Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore,
So do our minutes hasten to their end;
Each changing place with that which goes before,
In sequent toil all forwards do contend.
Nativity, once in the main of light,
Crawls to maturity, wherewith being crown’d,
Crooked elipses ’gainst his glory fight,
And Time that gave doth now his gift confound.
Time doth transfix the flourish set on youth
And delves the parallels in beauty’s brow,
Feeds on the rarities of nature’s truth,
And nothing stands but for his scythe to mow:
And yet to times in hope my verse shall stand,
Praising thy worth, despite his cruel hand.
This sonnet attempts to explain the nature of time as it passes, and as it acts on human life. In the first quatrain, the speaker says that the minutes replace one another like waves on the “pebbled shore,” each taking the place of that which came before it in a regular sequence. In the second quatrain, he tells the story of a human life in time by comparing it to the sun: at birth (“Nativity”), it rises over the ocean (“the main of light”), then crawls upward toward noon (the “crown” of “maturity”), then is suddenly undone by “crooked eclipses”, which fight against and confound the sun’s glory. In the third quatrain, time is depicted as a ravaging monster, which halts youthful flourish, digs wrinkles in the brow of beauty, gobbles up nature’s beauties, and mows down with his scythe everything that stands. In the couplet, the speaker opposes his verse to the ravages of time: he says that his verse will stand in times to come, and will continue to praise the “worth” of the beloved despite the “cruel hand” of time.
This poem is organized very neatly into the quatrain/quatrain/quatrain/couplet structure that defines the Shakespearean sonnet. Each quatrain presents a relatively self-contained metaphorical description of time’s passage in human life, while the couplet offers a twist on the poem’s earlier themes. In the first quatrain, the metaphor is that of the tide; just as waves cycle forward and replace one another on the beach, so do minutes struggle forward in “sequent toil.” In the second quatrain, the focus shifts from the passage of time to the passage of human life, using the metaphor of the sun during the span of a day: first it crawls forward out of the sea (an image linking this quatrain to the previous one), then is crowned with maturity in the sky, then, suddenly, it is darkened by the “crooked eclipses” of age, as time retracts his original gift. In the third quatrain, the metaphor becomes one of time as a personified force, a ravaging monster, who digs trenches in beauty, devours nature, and mows down all that stands with his scythe.
Clearly, these images develop from one another: the first describes the way time passes, the second describes the way a human life passes, and the third describes the way time is responsible for the ravages in human life. Each quatrain is a single four-line sentence, developing a single argument through metaphor: time passes relentlessly, human life is cripplingly short before it quickly succumbs to age and decay, time is the ravager responsible for the downfall of men’s lives. This is one of the great themes of the sonnets. In the couplet, the speaker then stunningly declares that he has found a way to confound time: his verse, despite time’s “cruel hand,” will live on, and continue to praise the worth of the beloved. This is the often-invoked corollary to the great theme of time’s passage: the speaker, disappointed that the young man will not defy time by having children, writes poem after poem about the mighty power of the “bloody tyrant” time, then declares that his poems will remain immortal, and will enable the young man’s beauty to live forever. Sonnets 18, 19, 55, 63, and 65 all follow this formula, and echoes of it appear in countless many other sonnets.
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