Shakespeare Sonnet 16: "But wherefore do not you a mightier way"

Updated on October 7, 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.

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (circa 1590)



The speaker of Sonnet 16 likens the struggle with Time to fighting in war against a bitter enemy. The young man is at war with Time as if it were a bloody tyrant he has encountered on a battlefield.

The speaker continues to cajole and try to persuade this young man to marry and produce offspring. Again, he creates a metaphorical drama to try to show the lad the concerns that the older man entertains about his welfare.

Reading of Sonnet 16

First Quatrain: "But wherefore do not you a mightier way"

The speaker of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 16 “But wherefore do not you a mightier way,” again, reminds the young man that Time is the lad’s enemy; he refers to Time as a “bloody tyrant.” And he asks the young man why he does not find a more effective way to forestall this tyrant than just seemingly relying upon the speaker and his “barren rime.”

The speaker wants the young man to “make war upon this bloody tyrant”; he proclaims that the young man’s struggle with Time is as significant as any bloody battle between nations.

And the speaker is again urging the young man to do what is most feasible in this war with Time. Of course, the reader knows well that the speaker’s solution is that this young man must marry and produce offspring.

Second Quatrain: "Now stand you on the top of happy hours"

The speaker reminds the young man that the lad is at his prime, “on the top of happy hours,” and there must be many young ladies who would gladly marry him and bear his offspring.

The speaker relies on a colorful metaphor, likening the young women to “maiden gardens” who would “bear you living flowers.”

And the speaker asserts that these wholesome young women are more appropriate for a young man of his stature than the “painted counterfeit” that apparently pleases the young man as he fritters away his time and stamina.

Third Quatrain: "So should the lines of life that life repair"

The speaker then refers to “lines of life” or the lineage, which denotes the heritage the young man should be ensuring, according to the speaker. Life repairs itself by encouraging a lineage, by prompting young eligible adults to marry and produce their heirs.

The speaker always remains very clever in choosing words that deliver meaning for both eventualities, such as the creating of heirs and creating of poetry.

The speaker is creating a “line of life” in his poetry for the young man, and the speaker thus is trying to persuade the young lad to follow his lead and do the same with his progeny.

The speaker then reminds the young man that no matter how much he concerns himself with folly, the lines of life cannot “make you live yourself in eyes of men.” Only by producing an heir will the young man be guaranteed a lineage that others can see and know.

The Couplet: "To give away yourself keeps yourself still"

The couplet, “To give away yourself keeps yourself still; / And you must live, drawn by your own sweet skill,” pronounces another epigrammatic piece of philosophy that the reader has come to expect from this persuasive speaker.

The speaker asserts that only by giving up his selfish self can the young man actually keep his own true self. And he must use his “sweet skill,” with which the young man is well endowed to live and produce his lineage.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes


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