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

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 - The real "Shakespeare"

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford - The real "Shakespeare"

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 16: "But wherefore do not you a mightier way"

The speaker of Marriage sonnet 16 from the classic Shakespeare 154-sonnet sequence likens the struggle with Time to fighting in war against a bitter enemy. Life is a battlefield, and the young man is at war with Time as if it were a bloody tyrant he has encountered on that battlefield. The speaker continues to cajole and try to persuade this young man to marry and produce offspring. Again, the speaker creates a metaphorical drama to try to show the lad the concerns that the older man entertains about the young man’s welfare.

The speaker again has crafted a unique little drama of persuasion. He arrays his lines in color and consequence as he argues, cajoles, and even begs to young man to give up his selfish ways for his own good as well as for that of future generations. The speaker’s determination never flags, and his pride of having the ability to create his little effusions seems to grow with each additional installment.

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

But wherefore do not you a mightier way
Make war upon this bloody tyrant, Time?
And fortify yourself in your decay
With means more blessed than my barren rime?
Now stand you on the top of happy hours,
And many maiden gardens, yet unset,
With virtuous wish would bear you living flowers
Much liker than your painted counterfeit:
So should the lines of life that life repair,
Which this, Time’s pencil, or my pupil pen,
Neither in inward worth nor outward fair,
Can make you live yourself in eyes of men.
To give away yourself keeps yourself still;
And you must live, drawn by your own sweet skill.

Reading of Sonnet 16

Commentary

With “Time” portraying a “bloody tyrant,” the speaker in this little drama is likening the young man's struggle to that of a fierce opponent he is meeting in an all-out war.

First Quatrain: The Enemy, Time

But wherefore do not you a mightier way
Make war upon this bloody tyrant, Time?
And fortify yourself in your decay
With means more blessed than my barren rime?

The speaker of Shakespeare sonnet 16, “But wherefore do not you a mightier way,” again, is reminding the young man that Time is the lad’s enemy; the speaker 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 opponent 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.

*Please note: In the original Shakespeare sonnets, the spelling of the poetic device is always "rime," as the first published edition in 1609 attests. The Shakespeare writer was composing his sonnets two centuries before Dr. Samuel Johnson erroneously introduced "rhyme" into English. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error."

Second Quatrain: A Lad at His Prime

Now stand you on the top of happy hours,
And many maiden gardens, yet unset,
With virtuous wish would bear you living flowers
Much liker than your painted counterfeit:

The speaker reminds the young man that the latter 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: Ensuring His Heritage

So should the lines of life that life repair,
Which this, Time’s pencil, or my pupil pen,
Neither in inward worth nor outward fair,
Can make you live yourself in eyes of men.

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: Maintaining His Own True Self

To give away yourself keeps yourself still;
And you must live, drawn by your own sweet skill.

In the couplet, the speaker introduces 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 the young man must use his “sweet skill,” with which he is well endowed to live and produce his lineage. This speaker continues to employ every angle of persuasion he can muster to bend the young man to his way of thinking. Many of his dramas are created to focus on the lad's own vanity and self-worth. This speaker always seems particularly energized and motivated as he likens aspects of life to creating lines of verse.

Shakespeare Identified Lecture, Mike A'Dair And William J. Ray

© 2020 Linda Sue Grimes

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