The Idea of Time in Shakespeare’s Sonnets

An Analysis of the Sonnet Sequence About the Young Man Regarding Time’s Portrayal and the Narrative Structure

Bachelor Thesis, 2014

37 Pages, Grade: 1,6


Table of Contents


1 Immortalisation of Beauty Through Procreation
1.1 Sonnet 5
1.2 Sonnet 12
1.3 Sonnet 15

2 Verse as a Means to Defeat Time
2.1 Sonnet 19
2.2 Sonnet 60
2.3 Sonnet 63
2.4 Sonnet 64

3 Paradigm Shift in Regard to the Idea of Time
3.1 Sonnet 123
3.2 Sonnet 124
3.3 Sonnet 126



Shakespeare's sonnets contain many potent themes and content that a lot of people have made great observations about throughout time. One of the most ubiquitous and rich among them is the speaker's idea of time personified and its powers and character traits. Time has even been characterised as “[...] an obsessive theme in the first 126 poems dedicated to the young man.” (Callaghan 89) The sequence spanning from Sonnet 1 to Sonnet 126 addresses this topic that was thought-provoking to many before Shakespeare and remains an engaging subject matter to this day.

While the sonnets are usually treated as individual pieces of work, there are connections between them one cannot oversee when reading them consecutively. The idea of time is one of those connections and a case can be made that it is a constant character in this series of sonnets: an observation David Kaula made in his contribution to “Temporal Perspectives in Shakespeare's Sonnets” called “In War with Time”. He, however, went even further in his analysis and asserts that the speaker of the sonnets “[.] in the figure of time creates a formidable antagonist against which to assert the force and constancy of his devotion.” (Kaula 45)

This description of the concept of time concurrently brings to mind the poet character's protagonist role in the sequence. Since the sonnets are read through his perspective, the reader is inevitably inclined to take his side as well. The third major character, the young friend, can thus be regarded as the subject of affection for the protagonist. Thus, the sonnets can be seen as a narrative containing three major characters and their journey.

This thesis has been adopted by many. Among them Triche Roberson, who, in her master's thesis “The conceit of this inconstant stay”, makes a case for a philosophical exploration through the personification of time. Building on this notion and Kaula's contributions to the subject, in this thesis, essential sonnets of the sequence will be analysed thoroughly and examined for proof of a narrative that addresses such philosophical thoughts on the concept of time and characterises it as an antagonist in a fight with the poet character over his subject of affection, the young friend and his beauty.

Throughout the large sequence of sonnets, Shakespeare mentions time as the main influence and threat to the friend. His beauty and perfection being harmed and altered by the influence of time is a constant theme and a main problem the poet wants to resolve. The three milestones of this narrative structure therefore serve as the division of the respective chapters. Beginning in the procreation sequence, where his agenda seems to be to urge the friend to give his beauty to the next generation to preserve it, over the next main part of sonnets where the poet tries to immortalise his friend's image of perfection through his verse, up to the sonnets in which he is able to change his perspective and preconceived notions of time and makes new realisations. Throughout all these different approaches and works the one counterpart to the poet's efforts is the concept of time and the complications he conjures for it. Thus it can be argued that Shakespeare's Sonnets dedicated to the young man characterise time as an antagonist to the poet's efforts of preserving the man's beauty through an overarching narrative structure.

In the following chapters, these different approaches to the intention of the poet speaker to preserve his friend's beauty against time's forces and their corresponding sonnets will be analysed and put into perspective with the overarching structure of time as the antagonist to the poet's efforts. Through the close examination of the individual sonnets in regard to these themes and constellations, new evidence for Shakespeare's examination of the idea of time and the connections between sonnets concerning an underlying narrative (cf. Mahler 64) about those three individuals will be discovered.

1 Immortalisation of Beauty Through Procreation

1.1 Sonnet 5

Those hours that with gentle work did frame

The lovely gaze where every eye doth dwell

Will play the tyrants to the very same,

And that unfair which fairly doth excel.

For never-resting time leads summer on

To hideous winter, and confounds him there,

Sap checked with frost and lusty leaves quite gone,

Beauty o'er-snowed and bareness everywhere;

Then were not summer's distillation left,

A liquid prisoner pent in walls of glass,

Beauty's effect with beauty were bereft,

Nor it, nor no remembrance what it was.

But flowers distilled, though they with winter meet,

Leese but their show; their substance still lives sweet.

(Son. 121)

The first part of the sonnet arrangement discussed, known commonly as the procreation sequence, spans from Sonnet 1 to Sonnet 17 and address the poet's first approach for the preservation of the young friend, reproducing his inherent beauty to maintain it. The most potent sonnets in the sequence to examine this behaviour, themes of time personified and antagonised and a narrative structure concerning the three main characters, poet, time and the friend are Sonnets 5, 12 and 15.

Sonnet 5 begins with directly bringing together the two main subjects, the friend and time, in the first two lines. They are represented as creator and creation first; implying that through the hours of time and their gentle work the beauty of the friend referred to as “The lovely gaze [...]” (line 2) is only made possible. Yet, the same notion of time is then equated with tyrants in line 3 and said to reverse their effect, making the friend unfair instead.

The tone of this first quatrain already manages to show the inner dispute the poet has over the idea of time and its alternating effects and powers. Shakespeare also shows this duality in his choice of words. The first two lines include soft and positive words and sounds like “gentle”, “soft” and “gaze” while the third line hits the reader with the harsh personification of hours as ‘tyrants', implying an imagery of cruelty and viciousness (cf. Blades 35).

This concept of time is continued in the next quatrain where it is made responsible for the change in seasons from summer to winter described as ‘hideous', and through the use of the verb “confound” time is made responsible for every negative effect associated with the season of winter, detailed in the ensuing two lines. Nature is described as helpless to the effects of time and the seasons of winter and summer are contrasted as good and bad. With this contrast and the imagery of an over-snowed beauty and bareness in winter the poet manages to set up an introduction to the idea of procreation as a means to defeat time.

The picture of a distillation of summer and in turn the idea of beauty inherent in the previous lines is pointed out even more vividly in the next verse where it is described as “A liquid prisoner pent in walls of glass,” (line 10). This idea of essential beauty, described by Blades “as a fixed substance ” (38), combined with the aspects of beauty's re-emergence and the imagery of confinement invite a comparison to the foetus in the womb and the process of procreation while the glass walls indicate a degree of artificiality adhering to the idea of an essence distilled hiding from the natural outside as well as a reflective connotation considering the mirroring abilities of glass. This intimidated, introverted image of beauty's imprisoned essence works together with the quatrain reinforcing the power that the poet credits time with. By blaming it for robbing most of beauty's qualities, it once again reminds the reader of its immense potency and blame for decay.

But then, typical for the sonnet's structure, the final couplet manages to turn the mood of the poem and also the outlook on time and its workings. With the ending sentiment of a substance still living sweet the poet gives hope to a devastating scenario and an aspect of nature that cannot be controlled by time but in fact is a natural aspect of its workings. The two central topics of the sonnet, time and beauty, are consequentially shifting their positions in the final couplet. While, at the beginning, time was made out as an insurmountable force and beauty as its victim, in the end, beauty is able to withstand the destruction, though still robbed of its many incarnations.

Another aspect of this negative attitude towards seasonal change, as pointed out by Helen Vendler, can be seen in the omission of any mention of a spring after the hideous winter (cf. 69). The normal cyclicality inherent in the seasonal aspect of time is ignored in this sonnet, which has the effect of making its image even worse.

1.2 Sonnet 12

When I do count the clock that tells the time, And see the brave day sunk in hideous night;

When I behold the violet past prime,

And sable curls all silvered o'er with white: When lofty trees I see barren of leaves, Which erst from heat did canopy the herd, And summer's green all girded up in sheaves Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard: Then of thy beauty do I question make, That thou among the wastes of time must go, Since sweets and beauties do themselves forsake, And die as fast as they see others grow,

And nothing 'gainst time's scythe can make defence

Save breed to brave him, when he takes thee hence.

(Son. 135)

Sonnet 12 begins in the first line by introducing the central topic of time once again. In the second line, the poet makes a similar observation to Sonnet 5, where he contrasted the seasons of summer and winter and time's fault for leading the former to the latter. In this sonnet it is the contrast of “brave day sunk in hideous night;” (line 2). Again, the poet sees time's workings as a strictly negative phenomenon and underlines these observations with grim imagery to point out the consequences of aging. He also personifies them both, giving the word “day” the hero's role and, according to Blades, “implying a courageous human-like resistance” (44) in this personification.

The following lines include various other nature similes that display the mutability and transience of all worldly things while also showing a human component in them. First, in line 3 where the violet, beheld past its prime, can refer to the past blossoming of the flower but also to the early zenith of a life cycle in general. In line 4, the imagery is even more human than botanical since the image is that of curls turning white which occurs with all hair, human or animal. It also marks another contrast with the differing colours sable and white. The next quatrain continues this sentiment, now expanding the natural imagery to one long conditional sentence of which the second quatrain builds the first part. It once again details in sombre words the effects of seasonal change with trees losing their leaves and grass turning to hay and being carried away.

In the third quatrain however, the poet follows up on the conditional “when” with an urge towards the friend, addressed in the second person with a direct “thou”. The focus is shifted swiftly and directly towards the friend's beauty, the main issue the poet pushes during this sequence of sonnets. The fear that “among the wastes of time” (line 10) the friend will lose this beauty is also a driving force for the poet's choice of words and approaches to overcome time. The clarity of this message is further enhanced in the following lines where the topic of mortality and its disregard for beauty is explicitly pointed out.

This sincerity and forthrightness in tone is continued in the final couplet where the message becomes ultimate: nothing but breeding can help you against time. This is also the first instance of the use of “time's scythe” which later reappears in Sonnets 60, 100 and 123 (cf. Hyland 181). The imagery of the scythe, a typical symbol of death, belonging to a personified idea of time, once again brings the two very close together and, in this instance, even synonymises them. This personification differs from the previous characterisation of time in the first two quatrains. While these earlier characterisations also describe time in a negative fashion, the tone is rather gloomy and aloof insinuating that time and its workings are omnipotent and impersonal. The metaphor of “time's scythe” on the other hand suggests an active, aggressive reaper whose acts seem more personal (cf. Vendler 97).

These two ideas of time and their deadly consequences are both represented in this sonnet. The latter is only introduced after the issue is personalised through the mortality of the poet's friend which in turn makes the poet personify time as the grim reaper. This succession of changes in tone and themes make it clear that the poet's infatuation with the friend is the driving force of his examination of time. Another aspect of this sonnet is the general philosophy regarding time that the poet displays.

During Shakespeare's lifetime the Roman Poet Ovid and his concept of time was among the most popular. Translated from Latin by Frank Justus Miller it says “O Time, thou great devourer, and thou, envious Age, together you destroy all things; and, slowly gnawing with your teeth, you finally consume all things in lingering death!” (381). This in Shakespeare's time ubiquitous phrase of Ovid's “tempus edax rerum”, meaning “time, devourer of all things”, can be seen here represented by the scythe and other ruthless images (Cousins 49). The totality of its imagery and the reserved and pessimistic yet pragmatic tone suggest an understanding of time similar to this philosophy. However, it is not completely compliant with Ovid since the personifications of time change in severity and are often more personal or less omnipotent than a devourer of all things.

Nevertheless, the central intention of this sonnet can still be seen as an approach to urge the friend to procreate, as we are left with the final line “Save breed to brave him, when he takes thee hence.” The totality in this statement is clear since the poet leaves this approach as the only option of defence. Additionally, the speaker's resolve in the method at this point is apparent in his anticipation of the taking of his friend by time.

1.3 Sonnet 15

When I consider everything that grows

Holds in perfection but a little moment;

That this huge stage presenteth naught but shows

Whereon the stars in secret influence comment;

When I perceive that men as plants increase,

Cheered and checked 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.

(Son. 141)

Sonnet 15 resembles at first glance the frame of Sonnet 12 with its conditional “when” (line 1, 5) and “then” (line 9) at the beginning of the first three quatrains. Nonetheless, Sonnet 15 begins with a new sentiment regarding the already established theme of transience: a shift in perspective from the narrow view of the poet looking at the friend to a much bigger picture wherein a cosmic influence is considered and the world is described as a huge stage.

This viewpoint diminishes the poet's previous affection and care for detail towards nature to “everything that grows” and his occupation with the rescue and preservation of perfection seems more difficult when it is stated in line 2 that a growing thing “Holds in perfection but a little moment”. The third line manages to depict both humanity and nature as small by saying that we present mere shows for the universe on “this huge stage”, the term used to refer to earth.

However, this other perspective also allows a new way to ponder the poet's problem concerning the friend's fleeting perfection. With this bigger scale as a new tool for examining beauty and perfection, the poet can make new observations regarding his dilemma. With the second quatrain, he applies this perspective to the previously established analogy of plants and men; beginning with their similarity of growth but then mentioning the sidereal influence by attributing the “self-same sky” to both cheering these subjects on and keeping them in check (Vendler 109). This 8

double nature of a higher power is further illustrated in the following lines. They are first vaunt in youth before they decrease, concurrent with the former increase in the first line. This decrease is then highlighted when their “brave state”, their highest moment is lost even in memory. This notion makes the plight of the friend's perfection to be preserved seem even more unattainable.

With this setup of a new viewpoint the poet now starts the second part of his conditional structure in the third quatrain. All these previous points in mind “the conceit of this inconstant stay” (line 9) is a phrase of great importance to the poet and a central idea to his opinion and thoughts on time. However, he also returns to the friend and a more personal approach in this quatrain by addressing him directly again. But after his thoughts on the cosmic level, he now has even more appreciation for the friend's youth (Vendler 111).

The personification of both time and decay in line eleven and their position of debate over the friend's youth then bring both perspectives together. Time and decay and their reciprocal nature are therefore pointed out, and the youth serves as a connection between their vast influence and the poet's narrow ultimate goal. The wording of “day of youth” also suggests the limited scope of the friend's youth compared to the cosmic vastness of the two concepts that are at play. The sonnet thus follows a simple structure to this point: from registering the decay of everything in nature, to the application of this observation to the human race, to applying these new found truths to the friend (Hyland 182).

These varying degrees of the poet's pe rspective are brought together in the final couplet where he restates how universal the admiration of the friend and the antagonistic position of time are by stating that all are in war with time for him. But then the poet continues with an actual response to the workings of time: “As he takes from you, I engraft you new.” This marks the first new approach to overcome the mortality and transience of the friend, while the previous efforts were all about procreation as a means to defeat time.

This new method is embedded in the word “engraft”. In keeping with the nature and vegetation theme, “grafting” can mean to “insert (a shoot or scion from one plant) as a graft into another plant.” (“graft” def. 1) or also plainly “plant, implant” (“graft” def. 1b) in horticulture which would still concur with the method of procreation and can thus even serves as a direct metaphor for impregnation. However, the word can also be interpreted to mean “pencil”, coming from the Greek root “graph” (Matz 83). This reading of the line also explains the subjective “I” since the poet cannot partake in the procreation of the friend but is capable of endless new incarnations of his beauty written down in his verse.

2 Verse as a means to Defeat Time

As already indicated in the final couplet of Sonnet 15, the poet has now reached a point where his thinking on the preservation of the friend's beauty has changed. After the numerous urges to procreate, his outlook on the issue shifts when he changes his point of view and contemplates the youth from a more universal perspective. Through his removal from the situation to a passive view looking down on earth's constant change and including humanity's physical weakness in its cyclical nature, he realises the futility of procreation when faced with an opponent as big as time.

Nonetheless, with the last line he also hints at a new approach that might offer a better solution to circumvent the “conceit of this inconstant stay” (Sonnet 15). The notion of immortalising someone through verse marks a big improvement for the poet's achievement of his goal and will be a recurring theme throughout the next sequence of sonnets.

2.1 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-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.

(Son. 149)

Sonnet 19, especially in its first quatrain, heightens the imagery's intensity even further, described by Vendler as “disproportionate imaginative efforts” (124). The first line gives time the adjective “devouring” and follows this characterisation up with the image of lion's paws being blunted by it, another forceful image in which the animal synonymous with being “strong, courageous, or fiercely brave” (“lion” def. 2a) is portrayed as being powerless against time's influence. A notion echoed in line 3 with the mutilation of another animal associated with “great energy, strength, or courage” (“tiger” def. 4a), the tiger.

Time seems to be characterised at its fiercest in this quatrain where the concept of decay is detailed in an unforgiving fashion: time making earth eat its own brood. It is even killing the usually immortal phoenix in its own blood in line 4. An image that makes time's powers seem even more incalculable and vast. The quatrain can thus also be seen as one of the strongest, most extreme representations of Ovid's “tempus edax rerum” with its beginning where time is explicitly “devouring” (line 1) and the subsequent instances of that action. This grim and potent portrayal differs from the following quatrains and manages to affect the reader negatively before changing the tone.

This alteration in tone happens insofar as the second quatrain depicts time less cruelly and details usual effects of its influence, namely the change of seasons and the fading of beautiful entities. In this part of the sonnet, time is characterised as “swift-footed”, which makes its influence less brutal but more agile and potent. This concurs with the next lines where the poet offers up the whole world to time if it just leaves out one thing. This line also serves as a connection to the third quatrain, narrowing the focus on one individual action the poet forbids time.

The change to the personal is also underlined in the diction. The quatrain begins with the exclamatory “O” followed by demanding words towards time not to alter the friend's appearance with its hours (line 9). This demanding tone and directness of plea are also indications of the change the poet went through in the procreation sequence. He is now able to address time on a more direct level and does not let fear command his choice of words (Roberson 22). The idea of time as an artist carving with its hours is an even less threatening image and marks another decline of fearful respect towards time by the poet. These demands in correlation with the previous challenging words can be seen as the poet offering up the world in order to save the friend (Roberson 23). The infatuation with the youth and disregard for the rest of mankind is further emphasised in the last line of the quatrain where the poet calls the friend “beauty's pattern” as an archetype for generations to come.

However, the sonnet offers up a true turn in the final couplet. In these last lines the poet disregards all caution he previously displayed when addressing time. The way the poet talks to time now seems to be almost in the tone of equals and becomes more informal beginning the line with “Yet” and calling time “old” (line 13). He even challenges it to do its worst. This also marks the first instance that time is addressed directly in the second person (Kaula 49) also indicating the bold stance the poet is taking. The reason why this confidence has overcome him is revealed in the last line. Here, the poet seems to have found his answer and is willing to give up his previous approach as indicated before to fulfil the goal of infinite beauty for the friend through a new one: “My love shall in verse ever live young.” A resolution rather than an approach in this wording, the poet suggests content in his new epiphany that his verse cannot be affected by time's powers. It shows much more certainty with the use of words like “shall” and “ever” the sway that these powers had over the poet seem to have abandoned him. This signifies the ultimate break from procreation and transition to verse as the means to immortalise the friend's beauty.


Excerpt out of 37 pages


The Idea of Time in Shakespeare’s Sonnets
An Analysis of the Sonnet Sequence About the Young Man Regarding Time’s Portrayal and the Narrative Structure
University of Leipzig  (Anglistics)
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
idea, time, shakespeare’s, sonnets, analysis, sonnet, sequence, about, young, regarding, time’s, portrayal, narrative, structure
Quote paper
Heiner Uebbing (Author), 2014, The Idea of Time in Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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