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Shakespeare Sonnet 15: "When I consider every thing that grows"

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 15: "When I consider every thing that grows"

In the first quatrain of sonnet 15, "When I consider every thing that grows," from the classic Shakespeare 154-sonnet sequence, the creative thinking speaker fashions a when-then structure in which to play out his claims. He begins a "when" clause which leaves the first quatrain an incomplete sentence.

In the second quatrain, the speaker again employs that same pattern, and the thought is not complete until the third quatrain, beginning with the "then" clause of the structure. The speaker uses this pattern often: when such-and-such happens, then such-and-such is the result.

This when-then pattern becomes useful as the speaker compares two events or two situations, with one presently occurring while the other will occur sometime in future and be influenced by the present event or situation This rhetorical device works especially well for the drama, which the speaker of these highly stylized sonnets wishes to achieve in his sonnet sequence.

Sonnet 15: "When I consider every thing that grows"

When I consider every thing that grows
Holds in perfection but a little moment,
That this huge stage presenteth nought but shows
Whereon the stars in secret influence comment;
When I perceive that men as plants increase,
Cheered and check’d e’en by the self-same sky,
Vaunt in their youthful sap, at height decrease,
And wear their brave state out of memory;
Then the conceit of this inconstant stay
Sets you most rich in youth before my sight,
Where wasteful Time debateth with Decay,
To change your day of youth to sullied night;
And, all in war with Time for love of you,
As he takes from you, I engraft you new.

Reading of Sonnet 15

Commentary

The speaker employs this pattern often: when such-and-such happens, then such-and-such will be the result. He also relies on "time" as a phenomenon of power over nature and the human physical encasement.

First Quatrain: First "When" Clause

When I consider every thing that grows
Holds in perfection but a little moment,
That this huge stage presenteth nought but shows
Whereon the stars in secret influence comment;

In the first quatrain, the speaker holds forth with the claim that he has been musing on the issue of how all growing things on earth seem to remain youthful and without blemish for such a short period of time. The reader immediately comprehends that the speaker will again be using the fact that all living things age, decay, and die under time’s influence. And, of course, because of this speaker’s purpose for creating his little dramas, he will be fashioning his discourse to persuade the young man to marry and produce pleasing offspring while the lad is still young.

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Interestingly, given the Shakespearean association with such, the speaker then employs a theater metaphor: "this huge stage presenteth nought but shows." He further comments that in those "shows" there exists a hidden motivator. He employs the pun, "stars," referring both to the players on the stage and astrological heavenly bodies that are thought to influence the people and things on earth. His main issue is, however, that those influencing factors do remain brief because life itself is brief. And ultimately, that brevity, known all too well to human consciousness, serves as a strong motivating factor in not putting off marriage and childrearing past the age of young adulthood.

Second Quatrain: Second "When" Clause

When I perceive that men as plants increase,
Cheered and check’d e’en by the self-same sky,
Vaunt in their youthful sap, at height decrease,
And wear their brave state out of memory;

The second quatrain continues with its own "when" clause. The speaker informs his listener—the young man—that he has noticed that even the plant kingdom continues to propagate its succeeding generations, and both man and plant are welcomed, encouraged, likely moved on by the "self-same sky." The heavens look on humanity as well as on the plant kingdom with the same smiling luster.

As the speaker compares human beings to plants in their capability to reproduce and remarks that their progeny is welcomed and condoned by an approving "self-same sky," he is directing the young man to consider the substance that runs through plants to compare that substance to the blood in the veins of the young man. It is the youthful "sap" that is running through the veins of the plants which corresponds to the youthful blood that is coursing through the veins of the human being in his prime; all living things are programmed to renew themselves through systems of reproduction.

Third Quatrain: The "Then" Clause

Then the conceit of this inconstant stay
Sets you most rich in youth before my sight,
Where wasteful Time debateth with Decay,
To change your day of youth to sullied night;

The third quatrain contains the "then" clause which supplies the resulting conclusion following the "when" clauses of the first and second quatrains: while life is uncertain for all living things, still here you are, an example of the best life has to offer, as I see in you a richness of pleasing qualities at their very prime. Here is the young man at the height of his prime, at the very period of time when debilitating old age begins to argue with that youth, ultimately winning and transforming that youth from its treasured day to its frightful night. The speaker is trying to be so forceful in his comparison/contrast that he will convince the young man to remedy the age-old problem of growing old. He hopes to make the lad see that the here-and-now is the time when nature begins to inflict the downward course from youth to old age.

The Couplet: Capping the Argument

And, all in war with Time for love of you,
As he takes from you, I engraft you new.

The speaker, in concluding, reminds the young man that "Time" is struggling to diminish the lad, to impoverish his love, and to take away his pleasing manly qualities. However, if the young man will just follow the suggestions of the speaker, what Time takes away will be returned to him in the form of his new pleasing son. The speaker has framed his suggestion in terms of "when" clauses that once again supply the argument that the young man understand his downward journey to old age and act to restore the loss that will result if the lad dies without leaving his lovely qualities embodied in his offspring.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Linda Sue Grimes

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