Shakespeare Sonnet 12:"When I do count the clock that tells the time"

Updated on October 6, 2017
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

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



The speaker of Shakespeare’s marriage poem 12 again shows how changing nature always comes under “Time’s scythe,” and only one remedy can fend him off: producing an heir.

In marriage sonnet 12, “When I do count the clock that tells the time,” the speaker frames a series of “when” clauses followed by a “then.”

In other words, the speaker proposes a situation as “when such and such happens, then we can expect such and such will result.”

The speaker continues to cleverly employ rhetorical devices that he feels are sufficient to carry his pleas to the young man, as he hopes his smart literary choices will have a strong effect on the young man's behavior in the future.

First Quatrain: "When I do count the clock that tells the time"

In the first quatrain, the speaker begins his series by asserting that when he looks at the clock and sees times flying by and the “brave day” is being engulfed in the “hideous night," and when he sees a young man like a fresh flower turning into an old gray haired man, . . . .

Then the quatrain stops with a semi-colon, and at the point, we do not know where the speaker might go with his “when” clauses.

Second Quatrain: "When lofty trees I see barren of leaves"

So we proceed to the second quatrain, wherein the speaker is continuing metaphorically to compare young man’s youth to trees that lose their leaves.

What had once provided a leafy roof against the summer’s blazing sun becomes “summer’s green all girded up in sheaves, / Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard.”

It becomes evident that the speaker once again is likening the youth of the young lad to naturally occurring things and events.

Particularly useful to the speaker is the ability to compare the young man to the leaves on trees, useful when young, not so much after they dry up and drop off the tree.

Third Quatrain: "Then of thy beauty do I question make"

The third quatrain supplies the “then” or result of all the “whens”: then the youth and beauty that nature possessed passes away.

And the speaker wants to ask the young man if he thinks his own beauty will not go “among the wastes of time.”

Since these other natural things—the day that sinks into night, the violet that withers in time, the black hair that turns white, the trees in summer that lose their leaves to winter—lose their youthful attributes, how can the young man not realize that he too will come under the sway of nature?

Couplet: "And nothing ’gainst Time’s scythe can make defence"

The couplet, “And nothing ’gainst Time’s scythe can make defence / Save breed, to brave him when he takes thee hence,” offers the young man his only way to overcome “Time’s scythe”—that he marry and produce pleasing offspring.

Reading of Sonnet 12

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes


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