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Shakespeare Sonnet 2: "When forty winters shall besiege thy brow"

The Shakespeare sonnets play an essential rôle in my poetry world. Those 154 classic sonnets masterfully dramatize truth, beauty, and love.

Title page to first edition

Title page to first edition

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 2: "When forty winters shall besiege thy brow"

In the second marriage sonnet from the Shakespeare 154-sonnet sequence, the speaker continues to implore the young man to take a wife and produce offspring. He cautions the young lad to act before he begins to age and lose his youth, vitality, and beauty.

This speaker's clever mind will continue to fashion numerous arguments to try to convince this young man that the latter's life will be much enhanced by following the elder man's advice regarding matrimony and child producing. This speaker will frequently be appealing to the young man's vanity, which offers readers a glimpse into the speaker's own relationship with that quality .

Sonnet 2: "When forty winters shall besiege thy brow"

When forty winters shall besiege thy brow
And dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field,
Thy youth’s proud livery, so gaz’d on now,
Will be a tatter’d weed, of small worth held:
Then being ask’d, where all thy beauty lies,
Where all the treasure of thy lusty days,
To say, within thine own deep-sunken eyes,
Were an all-eating shame and thriftless praise.
How much more praise deserv’d thy beauty’s use,
If thou couldst answer ‘This fair child of mine
Shall sum my count, and make my old excuse,’
Proving his beauty by succession thine!
This were to be new made when thou art old,
And see thy blood warm when thou feel’st it cold.

A Reading of Sonnet 2

Commentary


The speaker in Shakespeare sonnet 2 continues the "Marriage Sonnets" imploring the young man to marry and produce offspring before he grows old and decrepit.

First Quatrain: Old at 40

When forty winters shall besiege thy brow
And dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field,
Thy youth’s proud livery, so gaz’d on now,
Will be a tatter’d weed, of small worth held:

Life expectancy during the late 16th and early 17th centuries in Britain was approximately fifty years; therefore, at the age of forty an individual was considered old. The speaker’s metaphoric use of a plowed corn field reminds the young man that by forty, he will have a face full of wrinkles and look like that literal corn field plowed into "deep trenches." An unsightly spectacle in any culture at any time!

The speaker knows that the young target of his pleading has a considerable amount of pride in his youthful, handsome appearance. Thus, in projecting the notion that one day in the future the young lad's looks will be degraded to a "tatter’d weed," the speaker hopes to score some points for his argument. That weed face will be worthless in trying procure a bride!

Thus, readers have now encountered the sly nature of this speaker as he engages the young man with his rhetoric. The speaker will continue to appeal to the qualities of the young man that he feels are most vulnerable to the speaker’s persuasive talents. Readers will likely also wonder just what the advice giver has to gain from having the young man succumb to his persuasion because it will become obvious that at first glance nothing seems to be on the horizon for enhancing the older man’s life, except the sheer pleasure of having this advice accepted and followed.

Second Quatrain: Beauty Stashed in a Withering Face

Then being ask’d, where all thy beauty lies,
Where all the treasure of thy lusty days,
To say, within thine own deep-sunken eyes,
Were an all-eating shame and thriftless praise.

The speaker then admonishes the youth that if the latter remains without an heir to carry on those admired qualities, the young man will have to realize that his beauteous, natural treasures will remain stashed in that withering face. All pride will cease without an heir to continue its reign. The speaker shows frustration that this young man can be so callous as to steal from the world the benefit of the beauty the young man has to offer.

By failing to offer those positive qualities for the benefit of others, the insolent youth is selfish and self-absorbed, qualifies that the speaker hopes to instill in the youth as undesirable and dreaded. The speaker pities the young man who garners only a future of a wrinkled face with nothing to replace his youthful beauty.

Third Quatrain: Upbraiding with Concocted Comparisons

How much more praise deserv’d thy beauty’s use,
If thou couldst answer ‘This fair child of mine
Shall sum my count, and make my old excuse,’
Proving his beauty by succession thine!

The speaker continues to upbraid the young man. He concocts a comparison of having a child now to not having one. If the young man follows the speaker’s advice and produces lovely offspring now in his youthful, vibrant glory, the young man will be able to boast that he has given the world a gift that reflects well upon the father by offering society such wonderful qualities to enhance the next generation.

The young man’s beautiful offspring will testify to the world that his father was a handsome man. But if the lad continues his recalcitrant ways, he will have to confront the future with a face that looks like a plowed cornfield with nothing but nothingness as he slides into death.

The Couplet: Retaining Youth by Producing Offspring

This were to be new made when thou art old,
And see thy blood warm when thou feel’st it cold.

In the couplet, the speaker concludes by emphasizing that the young man will retain some portion of own youthful beauty by smartly producing quality offspring who possess the ability to mimic his own beautiful characteristics and who also will bear his name. After the young man inescapably drifts into old age, he will be comforted, as he experiences the joy of having splendid children with warm blood coursing through their.

The speaker asserts that the young man will be reinvigorated—he will be "new made." When he sees his living children, he will be buttressed against the inevitable coldness of old age. Not only does the speaker hope to persuade the young man through his vanity, but he also thinks that concocting a scenario in which the lad will need to be comforted may help strengthen his argument. The notion that old age is a period of coldness is pure fabrication on the part of the speaker, but he is desperate to convince the young man to marry, so he will concoct any likely event in order to gain the upper hand in the argument.

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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