A short missive on Shakespeare and Sonnet #2

Bill S.

Typically the purveyor of Shakespeare’s Sonnets is likely to be a dewy-eyed romantic or a reedy-looking professor of English with a corduroy sport jacket with reinforced elbows.

Well, since I have visited Shakespeare’s home a few years ago — I only classify myself as a visitor with an opinion. Let’s forget the structure of the sonnet for a while because it will only weigh you down as you try to pry open the mysteries.

Sonnet 2 is a continuation of what’s generally called the “Marriage Sonnets.” It’s Will’s advice to a young aristocrat. Shakespeare or “the poet” is concerned with the flow of time and how beauty fades.

When forty winters shall besiege thy brow,
And dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field,
Thy youth’s proud livery, so gazed on now,
Will be a tatter’d weed, of small worth held:

Then being ask’d where all thy beauty lies,
Where all the treasure of thy lusty days,
To say, within thine own deep-sunken eyes,
Were an all-eating shame and thriftless praise.

How much more praise deserved thy beauty’s use,
If thou couldst answer ‘This fair child of mine
Shall sum my count and make my old excuse,’
Proving his beauty by succession thine!

This were to be new made when thou art old,
And see thy blood warm when thou feel’st it cold.

Let’s take a closer look at the Bard’s advice.
When forty winters shall besiege thy brow
And dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field.

Because human life expectancy was around fifty years of age in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, the age of forty was well into old age, so Mr. S tells the young man that by the time he is forty years old, his face will be wrinkled like a plowed field.

Basically, he’ll look like Wilfrid Brimley.

Thy youth’s proud livery, so gazed on now,
Will be a tattered weed, of small worth held.

Livery was a uniform worn by servants in a nobleman’s house. Think of how 5-star Hotel’s employees look — the clothing reflects the owner. Over time, this impressive garment will be threadbare — think garage sale.

Then being asked where all thy beauty lies,
Where all the treasure of thy lusty days,

Being asked implies the future. Treasure was a double-entrendre — bounty and bootie. It was a term also used to describe the erogenous zones.

To say within thine own deep-sunken eyes
Were an all-eating shame and thriftless praise.

This is an answer to the question. Youth fades and when you become old your misspent youth will haunt you. Will is saying, “you’re self obsesssed, and you’ve got to realize that now — or suffer in your old age.

How much more praise deserved thy beauty’s use

If thou couldst answer “this fair child of mine
Shall sum my count and make my old excuse,”
Proving his beauty by succession thine.

Shakespeare is on his soapbox now.

“If only you would put your beauty (skills and personality) to a greater use. If only you could have answered “This fair child of mine (my child) shall give an good account of my life and prove that I did not squander my life.” (Have kids, grow old like me) Your child’s beauty is a new incarnation of your own. (mini me)


This were to be new made when thou art old,
And see they blood warm when thou feel’st it cold.

The summing up. Having a child would be like being born again in old age.

“The blood that flows coldly in your veins will become warm again in his.”
This is the emotional core, that your children will bring you many gifts. Some expected. Some unexpected. Companionship. Care. And a sense that your legacy has been fulfilled.

FYI on Sonnet Form: (Or are we having fun yet?)

Think of a Sonnet as a chess match with words. There are rules that govern each sentence as well as the entire form of the poem. The sonnet has evolved so that the rhyming scheme and the pivotal 9th line do not always follow the “rules” but generally these are the directions.

The sonnet has three quatrains (4 lines of lines of poetry) in a sequence. Each of these lines is rhymed — the rhyme follows a pattern, first line rhymes with the third. The second with the fourth.

The final two lines are called a couplet.

Now, I’m going to confuse you a bit more. The first two quatrains are called an octave. (8 lines) The octave states or sets up a problem or situation. The last quatrain and the couplet are called the sestet. It resolves or illuminates the problem.
So Shakespeare was following the rules. Like chess, he chooses his moves (his words) carefully — while seeing the whole board (the octave and the sestet).
The bard would have liked rap music. There is a meter (a rhythm or cadence) to the poems lines. Yes, the form is called Iambic Pentameter — that wonderful form that haunted you on your SATs. Iambic is the name we give the sound that has one unaccented and one accented syllable. The unit is called a “foot.” Think of it this way, no radio, no TV, no internet. The sound and rhythm of the voice was the killer ap.

Pentameter is a measure of 5 units or feet, per line. So it’s a bit like poetic Morse Code. So, when you read a sonnet it will sound “sing songy.” But to a good British actor, it will flow like a fine wine.

M

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