Shakespeare Sonnet 123: "No, Time, thou shalt not boast that I do change"

Updated on January 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 123

In sonnet 123, the speaker addresses “Time,” as he has done in many of the sonnets in this sequence. He spars occasionally with Time, showing how it has no control over the soul, although it disfigures the physical body and for some ravages the mind.

Sonnet 123

No, Time, thou shalt not boast that I do change
Thy pyramids built up with newer might
To me are nothing novel, nothing strange;
They are but dressings of a former sight.
Our dates are brief, and therefore we admire
What thou dost foist upon us that is old;
And rather make them born to our desire
Than think that we before have heard them told.
Thy registers and thee I both defy,
Not wondering at the present nor the past,
For thy records and what we see doth lie,
Made more or less by thy continual haste.
This I do vow, and this shall ever be;
I will be true, despite thy scythe and thee.

Reading of Sonnet 123

Commentary

First Quatrain: Change and the Passage of Time

No, Time, thou shalt not boast that I do change
Thy pyramids built up with newer might
To me are nothing novel, nothing strange;
They are but dressings of a former sight.

Addressing his nemesis, Time, the speaker asserts that time will never be able to count him among its victims.

Even though “Time” wants to contend that marvels such as the pyramids were created through its agency, the speaker asserts that these wonders are mere trinkets of a bygone era; this speaker considers such creations not at all out of the ordinary or new.

The speaker understands that the nature of humankind includes the act of creation, which has no limits. From the creation of little songs, or sonnets, to the enormous ingenuity that brought forth the pyramids, there exists a constant stream of creativity.

The artist’s work does not change with “Time” as other human activity does. The artist’s creations result from the artist’s self because they are manifestations of the creative soul. While the physical body and even the mind may come under Time’s sway, the soul does not. And this truth becomes and remains evidence in the artist’s creations that withstand the test of “Time.”

Second Quatrain: Time and the Linear Motion of Events

Our dates are brief, and therefore we admire
What thou dost foist upon us that is old;
And rather make them born to our desire
Than think that we before have heard them told.

The speaker admits that the period of time allotted for each human being's existence is short, and because human beings live such short lives, they are fascinated by the accomplishments of the past. The ordinary human mind accepts received knowledge but fails to intuit that the recycling of material reality has allowed earlier generations to have already become aware of that knowledge.

The speaker demonstrates that humans prefer to accept the linear motion of historical acts as the only progression they can understand, but that same desire does not mask the intensity of the mental anguish such thinking must necessarily engender.

Third Quatrain: Rebelling Against Time and Its Records

Thy registers and thee I both defy,
Not wondering at the present nor the past,
For thy records and what we see doth lie,
Made more or less by thy continual haste.

The speaker, however, rebels against both Time’s “registers” and against Time itself. He can express this defiance by conflating both present and past in his art. He makes the bold claim that what Time has recorded is as false as what we think we view with the eye. And those “registers” or records alongside the bias with which the mind looks at them exist because of the constant fast pace in which Time operates.

The artist, on the other hand, is deliberate, moving slowly in order to accomplish his work of truth, love, and beauty. Time’s playthings matter little to the artist whose work is motivated by his soul awareness, not by the desire to attract vulgar curiosity.

The Couplet: Vow to Remain Faithful to Truth

This I do vow, and this shall ever be;
I will be true, despite thy scythe and thee.

The speaker then makes his vow to his soul, his talent, and his muse that he will remain faithful to truth, and he will adhere to this truth, his main interest, regardless of Time’s damaging exploits.

A Brief Overview of the 154-Sonnet Sequence

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 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 (Erroneously "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.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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    • Maya Shedd Temple profile image
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      Linda Sue Grimes 2 months ago from Spring Hill, TN

      I remember my dad, who was not at all a poetry guy but who must have had an impressive high school teacher of literature because he would often quote from famous verse, saying that he could never understand Shakespeare. And he said it in such a way that I took it to mean that Shakespeare was nearly beyond comprehension. I think that prompted me to make every possible effort to understand the Shakespearean works.

      Of course, after completing a PhD in Brit lit, I found reading Shakespeare not all that troublesome. Still, I would argue that after graduate studies, learning that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, is the actual writer of those works further helped in elucidating that canon, especially the sonnets.

      What I love most about the Shakespeare works is that one can always depend on them to actually be saying something meaningful. So much modernist and postmodernist scribblings are just pure drivel—not meant to communicate but merely play with language and imagery, usually in order to shock with debauchery, or dazzle by throwing out glitter to see where it lands. I like my lit deliberate and honest, and the Shakespearean canon offers that in spades.

      Thanks, Patricia! Always love those angels and always enjoy hearing from you.

    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 2 months ago from sunny Florida

      Shakespeare...timeless is he not?

      How many hours spent in high school and college poring over his works...trying to make sense of it all in my own head....

      this is a particular favorite of mine....thank you for your sharing of it....Angels are on the way this morning ps

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