In modern times, youth and beauty is an image seen everywhere. For example, a Versace billboard, magazine ad, TV commercial, all of which displays images of beautiful people. But what happens when this beauty fades? Shakespeare in his 12 th sonnet talks about his experience and fading beauty. The purpose of this poem is to encourage a young man to not lose his beauty to the ravages of time. In order to do this, one must reproduce so beauty will live.
In the first quatrain, Shakespeare begins his meditation on the process of decay. He begins the poem with ‘I’, which signals that Shakespeare will later give his own experience and account. The first object presented in this sonnet is a clock, which is to set the mood of the poem. The imagery presented by the first line is that Shakespeare is just sitting there watching the clock and counting the minutes pass by. Although his state of mind may be idle, time does not stand still for him.
As we read on, you learn that the first line is significant because it creates a bridge to the next line, ‘the brave day sunk in hideous night’ (L 2).
Again, we need to place emphasis on Shakespeare’s choice of wording. Shakespeare uses the word sunk in order to illustrate how the dark night engulfs the day. What Shakespeare is doing is using the words ‘hideous night’ and ‘sunk’ to form a catalogue of images pertaining to decay and passing time.
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The brave day sinks deeper and deeper as time on the clock marches on. Time is destruction. ‘When I behold violet past prime’ (L. 3), Shakespeare is again adding to his catalogue.
The idea Shakespeare tries to convey is that death takes everything. The violet was once beautiful and strong but as time passes, the violet will age and become frail. Shakespeare proceeds to speak of black sable curls hiding behind white. I have two observations about this line; the first being that as a man ages he will notice more white hairs on his head.
The man will lose the vibrant black curls he once had as a young man. Second, Shakespeare may be implying to the young man that his hair too will become gray. Proceeding on to quatrain two, the poet continues to meditate by using images of decay; lofty trees, barren of leaves, white and bristly beard. Just as time progresses, day changes to night, and the young become old, summer becomes winter. In the warm weather, the trees were leafy and bountiful.
They served as a canopy that sheltered herd of animals from the blazing sun (L. 6).
In winter, however, the lofty trees are now barren and stripped of their leaves. The outward appearance of the tree is pathetic and unsightly. The herd of animals will no longer seek shelter under the trees because they look lifeless. Shakespeare further elaborates the imagery of plant life decaying.
Summer flowers are beautiful and they exemplify life. However, quite the contrary, Shakespeare states that these flowers are gathered together to be used as funeral arrangements and carried on the coffin over the white and bristly beard. The white and bristly beard most likely refers to the facial hairs of the dead man. He has aged and gives us proof to the references made in the fourth line of the first quatrain. Those summer flowers may add color to the somber coffin. Life and death, complete opposites of each another, are drawn together.
Yet, the flowers are plucked from the ground and will eventually be buried with the coffin. The white and bristly beard represents the summer growth now deprived of earth and water. Once picked, the plants lose their color. In the third quatrain, Shakespeare now questions the significance of the young mans beauty.
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‘Then of thy beauty do I question make’ (L. 9).
As Shakespeare looks down into the coffin of the once beautiful man, he sees that the man is no longer beautiful. Looking at the man, if Shakespeare had never known him, he would have never known that the withered man was once beautiful. Shakespeare continues,’ Then of thy beauty do I question make/ that thou among the wastes of time must go/ since sweets and beauties do themselves forsake’ (L. 9-11).
He states that we all will age but fail to realize at what rate. Beauty will wither away, and the subject, whom Shakespeare speaks to, will perish. Shakespeare gives closure to his sonnet in the last two lines. There is no defense from aging, time, and death. Because time is evil and superior, it has the power to change day into night and summer into winter. It has the ability to strip the leaves off a lofty tree and to kill the white and bristly bearded man.
There is no escape. The clock will continue to move and everything will follow. Time plays a vital role in our lives. The final sentence of his twelfth sonnet offers the only solution to fight time and all its elements.
That is, to reproduce and recreate beauty. The young man will be overlooked unless he fathers and passes his beauty on to his child. Time cannot conquer the young man once he has reproduced because he brings vitality and growth. Shakespeare repeats the word brave in the second line and the final line. Perhaps, Shakespeare is saying that the man must conquer age and time by keeping beauty in the world.
In the eyes of Shakespeare, the only way that one can keep his beauty and defy the ravages of time is to reproduce.