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Shakespeare Sonnet 6: "Then let not winter’s ragged hand deface"

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

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 6: "Then let not winter’s ragged hand deface"

From the classic Shakespeare 154-sonnet sequence, Sonnet 6 of the "Marriage Sonnets" continues the speaker’s attempts to persuade a young man to marry and produce beautiful offspring. As this sonnet sequence progresses, a number of fascinating metaphors and images emerge from the speaker's literary tool kit. The speaker's passion becomes almost a frenzy as he begs, cajoles, threatens, and shames this young lad, trying to persuade the young man that he simply must marry and produce offspring that will perpetuate the lad's fine qualities.

Sonnet 6: "Then let not winter’s ragged hand deface"

Then let not winter’s ragged hand deface
In thee thy summer, ere thou be distill’d:
Make sweet some vial; treasure thou some place
With beauty’s treasure, ere it be self-kill’d.
That use is not forbidden usury,
Which happies those that pay the willing loan;
That’s for thyself to breed another thee,
Or ten times happier, be it ten for one;
Ten times thyself were happier than thou art,
If ten of thine ten times refigur’d thee;
Then what could death do, if thou shouldst depart,
Leaving thee living in posterity?
Be not self-will’d, for thou art much too fair
To be death’s conquest and make worms thine heir.

Reading of Sonnet 6

Commentary

Sonnet 6 provides a companion piece to Sonnet 5. Upon opening the sonnet, the speaker is referring to the same metaphor he employed in the earlier sonnet—the distillation of flowers.

First Quatrain: Creeping Old Age

Then let not winter’s ragged hand deface
In thee thy summer, ere thou be distill’d:
Make sweet some vial; treasure thou some place
With beauty’s treasure, ere it be self-kill’d.

The speaker begins by employing the adverbial conjunction "then" signaling that sonnet 6 is tied to Sonnet 5. He admonishes the young man that the latter should not let creeping old age overtake his youth: the lad must produce an heir to stay that putrid stage of life. Thus, the speaker has the season of winter metaphorically functioning as old age, summer as youth, while the process of distillation metaphorically functions as the offspring.

The speaker demands of the youth that he create "some vial" to contain the beauty that will be annihilated if the lad allows time to pass him by. The speaker is admonishing the young man to "distill" his beauty by pouring that quality into a glass bottle, as a perfume or a liquor would be done. And again, the speaker emphasizes his signature note, "before it’s too late," to nudge the young man in the direction toward which the speaker continues to point the young man—to marry and produce quality offspring.

Second Quatrain: A Money Metaphor

With beauty’s treasure, ere it be self-kill’d.
That use is not forbidden usury,
Which happies those that pay the willing loan;
That’s for thyself to breed another thee,

The speaker then switches to a money or finance metaphor. He asserts that by completing his assignment to procreate, the speaker will also be employing a proper station for this beauty. By allowing his own lovely features to be inherited by his offspring, the young lad will enhance and brighten the entire universe. The young man is thus likened to those who repay debts after they have borrowed; after the loan is repaid, all parties are well pleased.

The speaker at the same time is implying that if the lad does not reproduce offspring to perpetuate his beauteous qualities, he will be like one who fails to satisfy his debt—a situation that will result in unhappiness and humiliation for all involved. Then the speaker inserts a new notion that he has not, heretofore, offered; he now proposes the idea that if the young man sires ten offspring, then ten times the happiness will result. The speaker attempts to demonstrate the marvelous boon that ten heirs would be by numerically stating, "ten times happier, be it ten for one."

Third Quatrain: Think Hard on Deathlessness

Or ten times happier, be it ten for one;
Ten times thyself were happier than thou art,
If ten of thine ten times refigur’d thee;
Then what could death do, if thou shouldst depart,
Leaving thee living in posterity?

The speaker admires his new solution so much that he repeats the number: "Ten times thyself were happier than thou art, / If ten of thine ten times refigur’d thee." The speaker employs the entire force of his argument by asserting that ten offspring would offer ten times more happiness. The speaker then asks what misery could death cause as the happy father will be well ensconced in the lives of his progeny, thereby achieving a certain kind of immortality.

The speaker desires that the young man take it upon himself to think hard on his own desire for deathlessness and how that status would be accomplished by producing lovely offspring to carry on after the lad has left his body. The speaker's question remains rhetorical, as it implies that the lad could win the battle of death by leaving an heir, who would resemble the young man. Growing old, withering, and leaving this world would be outsmarted, if only the lad would marry and procreate, according to the speaker.

The Couplet: To Avoid Selfishness

Be not self-will’d, for thou art much too fair
To be death’s conquest and make worms thine heir.

Finally, the speaker demands that the young man not remain "self-will’d," that is, thinking only of his own pleasure and enjoyment, wishing that the time period of the present could ever exist, and without sufficient cogitation on the future. The speaker desires to impart to the younger man the notion that the lad's pleasing qualities are too valuable to permit "worms" to become "[his] heir."

The speaker employs the unpleasantness of nature as well as nature's loveliness and beauty—whichever seems to further his cause—in convincing the young lad that spring off heirs remains one of his most crucial duties in life. The speaker continues his efforts to persuade the young man to marry and procreate by portraying old age and death as utterly disagreeable, especially wherein the aging one has not taken the necessary steps against self-destruction by marrying and procreating in order to continue those pleasing qualities of the father.

The speaker remains adamant in his demands. He varies his techniques, images, metaphors, and other elements of his little dramas, but he remains steadfast in his one goal, persuading the young man to marry and produce lovely children. At times, he seems to be reading the young man’s mind in order to land on the particular set of images that he deems most workable in his persuasive attempts.

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

© 2020 Linda Sue Grimes