty, and love.

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 104: "To me, fair friend, you never can be old"

While the speaker in sonnet 104 from the classic Shakespeare 154-sonnet sequence knows that through language evolution sometime in future his tropes may lose their special nuances, he still 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"

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.

Reading of Sonnet 104


This sonnet is an example of the many in which the speaker addresses the poem itself.

First Quatrain: Lovingly Addressing His Sonnet

The creator of the Shakespeare 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. Although this speaker does often exaggerate, he never makes statements that are flat out false, and he assiduously avoids exaggerating physical human qualities.

The speaker is now addressing a sonnet that he wrote three years ago. He tells the piece of verse 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," which had shone with "summer’s pride," the poem remains fresh with a youthful beauty.

Second Quatrain: After Three Years

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 poem 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, this 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.

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Third Quatrain: Cannot Predict Language Change

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."

This speaker, although he is a talented, clever 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 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: Assuaging Negativity

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."

Questions & Answers

Question: What is the theme of the Shakespeare sonnet 104?

Answer: The theme is the nature of change: 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.

Question: What is a "dial-hand"?

Answer: In Shakespeare sonnet 104, "dial-hand" refers to the hands of an analog clock.

Question: Whom does the speaker appreciate in Shakespeare sonnet 104?

Answer: In Shakespeare's sonnets 18-126 (traditionally classified as "Fair Youth"), the speaker 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. In sonnet 104, the speaker is addressing his sonnet and showing his appreciation for its ability to dramatize and immortalize.

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 the exception of the two problematic sonnets, 108 and 126.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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