Shakespeare Saturdays: Sonnets 15 and 16

Shakespeare saturdays

I’m back with another Shakespeare Saturday! This time, I’m delving into sonnet 15 and sonnet 16…

DividerSonnet 15

When I consider every thing that grows
Holds in perfection but a little moment,
That this huge stage presenteth nought but shows
Whereon the stars in secret influence comment;
When I perceive that men as plants increase,
Cheered and cheque’d even by the self-same sky,
Vaunt in their youthful sap, at height decrease,
And wear their brave state out of memory;
Then the conceit of this inconstant stay
Sets you most rich in youth before my sight,
Where wasteful Time debateth with Decay,
To change your day of youth to sullied night;
And all in war with Time for love of you,
As he takes from you, I engraft you new.

Sonnet 16

But wherefore do not you a mightier way
Make war upon this bloody tyrant, Time?
And fortify yourself in your decay
With means more blessed than my barren rhyme?
Now stand you on the top of happy hours;
And many maiden gardens, yet unset
With virtuous wish would bear your living flowers,
Much liker than your painted counterfeit:
So should the lines of life that life repair,
Which this (Time’s pencil, or my pupil pen),
Neither in inward worth nor outward fair,
Can make you live yourself in eyes of men.
   To give away yourself keeps yourself still,
   And you must live, drawn by your own sweet skill.


Sonnet 15 and 16 are both examples of the third stage of Shakespeare’s procreation sonnets.

Although sonnet 15 doesn’t directly refer to procreation, like the previous 14 sonnets in the sequence, it does continue some of the themes forward, especially the idea of legacy and the destructive nature of personified Time. Instead of procreation, the poet now suggests an alternate form of immortality: poetic immortality. Sonnet 15 is clearly an attempt to immortalise the Fair Youth and this is most visibly represented in the final line of the poem: As he takes from you, I engraft you new. 

One line that always stands out to me when I’m reading sonnet 15 is the third line: That this huge stage presenteth nought but shows. Shakespeare refers to the world as a stage and this brings to mind one of his most famous speeches from act two, scene seven of As You Like It (c.1599). However, despite As You Like It being the more famous example, sonnet 15 was likely written in the early 1590s so it probably predates the play by a few years. I like that Shakespeare revisits certain ideas because it creates a sense of continuity in his work.

Sonnet 16 starts with ‘But…’, directly leading on from the final lines of sonnet 15 and the two poems form a diptych – a pair. The opening of sonnet 16 allows it to present a contrast to sonnet 15 and although sonnet 15 does not dwell on procreation and, instead, focuses on immortalising the Fair Youth through poetry, sonnet 16 clearly indicates that the Fair Youth should have children. It didn’t take Shakespeare long to get back to the main point. The barren rhyme that the poet refers to in line four is a direct reference to the final couplet of sonnet 15 and the poet suggests that the rhyme is not enough to Make war upon this bloody tyrant, Time. Apparently, the only way to stop Time is to have children and create a legacy.

Sonnet 16 is one of my favourite sonnets but reading it alongside its counterpart makes it a much more vibrant poem for me. It’s also a very complex poem and the third quatrain (lines 9-12) has been interpreted in many different ways. I’ve always liked the idea that lines of life could refer to the fate-lines on the hand and face which are read by fortune-tellers but Edward Malone’s interpretation which suggests that lines of life refers to children, with a pun on line as a bloodline, is the more accepted version.

These may not be Shakespeare’s most famous sonnets but they are an interesting pair and sonnet 15 provides a welcome change in the procreation sequence, even if sonnet 16 takes us back to the main point.

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