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Shakespeare Sonnet 19: "Devouring Time, blunt thou the lion’s paws"

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 19: "Devouring Time, blunt thou the lion’s paws"

In the thematic group, "Marriage Sonnets" (1–17) from the classic Shakespeare 154-sonnet sequence, the speaker is pleading with a young man to marry and produce offspring; the speaker in sonnets 18–126, the "Muse Sonnets," is addressing the poet’s talent and art, often directly addressing the very poem he is writing, and in the "Dark Lady Sonnets" (127–154)," that speaker is dramatizing a relationship with a woman of ill repute.

In sonnet 19, the speaker is again broaching the subject of his writing talent, as he did in sonnet 18, in which he addressed the poem itself. Sonnet 19 differs in that the speaker is addressing "Time." In this sonnet, the speaker personifies "Time" and challenges it to destroy his artistic endeavors as the passage of time does to all living creatures as they age. The speaker, however, declares that Time cannot devastate the speaker's art.

Sonnet 19: "Devouring Time, blunt thou the lion’s paws"

Devouring Time, blunt thou the lion’s paws
And make the earth devour her own sweet brood;
Pluck the keen teeth from the fierce tiger’s jaws,
And burn the long-liv’d phoenix in her blood;
Make glad and sorry seasons as thou fleets,
And do whate’er thou wilt, swift-footed Time,
To the wide world and all her fading sweets;
But I forbid thee one most heinous crime:
O! carve not with thy hours my love’s fair brow,
Nor draw no lines there with thine antique pen;
Him in thy course untainted do allow
For beauty’s pattern to succeeding men.
Yet, do thy worst, old Time: despite thy wrong,
My love shall in my verse ever live young.

Reading of Sonnet 19

Commentary

As these sonnets continue to attest, this clever, creative speaker enjoys challenging adversaries—even devastating ones like Time. His colorful drama plays out in order to offer a triumphant final claim.

First Quatrain: Battling with Time

Devouring Time, blunt thou the lion’s paws
And make the earth devour her own sweet brood;
Pluck the keen teeth from the fierce tiger’s jaws,
And burn the long-liv’d phoenix in her blood;

In the first quatrain, the speaker begins his direct engagement with Time in a battle of wills. He chides Time, saying go ahead and makes the paws of the lion dull and useless with age, let the tiger’s sharp teeth fall out, and let the ever-reviving phoenix die. The images of these strong, colorful animals succumbing to the ravages of time build a rich background against which the speaker will state his later claims. This clever speaker even alludes to the mythical phoenix, a bird that can revive itself by setting itself on fire, but even the phoenix has a life-span of five hundred years.

Second Quatrain: Forbidding Crime

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Make glad and sorry seasons as thou fleets,
And do whate’er thou wilt, swift-footed Time,
To the wide world and all her fading sweets;
But I forbid thee one most heinous crime:

In the second quatrain, this clever speaker is challenging the personified Time to create joyous seasons and sad seasons as he hurries by. The speaker even encourages Time to go ahead and do whatever he wants to the whole world. The speaker avers that everything lovely will vanish with the passage of the seasons and years. But the speaker forbids Time to touch one particular entity, and he says with vehemence that there is one crime which is quite horrible that the speaker is not allowing Time to commit.

Third Quatrain: A Time of Carving

O! carve not with thy hours my love’s fair brow,
Nor draw no lines there with thine antique pen;
Him in thy course untainted do allow
For beauty’s pattern to succeeding men.

In the third quatrain, the speaker reveals the "heinous crime" which he forbids Time to commit: he will not allow Time to cause his poetic creation to grow old and fade. The speaker personifies his sonnet by giving it a face with a "fair brow." When Time uses his tools to "carve" lines into the forehead of a person, the results are the wrinkles that all old people have. The speaker commands Time not to etch those lines in the face of his sonnets. He employs a pun—"lines"—that refers to both old age wrinkles in a human face and strings of works in which sonnets are written.

The speaker forbids Time to attempt to write upon his works—his "love"—with Time's "antique pen." The speaker will not allow Time to write over his works with his old writing instrument because he wants his poems to remain fresh and youthful so that succeeding generations may enjoy them. The speaker is creating beauty and storing it in his sonnet where he knows Time will not be able to diminish that beauty. His drama is simply creating a fascinating dilemma which the speaker can easily repudiate because of his masterful skill in poetry creation.

The Couple: Meeting the Challenge

Yet, do thy worst, old Time: despite thy wrong,
My love shall in my verse ever live young.

In the couplet, the speaker appears to do an about-face. He says, on the other hand, go ahead, "old Time," do your best to destroy this love—this talent, these sonnets—of mine. And even though you try your hardest, "My love shall in my verse ever live young." His love, which is his art, his talent at producing beauty in poems, is untouchable by time. His talent will forever remain young and full of life.

The speaker thus solves the age old problem of beauty vanishing into old decay—at least he has done so for his remarkable writing ability and talent. By creating beautiful works of art, the creative, resourceful speaker will cause to be available for perusing a part of his mind and heart and that viewing will remain throughout eternity or as long as people can see, hear, read, and listen.

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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