Shakespeare Sonnet 126: "O thou, my lovely boy, who in thy power"

Updated on December 24, 2017
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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.

Shakespeare Sonnet Titles

The Shakespeare Sonnet sequence does not feature titles for each sonnet; therefore, each sonnet's first line becomes the title. According to the MLA Style Manuel:

"When the first line of a poem serves as the title of the poem, reproduce the line exactly as it appears in the text."

APA does not address this issue.

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

Source

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 126

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

While many Shakespeare scholars designate the sonnets as falling into three thematic categories, others claim only two: the young man sonnets and the dark lady sonnets. They combine the "marriage sonnets" into the category that is traditionally considered to a young man; this is reasonable because the "marriage sonnets" are actually written to a young man.

The sonnets considered to be addressing a young man, i.e. sonnets 18-126, however, can better be read as musings on the poet’s talent, writing ability, or even to the sonnets themselves. But "Sonnet 126" presents more problems than theme.

A Problem Sonnet

Poem number 126 presents a problem. It is not technically a sonnet; it consists of six riming couplets, totaling 12 lines not the usual 14. The traditional Elizabethan sonnet consists of three quatrains with the rime scheme ABAB CDCD EFEF and a couplet GG.

The subject of Sonnet 126 is similar to many of the young man or marriage sonnets; it addresses the issue of aging, but it does not seem to be exhorting the young man to marry and produce offspring, as the marriage sonnets do. Nor does it clearly address his writing talent or the sonnet itself, as those sonnets usually do.

O thou, my lovely boy, who in thy power

O thou, my lovely boy, who in thy power
Dost hold Time’s fickle glass, his sickle hour;
Who hast by waning grown, and therein show’st
Thy lovers withering as thy sweet self grow’st;
If Nature, sovereign mistress over wrack,
As thou goest onwards, still will pluck thee back,
She keeps thee to this purpose, that her skill
May time disgrace and wretched minutes kill.
Yet fear her, O thou minion of her pleasure!
She may detain, but not still keep, her treasure:
Her audit, though delay’d, answer’d must be,
And her quietus is to render thee.

Reading of Sonnet 126

Commentary

First Couplet: Time and the Mirror

O thou, my lovely boy, who in thy power
Dost hold Time’s fickle glass, his sickle hour;

The speaker addresses the young man, calling him "my lovely boy," and remarking that the young man has the ability to look into the mirror and know that time is passing. The phrase, "his sickle hour" refers to time cutting down youth, metaphorically with a sharp harvesting blade.

Second Couplet: The Loss of Youth

Who hast by waning grown, and therein show’st
Thy lovers withering as thy sweet self grow’st;

In the second couplet, the speaker refers to the young man’s losing his youthfulness as he has grown into a mature adult, and even though those who have loved him may have withered into old age, the young man is still a sweet soul and still maturing.

Third Couplet and Fourth Couplets: What If?

If Nature, sovereign mistress over wrack,
As thou goest onwards, still will pluck thee back,
She keeps thee to this purpose, that her skill
May time disgrace and wretched minutes kill.

The third couplet finds the speaker beginning an "if" clause with the main clause in the fourth couplet: if nature who rules over the wreckage of bodily aging will keep you in your prime for what seems an unusual period of time, she’s merely playing tricks, even though it may seem she has the skill to disgrace time and make minutes cease to tick by.

Fifth Couplet: An Admonition

Yet fear her, O thou minion of her pleasure!
She may detain, but not still keep, her treasure:

The speaker admonishes the young man not let nature use him for "her pleasure" by believing she will allow him to keep his youth forever. She may put off making him look old, but she will not sustain his youth, even though it may be considered her "treasure" to have him always fresh and lovely and in his prime.

Sixth Couplet: The Reckoning

Her audit, though delay’d, answer’d must be,
And her quietus is to render thee.

The speaker’s final warning uses an accounting metaphor: though nature may delay her "audit" or reckoning of the youth’s years, they will definitely be counted because it is just the way she operates. She will make him aged and feeble in the end.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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