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Shakespeare Sonnet 12: "When I do count the clock that tells the time"

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

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 12: "When I do count the clock that tells the time"

The speaker of Shakespeare’s marriage poem 12 from the classic Shakespeare 154-sonnet sequence again shows how changing nature always comes under "Time’s scythe," and only one remedy can fend off that transformation: producing an heir. In marriage sonnet 12, "When I do count the clock that tells the time," the speaker frames a series of "when" clauses followed by a "then" clause; in other words, he proposes a situation as "when such and such happens, then one can expect such and such will result."

Sonnet 12: "When I do count the clock that tells the time"

When I do count the clock that tells the time
And see the brave day sunk in hideous night;
When I behold the violet past prime,
And sable curls, all silver’d o’er with white;
When lofty trees I see barren of leaves,
Which erst from heat did canopy the herd,
And summer’s green all girded up in sheaves,
Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard,
Then of thy beauty do I question make,
That thou among the wastes of time must go,
Since sweets and beauties do themselves forsake
And die as fast as they see others grow;
And nothing ’gainst Time’s scythe can make defence
Save breed, to brave him when he takes thee hence.

Reading of Sonnet 12

Commentary

In this sonnet, the speaker metaphorically likens the lad's youth to nature giving way to time which will cut him down unless he acts as the speaker wishes.

First Quatrain: Night Encroaching on Day

When I do count the clock that tells the time
And see the brave day sunk in hideous night;
When I behold the violet past prime,
And sable curls, all silver’d o’er with white;

In the first quatrain, the speaker begins his series by asserting that when he looks at the clock and sees times flying by and the "brave day" is being engulfed in the "hideous night," and when he sees a young man like a fresh flower turning into an old gray haired man, . . . . Abruptly, the quatrain stops with a semi-colon; at that point, we do not know where the speaker might go with his "when" clauses.

The speaker cleverly employs this "when/then" technique to create his drama of imagining a sequence of events. The notion that if something happens, something else will surely follow remains a mainstay in the creation of literature. The employment of the term "when" may be replaced with "if" or the conjunction "after" and the same result will ensue: an event occurs heralding the question, so what happens next? This set-up provides the speaker with the opportunity to dramatize his opinion on the matter.

Second Quatrain: Compared to a Tree

When lofty trees I see barren of leaves,
Which erst from heat did canopy the herd,
And summer’s green all girded up in sheaves,
Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard,

So we proceed to the second quatrain, wherein the speaker is continuing metaphorically to compare young man’s youth to trees that lose their leaves. What had once provided a leafy roof against the summer’s blazing sun becomes a heap of dry, bristly leaves, metaphorically resembling the old age features of a man with a gray beard that replaces that deep brunette/black of youth. It becomes evident that the speaker once again is likening the youth of the young lad to naturally occurring things and events.

Particularly useful to the speaker is the ability to compare the young man to the leaves on trees, useful when young, not so much after they dry up and drop off the tree. The clever speaker invokes the natural occurrence of changing seasons in order to compare the life of the young man to the ravages of time. The seasonal changes run in only one direction, from freshness and youth to decay and old age. As spring time represents youth, fall and winter become useful metaphors for the aging human’s physical encasement.

Third Quatrain: Then What Happens?

Then of thy beauty do I question make,
That thou among the wastes of time must go,
Since sweets and beauties do themselves forsake
And die as fast as they see others grow;

The third quatrain supplies the "then" or result of all the "whens": then the youth and beauty that nature possessed passes away. And the speaker wants to ask the young man if he thinks his own beauty will not go "among the wastes of time." Since these other natural things—the day that sinks into night, the violet that withers in time, the black hair that turns gray, the trees in summer that lose their leaves to winter—lose their youthful attributes, how can the young man not realize that he too will come under the sway of nature?

The employment of the question provides a useful emphasis for the speaker to place before the young man’s consciousness. It offers a strong confrontation, such as "don’t you realize that time is not on your side?" And even as the speaker implies the answer, he remains steadfast in his own estimate that the young must realize that as the seasons change from spring to winter, his own lifetime of seasons will also undergo this inevitable transformation. So what is to be done becomes the next logical thought in this progression of imaginings.

The Couplet: Hurry Up and Reproduce!

And nothing ’gainst Time’s scythe can make defence
Save breed, to brave him when he takes thee hence.

The couplet then offers the complete redress of the grievance against the aging process, as time which acting as a "scythe" begins cutting down the young man’s pleasing youthful qualities. The speaker then makes his assertion that the only way to overcome "Time’s scythe" is for the young man to marry and produce pleasing offspring.

By this time, no reader will be surprised by the solution to the concocted problem dramatized by the speaker. His mission is to get the young man married and producing these lovely, pleasing children. That the speaker has asserted another reason that affects the young man’s own vanity and love of his own youthfulness will play into the speaker’s argument which he so desperately wants to win.

Shakespeare Authorship / Crackpot to Mainstream

© 2020 Linda Sue Grimes