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Summary and Analysis of 'Sonnet 59' by William Shakespeare

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

William Shakespeare's Funerary Monument in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-Upon-Avon. This demi-figure is one of only two representations definitely accepted as accurately portraying William Shakespeare's physical appearance.

William Shakespeare's Funerary Monument in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-Upon-Avon. This demi-figure is one of only two representations definitely accepted as accurately portraying William Shakespeare's physical appearance.

William Shakespeare and a Summary of 'Sonnet 59'

'Sonnet 59' explores the idea that the beauty of the fair youth more than likely surpasses anything the wits of former days—within the cycles of time, 500 years ago in this case—could praise in their writings.

The speaker—Shakespeare himself?—can be justified in his feelings for his lover because they are new, despite the ancient biblical philosophical maxim.

The opening four lines suggest that if the biblical text found in Ecclesiastes 1.9 'no new thing under the sun' is true, then everyone is being fooled or deceived, because the fair youth's beauty is no miscarriage of a personal truth.

So be it. In conclusion, the speaker decides that yes, it is possible to understand that throughout human history documentation of these feelings (between lovers, male and female) is verification of them.

With 14 lines and a regular full rhyme scheme (ababcdcdefefgg), this is a Shakespearean or English sonnet. There are three quatrains—the first 12 lines—which make up the argument, and a concluding couplet. The first quatrain sets up the idea of nothing new under the sun; the next two look back in time and provide a context in which to explore the youth's beauty.

The 'composed wonder of your frame', muses the speaker, how would they have portrayed it back in the day, 500 years ago? Were there such beauties around at that time? If so, they must have been inferior.

The sonnet implies that if we could compare like to like, beauty to beauty, going back in time, the fair youth's beauty probably comes out the winner . . . but there does lurk in the background the suggestion of deception and of the brain being beguiled, fooled by, the old testament maxim.

The fair youth (or young man) is the subject of sonnets 1–126, more of which can be found in this article about Shakespeare's sonnets.

William Shakespeare's 'Sonnet 59'

If there be nothing new, but that which is
Hath been before, how are our brains beguil’d,
Which labouring for invention bear amiss
The second burthen of a former child.
Oh that record could with a backward look,
Even of five hundred courses of the sun,
Show me your image in some antique book,
Since mind at first in character was done,
That I might see what the old world could say
To this composed wonder of your frame;
Whether we are mended, or where better they,
Or whether revolution be the same.
Oh sure I am the wits of former days,
To subjects worse have given admiring praise.

Analysis of 'Sonnet 59' Line-by-Line

Here's a line-by-line breakdown of the poem.

Line 1

According to the Old Testament book Ecclesiastes 1.9, there is nothing new under the sun. That is, every new thing humanity invents or creates has been done before, so new and better cannot be, can it?

Line 2

And so we're fooling ourselves if we think humankind has something new. The biblical text is truth, right? King Solomon sat there in ancient times and his philosophy still stands.

Lines 3 and 4

Try as hard as we may, working on some fresh invention or idea or thing is like giving birth to a false baby, having a miscarriage.

In Elizabethan times, it was common for aristocratic births to have witnesses, to make sure no 'fake' baby was introduced at the last moment, should the mother-to-be not have conceived in the first place.

Lines 5 and 6

It would be something if memory could look back into the historical records, 500 years ago for example . . . even (at least), 500 courses of the sun . . . complete solar cycles, or years.

Lines 7 and 8

If your image could be captured in words (written), because that was how it was first done in the old books.

Lines 9 and 10

Then the speaker would have some idea of just how the people of that time viewed you, what they thought of your physicality.

Lines 11 and 12

I think you're the best—would they agree? Would they have thought better of you, or possibly the same? Maybe despite the cycle of time, we'd be back where we started.

Lines 13 and 14

The speaker is adamant that those clever people from the past praised those much less beautiful (than you, the fair youth).

Five Special Words

There are five longer words in this sonnet which require some attention, as they affect the scanning of lines. Three of them should be read as three syllable words:

  • invention
  • character
  • admiring

One has to be read as a two-syllable word for it to fit into the pentameter metric:

  • labouring (pronounced lab'ring)

And the final word has four syllables:

  • revolution

What Is the Metre of 'Sonnet 59'?

The dominant foot in this sonnet is the iamb (daDUM beat, with unstressed syllable first and stressed second) in a line of 10 syllables, producing in pure form the classic iambic pentameter with familiar beat pattern.

However, Shakespeare varied the metrical beat in his sonnets, using different feet such as the trochee and spondee, which bring change in emphasis and rhythm, creating interest and challenge for the reader.

Don't forget that the syntax—the way clauses and grammar work together—also alters the pace and rhythm for the reader of this sonnet.

Let's take a closer look at each line:

If there be nothing new, but that which is *
Hath been before, how are our brains beguil’d, *
Which lab / ouring for / invent / ion bear / amiss
The sec / ond burthen / of a for / mer child.
Oh that / record / could with / a back / ward look,
Even of / five hund / red cours / es of / the sun,
Show me your image in some antique book,
Since mind at first / in charac / ter was done,
That I might see / what the / old world / could say
To this composed wonder of your frame; *
Whether we are mended, or where better they,
Or wheth / er revo / lution be / the same.
Oh sure I am the wits of former days,
To subjects worse have given admiring praise. *

* asterisk denotes line of pure iambic pentameter.

As we can see, there are only four lines of iambic pentameter in the sonnet. In the last line, the word given is treated as a single syllable (giv'n), and line 10 has composéd with an extra syllable, making three in total.

Line 3: First foot spondee (DADUM) (labouring is counted as two syllables, lab'ring).

Line 4: Second foot amphibrach (daDUMda) third foot anapest (dadaDUM).

Line 5: First, second, third feet trochee (DAdum).

Line 6: First foot trochee, second spondee.

Line 7: First foot trochee.

Line 8: Third foot amphibrach, fourth foot anapest.

Line 9: Third foot pyrrhic (dadum), fourth foot spondee.

Line 11: First, second, third feet trochee (note 11 syllables).

Line 12: Second foot amphibrach, third foot anapest.

Line 13: First foot trochee.

Sources

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.

© 2021 Andrew Spacey

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