Shakespeare's sonnets 15, 16 and 17. The immortalizing power of poetry and procreation

Term Paper, 2008

12 Pages, Grade: 1,7

Francesca Cavaliere (Author)



1 Introduction

2 Form and Structure

3 The depiction of mortality and passage of beauty
Concept of vertex and helplessness
War against time

4 Modesty vs. magalomania
Fruitlessness of verse
The unreliability of poetic reproduction

5 Conclusion


1 Introduction

Shakespeare’s Sonnets 15, 16 and 17 belong to the group of procreation sonnets, running from 1 to 17 in the collection of “Shakespeare’s sonnets”. In this sonnet sequence the speaker urges the young man to marry and to beget children in order to preserve his beauty and achieve everlasting life. The power of the young man to perpetuate himself by biological generation is confronted to poetry as another method to reach immortality (Cheney, 126/128).

In sonnet 15 the speaker depicts the mortality of all living creatures and points out that the young man, too, will fall victim to the transitory nature of things. Nevertheless in the couplet he “sells” himself as a poet whose verse would give his young patron immortality. This idea is immediately dismissed in the following sonnet 16 where he urges the young man not to rely on his sonnets alone and recommends biological procreation as the superior mean to represent the young man’s beauty adequately. In sonnet 17 the persona finally describes how procreation and poetry can work together to reach double immortality. Here again the speaker points out that his poetry is of far lesser worth to give immortality to the young man’s beauty than his own creation of progeny would be.

Dispraising his own works in favour of the begetting of children is very contrary to what one would expect from a poet. Furthermore, it remains open to question how the speaker’s understatement of his own art and his convincingly depiction of the omnipresence of mortality go together with his courageous promise to immortalize the young man in verse. It will therefore be interesting to find out which techniques the speaker applies to make the young man procreate and what this might reveal about the true nature of his interest to immortalize the young man. By responding to these questions, one can only come to the conclusion that the speaker has other reasons than those of personal affection for wishing to keep the young man’s beauty in being.

After having presented some formal aspects of the sonnets, the first main part of the paper will be concerned with the question of how mortality and passage of beauty are depicted in the sonnets. Special emphasis will be put on the concepts of vertex and war contributing to make the young man realize the instability of his beauty and showing him methods to preserve it.

The second main part of the paper will deal with the speaker’s comparison of his poetry to the supposed superior power of procreation. The focus will be put on the aspects of fruitlessness and unreliability of poetic reproduction opposed to the courageous claim of the speaker to immortalize the young man in verse.

2 Form and Structure

All three sonnets retain the rhyme scheme of the classical English sonnet form consisting of three quatrains with alternating rhymes (abab, cdcd, efef) and a final rhyming couplet (gg). In sonnet 16 each of the 3 quatrains addresses a part of the argument whereas the conclusion is given in the couplet. In Sonnet 15 and 17, however, a caesura already occurs after the first two quatrains, separating octet and sestet, which is a typical feature of the Italian sonnet form. The argument is, consequently, made in the octet whereas the conclusion is drawn in the sestet (Duncan Jones, 95/96).

This semantic opposition between octet and sestet is also syntactically reflected in both sonnets. In Sonnet 15 each of the first two quatrains starts with a dependent “when” – clause. The independent “then” clause in the sestet is set off by a colon. In sonnet 17 octet and sestet are marked off by a full stop which coincides with the end of the direct speech (Wright, 68). It is moreover noteworthy that the first two quatrains of sonnet 15 are linked by a phonetic and ideational interplay between their first lines: “When I con sider” (1) ,“When I per ceive” (5) which are fused to the sestet’s hybrid: “Then the conceit (9) where the first and the last syllable of “consider” and “perceive” are combined to “conceit”. Furthermore, all three sonnets are metaphorically and logically closely linked to each other. This is syntactically reflected in Sonnet 16 where the contrastive conjunction: “But” (1) indicates the logical continuation from the last lines of sonnet 15.

All three sonnets follow the rhythm of an iambic penthametre. There is, however, one exception to it. In Sonnet 15 line 4: “whereon the stars in secret influence comment” (15; 4) where the penthametre turns to an Alexandrine verse. The change from one metre to another causes the regular rhythm scheme to be inconstant and unstable which can be seen as a formal indicator that poetry is quite an inadequate means to achieve permanence.

3 The depiction of mortality and passage of beauty

Concept of vertex and helplessness

In sonnet 15 and 16 the speaker uses the concept of vertex to make the young man realize that his chance to procreate and thus to preserve his beauty is temporally limited and that it is not under his control when his best time to procreate will be over. The concept of vertex implies that shortly after a living being reached the culmination point of its development, regression sets in. At the very beginning of Sonnet 15 the reader is already confronted to this unpleasant truth: “everything that grows holds in perfection but a little moment” (15.1f). This temporal instability of “perfection” (2) is underlined by the syntax of the sentence itself. When reading the first line of sonnet 15 the reader is tempted to think that: “When I consider everything that grows” would form a perfectly complete sentence with “everything that grows” (15.1) in object position. Consequently, the impression is aroused that the speaker is able to look down on earth from a somewhat higher position. This idea is supported by the original meaning of the verb “consider” which according to its latin root means: “to look at the stars” (Booth, 155) and literally reflects the reversed perspective of the speaker. Already in line 2, however, the illusion of “perfection” is destroyed as “everything that grow s” reveals to be the subject of the following subordinated clause: “everything that grows holds in perfection” (Booth, 155). Apart from the enjambment the deceptive impression is primarily created by the omission of the conjunction “that” which would had made it easier for the reader to detect the beginning of the subordinated clause: “When I consider (that) everything that grows holds in perfection but a little moment”.

Very much the same idea is conveyed by the oxymoron “at height decrease” (15.7) which refers to the idea that whatever comes before or after the culmination point can only be inferior in quality to it. This damage or loss of quality which is caused when something has been used a lot is a sign of wear which is alluded to by the verb: “wear” in the following line: “And wear their brave state out of memory” (15.8). The temporal instability of “perfection” is expressed by another oxymoron: “inconstant stay” (15.9) which is moreover an etymological pun as “inconstant” derives from the Latin word “stare” which means to stand or to stay (Vendler, 110). Like already the expression: “to hold (…)but a little moment” (15.2) it describes the paradoxical immobilization of a very fugitive state.

In sonnet 15 a series of metaphors is given to illustrate this “moment” of “perfection”. In the context of life seen as “huge stage” (15. 3) it might stand for the peak of an actor’s career or that of one of the heroes he plays. It might also bring into mind the highest point reached by a celestial body before its descend. Furthermore, it might be associated with the time when a plant is in its prime or when its fruits are ripe (Booth, 156).


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Shakespeare's sonnets 15, 16 and 17. The immortalizing power of poetry and procreation
University of Potsdam  (Anglistik)
Shakespeare's Sonnets
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Shakespeare, sonnet 15-17, poetry, mortality, immortalization
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Francesca Cavaliere (Author), 2008, Shakespeare's sonnets 15, 16 and 17. The immortalizing power of poetry and procreation, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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