William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 64
The Power of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 64
When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defaced
The rich proud cost of outworn buried age;
When sometime lofty towers I see down-razed
And brass eternal slave to mortal rage;
When I have seen the hungry ocean gain
Advantage on the kingdom of the shore,
And the firm soil win of the watery main,
Increasing store with loss and loss with store;
When I have seen such interchange of state,
Or state itself confounded to decay,
Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate:
That Time will come and take my love away.
This thought is as a death, which cannot choose
But weep to have that which it fears to lose.
Shakespeare, Sonnet 64
Sonnet 64 has particular power and poignancy for me as a middle-aged woman. I’ve seen the effects of time, I have experienced loss, and I love. The other sonnets by Shakespeare in our anthology express some of these themes, but none speaks to me more powerfully than this one. I will first analyze each individual quatrain and the closing couplet for ideas and rhetorical devices Shakespeare employed and their impact. As I conclude I will analyze the whole sonnet and its ideas and themes.
Analysis of Quatrain 1
1. When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defaced
2. The rich proud cost of outworn buried age;
3. When sometime lofty towers I see down-razed
4. And brass eternal slave to mortal rage;
In Line 1 Shakespeare begins the quatrain with “When I have seen,” placing him immediately in the poem and establishing the point of view. These words are used to begin each quatrain, thus Shakespeare is using a rhetorical device called anaphora. Shakespeare uses this device to tie the quatrains together.
Shakespeare employs a slow meter by using mono-syllabic words, and by ending each line with a long a vowel sound (assonance). As I listened to recitations of this sonnet online, I did notice that the long a’s slowed down the lines. They also evoked kind of a haunting quality. Shakespeare chose a slow meter for dramatic effect, because we are reading a sonnet about the destructive power of time. I can imagine the even, slow tick-tock of a clock as the sonnet progresses. The iambic pentameter of the sonnet is regular except where I will note, just like the ticking of a clock.
Shakespeare capitalizes Time to personify it, so that it can have properties and be an actor in the sonnet. “Time’s fell hand “ is a cruel hand, the villain in this piece.
In line 2 Shakespeare continues the slow meter, and uses the words “rich proud cost” and “Outworn buried age.” This evokes images of ancestral Kings employing hoards of peasant laborers to build expensive temples glorifying themselves or God. The mighty efforts to build something beautiful that would last were in vain. “Sometime lofty towers” evoke soaring monuments . “Down-razed” brings mental images of crumbling, you can almost see the plumes of dust as the edifices in the clouds crumble and come crashing down to earth.
Shakespeare ends his quatrain in line 4 by making brass, a shiny beautiful man-made metal alloy, a slave to mortal rage (a euphemism for Time). Brass is a metaphor for any beautiful, strong, seemingly indestructible man-made thing, and is subjugated in this line to mortality. By using the word “rage” we feel that brass is not only destroyed, but destroyed powerfully and with maximum impact.
Analysis of Quatrain 2
5. When I have seen the hungry ocean gain
6. Advantage on the kingdom of the shore,
7. And the firm soil win of the watery main,
8. Increasing store with loss and loss with store;
This quatrain moves the reader from the idea that Time definitively destroys anything man made, to explore the relationship Time has to elements of nature. In this quatrain, Time looks on and watches as the elements of nature (land and sea) destroy themselves through repetitive battle. Time never leaves, thus the battle never stops, and land and sea are locked in an eternal, destructive tug of war.
Shakespeare begins the quatrain with the anaphoric device “When I have seen” and he also repeats the use of the assonant long a vowel to end lines 5 and 7, something he does on every line of the first and third quatrains to help keep the meter slow.
In line 7, the stress pattern changes from regular iambic pentameter to a spondee (three consecutive stresses) in “firm soil win.” I believe Shakespeare varied the stresses in this line because he devoted two lines to the ocean’s advantage (lines 5 and 6) and will devote only one line (this one) to the advantage of the land. He means for the battle to be eternal because it is evenly matched, and so he needed to give line 7 some additional power and punch, which he did by grouping the stresses together instead of alternating unstressed and stressed syllables as he does in the other lines. His use of the word “watery” in this line is a dacyth – one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed. This variation in rhythm and use of a three syllable word speeds up the line. He has varied the meter of the whole line to establish the land as the clear victor, and to do it more quickly. Shakespeare is saving line 8 for a special purpose.
In line 8, Shakespeare uses chiasmus to invert the sequence of the line (store with loss and loss with store). In the eternal battle between land and sea, one gains as the other loses, and one loses as the other gains. The chiasmus brings emphasis to the subject tug of war by creating a matching rhetorical tension. This line sums up the idea of the entire quatrain and uses a brilliant device to do it.
Analysis of Quatrain 3
9. When I have seen such interchange of state,
10. Or state itself confounded to decay,
11. Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate:
12. That Time will come and take my love away.
After beginning with his anaphoric phrase “When I have seen,” Shakespeare uses “state” in line 9 and then repeats it in line 10. In line 9, “such interchange of state” means change of condition, and he is talking about the man-made objects and works of nature he has described earlier in the sonnet. He moves from “state” as a specific term to using it abstractly in line 10. “State itself” means abstract greatness, anything and everything, and in line 10, “confounded to decay” means destroyed and ruined. Line 10 distills the ideas that came before into the central idea “everything will be ruined.” We are being prepared to experience a transition.
In line 11, Shakespeare is preparing to tell us the personal impact of these philosophical musings. We’re moving from abstract back to personal. The use of “ruin” and “ruminate” use both alliteration and assonance for tone and impact. “Ruin” is personified like Time was in quatrain 1, and becomes a teacher. In line 11, we know that the poet has learned something, but not yet what he has learned.
Line 12 moves to the reason for despair, the lesson that Ruin taught. “Time will come and take my love away” means that the cruel actor Time will act on his beloved. Time may act slowly, robbing the beloved of beauty and health and mind and eventually of life. This is suggested in the first quatrain when Shakespeare used the term “outworn.” Time may act quickly, killing the beloved in an accident or with a terminal illness (suggested with the speed of the “firm soil win” line in quatrain 2). The only thing certain is that Time will act and the poet will lose his beloved.
Analysis of the final couplet
13. This thought is as a death, which cannot choose
14. But weep to have that which it fears to lose.
In line 13, “which cannot choose” modifies “thought” – leaving no escape for the thinker-poet, who has an obsession that cannot be shaken. The metaphoric comparison of “thought” to a death also eternalizes it, and makes it grim and final.
Line 14 explains why loving someone so completely and beautifully is always bittersweet. The happier and more irreplaceable the love, the more it hurts because of foreknowledge of the destructive power of time. Time is cruel in that it spares no one, not even the poet’s beloved.
I wondered while studying this sonnet if the lover might enjoy his love in the present moment more fully if he were not so preoccupied with the future loss. We all know that our loved ones will eventually die, as will we. However, in the time the sonnet was written (1590s), many Europeans were dealing with the frequent outbreak of the black plague. Black plague deaths progressed quickly and victims were of all ages, and medicine could not stay the disease. Shakespeare was writing sonnets in that context, when love could be suddenly coupled with loss, and heartbreak and grief were everywhere and impacted almost everyone. In that kind of society a melancholy mood and preoccupation with death could easily prevail.
Shakespeare’s vivid imagery and his use of assonance, metaphor, personification, anaphora and chiasmus, all contribute to the sonnet’s slow, aching power. He begins in the first quatrain exploring the idea that manmade beautiful things, even seemingly indestructible things, will be decidedly destroyed by Time. In the second quatrain, he explores the impact Time has on nature – how a battle between natural elements is destined to be forever because Time will never stop, and how Time watches as natural elements ultimately destroy each other. In the third quatrain, Shakespeare moves from describing specific ruination that he has seen, to ruination in the abstract, and finally tells us what he’s really worried about: that “Time will come and take my love away.” Now the sonnet has become more personal. The poet was always in the poem, but now we know the reason for his despair. Finally, the ending couplet tells us how his despair cannot be shaken. In this, his feelings and thoughts enslave him, just as the brass is “enslaved with mortal rage.” Sonnet 64 is a master work because of its universality and its rhetorical power.
Shakespeare, William. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Volume VI, David Bevington, editor, Bantam Books 1980.
*Note that this anthology does not contain page numbers.