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Shakespeare Saturdays: Sonnet 19

Shakespeare saturdays

In last week’s Shakespeare Saturday, I explored The Tempest but I thought I’d return to the sonnets this week. From now on, until I decide otherwise, I’m just going to look at one sonnet in these posts unless two sonnets form a pair. It makes the posts a little shorter and I can dedicate more time to each sonnet!

DividerSonnet 19

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;
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:
O, carve not with thy hours my love’s 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.
Yet, do thy worst, old Time: despite thy wrong,
My love shall in my verse ever live young.

Divider

Sonnet 19 is not as famous as sonnet 18 but I still like it. The poem addresses time as Devouring Time, a translation of ‘tempus edax’ from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and it explores the way in which time destroys everything in nature. Time is personified throughout, indicated by the constant capitalisation, so it makes this poem feel like a personal argument between the poet and Time.

In the first section of the poem, Shakespeare lists the ways in which Time destroys life from plucking the keen teeth from the fierce tiger’s jaws to the inevitability that all living creatures face: death. Line four is probably one of my favourite images from the entire poem: And burn the long-lived phoenix in her bloodTime will even reduce the almost-immortal phoenix, who burns itself to be reborn, to ashes.

Shakespeare references Ovid throughout the poem but it is perhaps clearest in lines 8 and 9 where Shakespeare admits that he considered visible signs of ageing (wrinkles) a crime to beauty. People should be able to grow old gracefully but it’s obvious, at least in the case of this poem, that humanity has always been vain. Anyways, personal opinions aside, these lines are a reference to a quote from Ovid’s Amores: ‘de rugis crimina multa cadunt’. Christopher Marlowe, a contemporary of Shakespeare (and my favourite playwright from his era), translated this line to ‘wrinckles in beauty is a grieuous fault’ which is very similar to what Shakespeare says in these two lines. The sonnets were printed in sequence during Shakespeare’s lifetime, in around 1609, so I like to imagine that the readers were also looking for intertexual references. I wonder if they also had a Captain America moment every time they recognised one, like I do.

Time changes all, from the seasons to the poet’s mood, but the poet will not allow ‘swift-footed Time’ to draw ‘lines’, or wrinkles, in his ‘love’s fair brow’. In the final couplet the poet calls upon Time to do thy worst, caliming that My love shall in my verse ever live young. He’s clearly challenging Time, perhaps in a moment of true hubris, and he’s pitting his poetry against its destructive nature. As of today, I’d argue that Time has won. Sorry Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s poem lives on but Time has devoured the true identity of the subject who Shakespeare wanted to immortalise.


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3 thoughts on “Shakespeare Saturdays: Sonnet 19

  1. This is such a great post! I’ve always loved the topic of time in literature and how different writers have treated it, and this is sonnet treats the topic of time so wonderfully. I particularly find the idea of challenging the destructive nature of time with the idea of achieving immortality through art really interesting (I can’t help but think of PB Shelley’s Ozymandias at this point).
    Also, I saw that you mentioned Marlowe, and he’s one of my favourite playwrights from that era too!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I haven’t read Ozymandias in years! Thank you for reminding me about that wonderful poem. Time is such an interesting concept in poetry because it’s an inevitable process and poets have battled against it for centuries.

      (Yay for another Marlowe fan too!)

      Liked by 1 person

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