Shakespeare’s Sonnets were unlike any other of his day; the speaker idealizes the beauty of a young man, and how to keep his beauty alive forever for future generations to admire. The first seventeen sonnets, in this sequence, celebrate the beauty of the young man and the speaker urges him to immortalize his beauty through an heir. Sonnets 18 through 126 concentrate on the transience and destructive power of Time, and the only way to defeat Time is through the power of love and the permanence of poetry. It is uncertain whether or not these are in the correct sequence, because they were published by Thomas Thorpe without Shakespeare’s final approval. Scholars have tried to reorganize them, but have inevitably failed so they remain numbered as Thorpe originally published them. It is also uncertain if the young man that Shakespeare writes about is real or fictional. Sonnet 19 describes Time as being monstrous and committing crimes against nature; the most heinous crime being disfiguring the beautiful young man, in any way. The governing metaphor of Sonnet 19 is Time is a destroyer, the effects of Time has on the world, and its transformative abilities.
Devouring Time, blunt thou the lion’s paws,
And make the earth devour her own sweet brood;
Pluck the keen teeth from the fierce tiger’s jaws,
And burn the long-lived phoenix in her blood; (lines 1-4)
The first quatrain starts with an apostrophe-an address, often to an absent person, a force, or a quality-to “devouring Time,” which comes from the proverb “time devours all things.” This proverb is also found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Book XV, 1.234). Time is set up as being monstrous; Time is greedily eating up life. Lion’s symbolize dominion, and they are often called the “king of beasts.” Hercules was “often portrayed as defeating lions in combat-a representation of the victory of the human intellect over animalistic nature” (209). Time makes the lion’s claws blunt (dull/ not sharp), in doing so Time is essentially stripping them of what makes them a powerful animal. Time makes Mother Nature eat/kill her offspring, which is completely against her natural inclinations. Tigers have long been seen as powerful animals that inspire both fear and wonder. In Chinese culture, they are greatly revered for warding off danger, and often times you will see tiger statues around houses and building to protect the inhabitants from evil spirits. The tiger was also “esteemed because it drove off (or destroyed) the wild boar that threatened the farmer’s crops” (344). Time pluck’s (pull/ pick out) the tiger’s keen (sharp) teeth from its jaw, which, like the lion, is part of what makes the tiger a tiger. The phoenix is widely associated with immortality; the bird gathers twigs from all over and builds a nest, which catches fire and the bird is consumed by the fire and from the fire’s ashes a new phoenix arises. It originates from the sacred Egyptian bird Benu, which is “a heron said to have been the first creature to alight on the hill that came into being out of the primordial ooze. Benu was revered in Heliopolis as a manifestation of the sun god” (264). Time does not allow the phoenix to be reborn, instead it just dies in the flames; Time takes away the phoenix’s immortality. Time is doing unnatural things; such as, de-lionizing the lion, de-tigerizing the tiger, de-maternalizing mother earth, and de-immortalizing the phoenix. Time is committing crimes against nature.
Make glad and sorry seasons as thou fleet’st,
And do whate’er thou wilt, swift-footed Time,
To the wide world and all her fading sweets,
But I forbid thee one most heinous crime: (5-8)
The second quatrain celebrates the paradox of dying beauty. The speaker observes that seasons are both glad and sorry about the swift passage of time. Nature is submissive to Time; nature accepts that Time is going to do whatever it wants to do, and there is nothing nature can do about it so nature is resigned to Time’s whims. The last line of the second quatrain belongs more with the third quatrain, because it introduces Time as committing a heinous (shockingly evil) crime against the beloved young man. The speaker takes on a dominate voice when he FORBIDS time from committing this heinous crime.
O carve not with thy hours my loves fair brow,
Nor draw no lines there with thine antique pen;
Him in thy course untainted do allow,
For beauty’s pattern to succeeding men. (9-12)
In the third quatrain, the speaker tells Time what the heinous crime is; to draw lines (i.e. wrinkles) on the young man’s forehead, to make him appear older would be the most heinous crime that Time could commit. Time is transformed into an artist-first into a sculptor, then a painter, who defaces Nature’s masterpiece with his antique pen. Time as an artist is creates ugliness, instead of preserving beauty, which is something that the speaker cannot allow to happen. The speaker wants Time to leave the young man untainted (undefiled/ untouched), in order to preserve the standard of beauty for future generations.
Yet do thy worst, old Time: despite thy wrong,
My love shall in my verse ever live young. (13-4)
In the rhyming couplet, the speaker seems to dare Time to do his absolute worst on the young man, even though it would be wrong for Time to do so. The speaker dares Time, because he knows that no matter what time does to his beloved, the young man will remain beautiful in the speaker’s verse. The speaker uses the word “love,” which can denote both the word “beloved” and it could be used to show the poet’s feeling of passion and/or affection for the young man.
Biedermann, Hans. Dictionary of Symbolism. Meridian: New York, 1989.