Shakespeare Sonnet 12

Updated on January 20, 2019
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

Poetry became my passion, after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962.

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

Source

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 12

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” clause; in other words, he proposes a situation as “when such and such happens, then we can expect such and such will result.”

Sonnet 12

When I do count the clock that tells the time
And see the brave day sunk in hideous night;
When I behold the violet past prime,
And sable curls, all silver’d o’er with white;
When lofty trees I see barren of leaves,
Which erst from heat did canopy the herd,
And summer’s green all girded up in sheaves,
Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard,
Then of thy beauty do I question make,
That thou among the wastes of time must go,
Since sweets and beauties do themselves forsake
And die as fast as they see others grow;
And nothing ’gainst Time’s scythe can make defence
Save breed, to brave him when he takes thee hence.

Reading of Sonnet 12

Commentary

In sonnet 12, the speaker is likening the lad's youth to nature giving way to "Time's scythe."

First Quatrain: Night Encroaching on Day

When I do count the clock that tells the time
And see the brave day sunk in hideous night;
When I behold the violet past prime,
And sable curls, all silver’d o’er with white;

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: Compared to a Tree

When lofty trees I see barren of leaves,
Which erst from heat did canopy the herd,
And summer’s green all girded up in sheaves,
Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard,

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 What Happens?

Then of thy beauty do I question make,
That thou among the wastes of time must go,
Since sweets and beauties do themselves forsake
And die as fast as they see others grow;

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: Hurry Up and Reproduce!

And nothing ’gainst Time’s scythe can make defence
Save breed, to brave him when he takes thee hence.

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.

The real "Shakespeare"

Source

A Brief Overview: The 154-Sonnet Sequence

Scholars and critics of Elizabethan literature have determined that the sequence of 154 Shakespeare sonnets may be classified into three thematic categories: (1) Marriage Sonnets 1-17; (2) Muse Sonnets 18-126, traditionally identified as the "Fair Youth"; and (3) Dark Lady Sonnets 127-154.

Marriage Sonnets 1-17

The speaker in the Shakespeare “Marriage Sonnets” pursues a single goal: to persuade a young man to marry and produce beautiful offspring. It is likely that the young man is Henry Wriothesley, the third earl of Southampton, who is being urged to marry Elizabeth de Vere, the oldest daughter of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.

Many scholars and critics now argue persuasively that Edward de Vere is the writer of the works attributed to the nom de plume, "William Shakespeare." For example, Walt Whitman, one of America's greatest poets has opined:

Conceiv'd out of the fullest heat and pulse of European feudalism — personifying in unparalleled ways the medieval aristocracy, its towering spirit of ruthless and gigantic caste, with its own peculiar air and arrogance (no mere imitation) — only one of the "wolfish earls" so plenteous in the plays themselves, or some born descendant and knower, might seem to be the true author of those amazing works — works in some respects greater than anything else in recorded literature.

For more information regarding Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, as the real writer of the Shakespearean canon, please visit The De Vere Society, an organization that is "dedicated to the proposition that the works of Shakespeare were written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford."

Muse Sonnets 18-126 (Traditionally classified as "Fair Youth")

The speaker in this section of sonnets is exploring his talent, his dedication to his art, and his own soul power. In some sonnets, the speaker addresses his muse, in others he addresses himself, and in others he even addresses the poem itself.

Even though many scholars and critics have traditionally categorized this group of sonnets as the "Fair Youth Sonnets," there is no "fair youth," that is "young man," in these sonnets. There is no person at all in this sequence, with exception of the two problematic sonnets, 108 and 126.

Dark Lady Sonnets 127-154

The final sequence targets an adulterous romance with a woman of questionable character; the term “dark” likely modifies the woman’s character flaws, not her skin tone.

Three Problematic Sonnets: 108, 126, 99

Sonnet 108 and 126 present a problem in categorization. While most of the sonnets in the "Muse Sonnets" do focus on the poet's musings about his writing talent and do not focus on a human being, sonnets 108 and 126 are speaking to a young man, respectively calling him "sweet boy" and "lovely boy." Sonnet 126 presents an additional problem: it is not technically a "sonnet," because it features six couplets, instead of the traditional three quatrains and a couplet.

The themes of sonnets 108 and 126 would better categorize with the "Marriage Sonnets" because they do address a "young man." It is likely that sonnets 108 and 126 are at least partially responsible for the erroneous labeling of the "Muse Sonnets" as the "Fair Youth Sonnets" along with the claim that those sonnets address a young man.

While most scholars and critics tend to categorize the sonnets into the three-themed schema, others combine the "Marriage Sonnets" and the "Fair Youth Sonnets" into one group of "Young Man Sonnets." This categorization strategy would be accurate if the "Muse Sonnets" actually addressed a young man, as only the "Marriage Sonnets" do.

Sonnet 99 might be considered somewhat problematic: it features 15 lines instead of the traditional 14 sonnet lines. It accomplishes this task by converting the opening quatrain into a cinquain, with an altered rime scheme from ABAB to ABABA. The rest of the sonnet follows the regular rime, rhythm, and function of the traditional sonnet.

The Two Final Sonnets

Sonnets 153 and 154 are also somewhat problematic. They are classified with the Dark Lady Sonnets, but they function quite differently from the bulk of those poems.

Sonnet 154 is a paraphrase of Sonnet 153; thus, they carry the same message. The two final sonnets dramatize the same theme, a complaint of unrequited love, while outfitting the complaint with the dress of mythological allusion. The speaker employs the services of the Roman god Cupid and the goddess Diana. The speaker thus achieves a distance from his feelings, which he, no doubt, hopes will finally liberate him from the clutches of his lust/love and bring him equanimity of mind and heart.

In the bulk of the "dark lady" sonnets, the speaker has a been addressing the woman directly, or making it clear that what he is saying is intended for her ears. In the final two sonnets, the speaker is not directly addressing the mistress. He does mention her, but he is speaking now about her instead of directly to her. He is now making it quite clear that he is withdrawing from the drama with her.

Readers may sense that he has grown battle-weary from his struggle for the woman’s respect and affection, and now he has finally decided to make a philosophical drama that heralds the end of that disastrous relationship, announcing essentially, "I’m through."

Questions & Answers

    © 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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