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Analysis of ‘Sonnet 19’ — William Shakespeare

‘Sonnet 19′ is a great little poem, it shows a speaker locked in a battle against Time. Though Time destroys everything, the speaker says he has the power to fight against it by making great art that immortalises the things that he finds beautiful about the world. Given that we’re reading this poem over 400 years after Shakespeare wrote it, you could say that he was right.

The analysis is tailored towards CIE / Cambridge IGCSE and A Level students, but it’s also useful for anyone studying the poem at any level or on the following exam boards: AQA , Edexcel, OCR, Eduqas / WJEC, CCEA.


Thanks for reading! If you find this resource useful, you can take a look at our full CIE poetry courses and other help with English Literature and Language here: https://scrbbly.teachable.com/courses


Sonnet 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-liv’d Phoenix in her blood;

Make glad and sorry seasons as thou fleets,

And do whate’er thou wilt, swift-footed Time,

To the wide world and all her fading sweets;

But I forbid thee one more heinous crime:

O, carve not with the 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.

William Shakespeare

VOCABULARY

Devouring — consuming / eating with enthusiasm

Time — The use of the capital ‘T’ shows that Time is personified here

To blunt — to make something lose its sharpness

Thou — you

Brood — babies or a group of young animals

Keen — sharp, eager

Phoenix — a mythological bird that burst into flames when it dies and is reborn again

Fleet — to move or pass quickly

Whate’er thou wilt — whatever you want

Heinous — terrible or wicked

Untainted — not harmed or stained

Succeeding — following on from / being successful

STORY/SUMMARY

This is a poem addressed directly to ‘Time’, a personification of the idea of time, so the speaker is speaking to it as if it were a conscious being. He says that Time is ‘devouring’, it consumes everything hungrily. He says it can blunt the sharpness of lion’s paws and force the earth to take back its fruits and produce. He allows it to pluck the teeth from a tiger’s jaws as it dies and decays, and to burn the Phoenix as it dies and is reborn (typically, Phoenixes are ‘long-lived’ because it is thought that they lived for 500 years before bursting into flames). He says that Time is welcome to make the seasons shift from happy to sad as it moves quickly through the years, and do whatever it wants to the world and all the sweet things in it that fade. But, the speaker says, he forbids Time to do one terrible crime: Don’t carve his lover’s fair brow with lines ( and don’t let him grow old and get wrinkles, drawing lines on his head with an antique pen). Allow him to remain ‘untainted’ so that he can set an example of the pattern of beauty to following generations of men. Finally, the speaker says that he no longer cares and that time can do its worst, because regardless of what Time does to the beautiful man, he shall be immortalised as a beautiful youth in this poem forever.

SPEAKER/VOICE

In Shakespeaere’s sonnets, the speaker is always an unnamed person who is telling the situation from a personal perspective. Sonnets are traditionally explorations of the theme of love, and so the persona of the poem often takes the form of a lover who addresses their words to their desired partner. Yet here the speaker is also more universal, he or she is talking about Time’s effect on youth, beauty and attraction in general. It seems a pity to the speaker that Time destroys the beauty of youth.

LANGUAGE

Animalistic imagery — ‘the lion’s paws’ / ‘the fierce tiger’s jaws’ — the speaker uses various examples of beautiful, powerful and dangerous entities that have only ephemeral power that lasts for a short time and fades over the years. There is a sense here that anything powerful is only temporary, and that Time has the ultimate power over all other things.

Personification- Time is personified through the use of the capital letter T, yet ‘earth’ is also personified, as the speaker suggests that Time forces her to ‘devour her own sweet brood’, a harrowing image that conjures up the impression of a mother being forced to eat her own children, but also a natural image as we are reminded that all living things come from and return to the earth.

Sibilance — ‘make glad and sorry seasons as thou fleets’ — the use of repeated ‘s’ sounds in this line creates a rushing sound that imitates the way in which Time flows and seeps through the world, switching the seasons throughout the year

Metaphor — ‘beauty’s pattern’ — the speaker suggests that a pattern of beauty lies within the lover’s face, that there are some specific standards of beauty that he holds true to, and that this type of beauty should serve as an example for other men in the future to copy. It implies that beauty can have an inherent aesthetic (surface value) quality to it, that the shape and design of some things that can be found on earth are just certainly beautiful, that they inspire a feeling of love or awe in us. This would be an interesting point to contrast with modern perspective on beauty, which is typically more focused on inner qualities than aesthetics.

Term of address — ‘old Time’ — the speaker uses the adjective ‘old’ to create a kind of contradictory feeling to his relationship to Time, though Time controls the passing of the days, hours and weeks the speaker is suggesting that Time itself is old, perhaps an outdated concept or something that’s less powerful than the speaker’s own new and refreshing take to his art — he feels that he can beat Time through his poetry, which will continue to be read and reprinted for years after both himself and the subject have passed on. In traditional literature, Time is often personified as ‘Old Father Time’, or ‘Cronos’ as he is known in Greek Mythology, and so Shakespeare may be drawing upon this reference when he calls Time ‘old’. This also complements the depiction of ‘earth’ as a feminine presence that gives life, and Time as a masculine presence that takes it away.

STRUCTURE / FORM

Sonnet form — the poem is split into quatrains (four line sections) which have different but linked ideas: Firstly, an attack on Time and its all-consuming power where the speaker says Time is welcome to continue devouring these things. Secondly, the crimes that Time commits as it steals the seasons and the beautiful ‘sweets’ of the world. Thirdly, the specific power that Time has to shape and mould the lover’s face and in the final two lines that form a rhyming couplet the speaker offers a final defiant gesture — that Time can do its worst because poetry will beat it in the end.

Apostrophe — the whole sonnet is an apostrophe to Time, addressed directly to the personified character of Time

Caesura / Exclamation — ‘one more heinous crime: O, carve not..’ The use of the colon creates a caesura, a dramatic pause at the end of the line that asks the reader to pause and pay attention to the next line. This creates a cataphoric reference — where the speaker is indicating to us to observe clearly what he is about to say. The exclamative ‘O’ sound at the beginning of this line creates a plaintive tone where the speaker seems to be begging, pleading and complaining about Time’s movement. He begs Time to reconsider affecting the lover, as this seems to be indescribably cruel and tragic for a man who is defined by his youthful beauty to lose this trait.

Volta — ‘But I forbid thee one heinous crime’ / Yet do thy worst, old Time! — there are arguably two voltas in this poem, two separate turning points. Firstly, the speaker builds up an argument as it acknowledges that Time destroys all things, then the 8th line has a tonal shift from passively accepting to assertive as he says he forbids Time to commit the ‘heinous crime’ of destroying the beauty of the fair youth’s face with old age and wrinkles. Then in the final couplet the tone switches again, becoming more confrontational, as if the speaker sees himself as locked directly in a battle with Time over the preservation or decay of the youth’s beauty. He says Time can do whatever it pleases because he has so much confidence in his own poetic ability, that the beautiful youth will be preserved forever in his poetic lines.

CONTEXT

Sonnets- sonnets originate from Italy in the 14th Century, they are a form of lyric poetry and are intended as a ‘little song’ that sings about love in all its many variations. The form was invented by Petrarch and became highly popular during the Renaissance era — in fact, Shakespeare primarily wrote sonnets because he could make a lot of money out of them, whereas the income from his plays was less stable. Writing in the 16th Century, Shakespeare modernised the 200 year old sonnet form by breaking from the traditional Petrarchan structure and creating his own rhyming pattern. Therefore, Shakespearean sonnets are still 14 lines long, but they always have an ABABCDCDEFEFGG rhyme scheme — being split into three quatrains of alternate rhyme and a final rhyming couplet that serves as a conclusion to the poem. Traditional sonnets often had an unobtainable goddess-like woman as the subject, and typically explored the notion of unrequited love. Yet, Shakespeare’s sonnets were famously split between an unnamed man and a ‘dark lady’ who was far from a goddess. Sonnet 19 focuses on the unnamed man or ‘faire youth’, as he’s called elsewhere, as a love interest, and so we may interpret this in several ways — Shakespeare may be commenting on the condition of youth in general, or speaking about a particular friend of his whose attractiveness will fade with time. Some critics have posited that it may also imply homosexual tendencies on Shakespeare’s part, as he seems quite fixated on the preservation of this man’s beauty.

ATTITUDES

Time ravages all beautiful things — it destroys strong things such as lions and tigers, and softer things such as the fruits of the earth and the beauty of the human face. The speaker begs Time not to let this happen to the lover in the poem, whose beauty is certainly bound up with his youth. Yet he also challenges Time directly in the last two lines, saying that he too has power as a writer and he can beat time by writing poems that last and commemorate beauty. There is a sense that poetry has the power to immortalise beautiful moments that would otherwise be ephemeral and only witnessed by a few people.

Aesthetic beauty is one of the fleeting pleasures of the world — there is something specific about the youth’s appearance that makes him beautiful, and the speaker feels that this beauty is very fleeting and not the kind to last into old age. Perhaps this is a comment on the idealistic freshness of youth and how this fades as people mature. Though the poem is focused on aesthetics, the outer appearance of the youth, we could also say then that this is connected to the inner attitude of the man.

Decay is a natural process — though we are often repulsed by the idea of decay, this poem reminds us that it is a natural process. It seems whimsical and ironic in nature rather than deadly serious, exploring the idea that it might be vain and selfish to expect our beauty to last into old age when the ageing process is applied to all natural things in life. It also reminds us to appreciate the good moments while they last, because time is relentless and before we know it our lives will have changed, or finally be over.

THEMES

Love

Attraction

Youth vs Maturity

Aesthetic Beauty

Time

Death / Decay

The Power of Art

Defiance

Femininity vs Masculinity


Thanks for reading! If you find this resource useful, you can take a look at our full CIE poetry courses and other help with English Literature and Language here: https://scrbbly.teachable.com/courses

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