One of the major themes of sonnet sequences, particularly Shakespeare’s, is the transience and mutability of the human condition. Time’s constant attack is often what seems to inspire the poet to write, for it is time that steadily causes his beloved to age and lose his beauty. In Sonnet 2, Shakespeare describes Time’s callous and relentless destruction of beauty. He writes to the Fair Youth: “Thy youth’s proud livery, so gazed on now, / Will be a tottered weed of small worth held.” Here the poet is following sonnet tradition by lamenting the passing of time and its destructive effect on mortal entities. It is evident from this quotation that Shakespeare cherishes his beloved’s youth, but is distressed by its brevity, and in this way Shakespeare is flattering him. Indeed, his explorations of mortality are the means through which the poet declares his love: the passionate exhortation to “Make war upon this bloody Tyrant, Time” (Sonnet 16) is Shakespeare’s way of showing his unremitting love for the beloved. Shakespeare’s work, like that of other sonneteers, explores the idea that the transient beauty of and the love felt for the beloved may be preserved by reproduction, through the immortality of ideal love, and through the medium of art.
The first seventeen sonnets have come to be known as the ‘Procreation Sonnets’ because, throughout this mini-sequence, Shakespeare attempts to encourage the Fair Youth to beget children. Shakespeare gives a number of persuasive arguments in support of reproduction, the main argument being aesthetic. In fact, the first sonnet of the entire sequence begins: “From fairest creatures we desire increase, / That thereby beauty’s Rose might never die.” Shakespeare values the Fair Youth’s beauty to such an extent that he mourns to think it could be destroyed by time and death. Shakespeare goes further than simply exhorting the Youth to beget children: he suggests that it is his moral obligation, condemning him for committing what Philip Martin refers to as the sin of self-love. He complains that the Youth is hoarding what he ought to be sharing with the world; in Sonnet 1, he refers to the Fair Youth as “the world’s fresh ornament” and the “only herald to the gaudy spring”, begging him to “Pity the world”. His use of words like “fresh” and “spring” again emphasise his beloved’s youth. In Sonnet 9, one of the most persuasive sonnets, Shakespeare tells the Youth: “Ah! if thou issueless shalt hap to die, / The world will wail thee like a makeless wife…” His exclamation underlines his sadness at the idea that such a beauty will be lost from the world, emphasised by his use of alliteration in the next line. Moreover, his employment of the two words “issueless” and “makeless” suggest a certain emptiness and tragic waste that can only be avoided if the Youth has children. Here Shakespeare is demonstrating his skill in the art of dramatic persuasion. In fact, the couplet of the same sonnet, rather than turning the sonnet, reinforces the douzain that has come before it, and implies that the Youth’s selfish actions are equivalent to murdering himself and all his heirs: “No love towards other in that bosom sits / That on himself such murd’rous shame commits.” Again, Shakespeare’s rhetorical skills are evident here in his harsh accusation of “murd’rous shame” which suggests that the Youth would be murdering all of his future incarnations if he were not to procreate. Thus the poet begs his beloved to preserve his beauty through reproduction for both aesthetic and moral reasons. Finally, Shakespeare intimates that to reproduce is to invest in the future. In Sonnet 4, which explains the need to procreate and the reasons for not wasting “unused beauty”, he calls his beloved a “Profitless usurer” who abuses the “bounteous largess” (i.e. his good looks and youth) given to him by Nature. He continues: “Then how, when Nature calls thee to be gone, / What acceptable audit canst thou leave?” This use of economical diction presents reproduction as a sort of Neoplatonic investment or transaction. Although he is likely to be simply playing with this notion of immortality, Shakespeare nonetheless attempts to convince the Fair Youth to have a child so that traces of his beauty may be preserved and the destructive power of Time’s Tyranny can be defeated.
Shakespeare also explores the idea that love, as an ideal that is inviolable to time and impervious to time’s erosive effects, may be able to preserve the beloved, or at least survive independently. In this respect, Shakespeare’s Sonnets are hugely influenced by Plato and his belief in the Forms, the ideal and immutable versions of all things in our realm. This may explain why Shakespeare presents a particularly Platonic view of ideal love in several of the sonnets. In Sonnet 115, Shakespeare playfully explains that his earlier sonnets were overwhelmed by the fear of Time’s tyranny (“Alas, why, fearing of Time’s tyranny,”) and too little aware of the continually growing and counteracting power of love to outlive time, hence: love’s flame (a conventional metaphor for impassioned love) could “afterwards burn clearer” and continually flourish. In the couplet he writes: “Love is a babe; then might I not say so, / To give full growth to that which still doth grow?” Here he is exploring the idea that love, as an ideal, is not susceptible to time’s effects and that it will continue to grow notwithstanding the passage of time. In Sonnet 116, the next sonnet in the sequence, Shakespeare returns to the same theme, exploring the immutable power of ideal love and its tenacity in the face of Time. He explains that “Love is not love / Which alters when it alteration finds,” and he refers to it as “an ever-fixed mark”. He writes:
“Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.”
Here Shakespeare is suggesting that, while physical objects are destroyed by aging, love may have the ability to overcome death and survive “even to the edge of doom”. Shakespeare’s use of sibilance and alliteration in “sickle’s compass come” creates a cacophony and so emphasises Time’s callousness, thereby stressing the power of love as a means to overcome death. The poem is written in extremely simple language. Philip Martin quotes Tucker Brooke, who observes: “the poet has employed one hundred and ten of the simplest words in the language, and the two simplest rime-schemes, to produce a poem which has about it no strangeness whatever except the strangeness of perfection.” Shakespeare presents this quite complex metaphysical idea in a very straightforward way, making it seem almost common sense. Thus, even if the reader is not convinced by Shakespeare’s claims, the imaginative power of the sonnets enables us to delve into his thoughts and understand the ideas he is exploring. Although Shakespeare himself is unlikely to be a follower of Plato’s metaphysical theory, the idealisation of his love for the beloved is at the very least a form of flattery. This image of ideal love for the Fair Youth stands in direct contrast to the lustful love the poet feels towards the Dark Lady. Indeed, Philip Martin claims that, whereas the Dark Lady is almost the Dionysian mistress (although Shakespeare occasionally exhibits true love towards her, too), it is the Youth who is the conventional Petrarchan beloved or Apollonian youth. Lust is transient and inevitably passes with time, but the pure and ideal love that the poet feels towards the Fair Youth, as embodied in the sonnets themselves, is presented as being capable of evading Time’s tyranny and surviving for eternity.
The final device that Shakespeare explores is the proposition that his beloved and the love that Shakespeare feels for him may be preserved through the literary art of poetry. Simply by writing these poems, the poet is eternalising a memory of the beloved. In fact, the immortalising power of poetry has been a striking constant throughout literary history, spanning from Homer and Callimachus to the present day. This theme was particularly popular with the Elizabethans who, rather than suggesting the possibility of immortalising themselves through poetry, more often suggested that they might immortalise others through their art. The entirety of Shakespeare’s sequence is full of references to the supposedly immortalising aspects of poetry, and indeed the theme is much more prominent in his sequence than in those of Sidney or Spenser. For instance, Sonnet 19, which tells Time to “do whate’er thou wilt” to the wide world but to leave his beloved alone, ends: “Yet, do thy worst, old Time: despite thy wrong, / My love shall in my verse ever live young.” This poem is slightly unusual in the fact that, not only does it turn early (before the usual volta between line 8 and line 9), but it also turns again at the couplet. Although Shakespeare appears confident in the power of his poetry to immortalise its subject, this is an example of a couplet that simply asserts rather than explains. Indeed, one of the most amazing things about these sonnets is that the language has the power to push its associative and semantic value beyond the physical manuscript to the imaginative resonance of the words themselves. Thus, in Sonnet 63, the words have the ability to move from “black lines” to green and independent things, demonstrating their power to live and breathe beyond the page, and thus perhaps to preserve. Philip Martin notes: “The poet’s task is to halt the flux of time as far as he can, to commemorate the fleeting life of the beloved in monuments more lasting than bronze.” (144) This is undoubtedly true, but in Sonnet 18 Shakespeare hopes for far more than commemoration. In this famous poem Shakespeare describes how his beloved will ‘grow’ within his verse, and indeed in the couplet he suggests that his poetry will ‘give life’ to his beloved. This is a common motif in Renaissance sonnets; Spenser follows a similar line in his famous “One day I wrote her name upon the strand…” In the couplet Spenser says: “Where, when as Death shall all the world subdue, / Our love shall live, and later life renew.” Shakespeare develops these ideas in Sonnet 55, which famously begins: “Not marble, nor the gilded monuments / Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme.” His references to masonry, which is completely inanimate, stand in direct contrast to his verse, which he describes as a “living memory”. He goes on to describe the power of his poetry to outlive statues and survive wars, finishing: “You live in this, and dwell in lovers’ eyes.” Here, not only is he exploring the idea that the beloved may possibly be immortal in his poem, but also that he may live in the eyes of later lovers when they read his poetry. The line could also suggest that the Fair Youth, through Shakespeare’s poems, may become the image of Love, the perfect archetype of a lover, and that all future lovers may see him when they look into one another’s eyes.
Despite his efforts, Shakespeare seems to accept that a poem can never fully capture or represent a person’s beauty. In Sonnet 83, one of the sonnets about the ‘rival poet’, Shakespeare explains why he has not been writing quite so much to the Fair Youth as he feels he ought to, and in the couplet he tells him: “There lives more life in one of your fair eyes / Than both your poets can in praise devise.” There is a certain irony to this quotation that is impossible to miss: if this is true, then it is strange that Shakespeare should be writing these poems at all, and this demonstrates the fact that one of the main aims of the sonnets is to flatter. Sonnet 16 points out the weakness of verse compared with procreation, which Shakespeare describes as “a mightier way” to counteract time in comparison to his “barren rhyme”. This too is ironic, since earlier in the sequence he has referred to his poetry as his “powerful rhyme”. Many have suggested that the last sonnet of the alleged Fair Youth sequence, Sonnet 126, demonstrates the inadequacy of Shakespeare’s rhyme and that the two missing lines represent time’s audit. These examples reveal Shakespeare’s lack of confidence in his own verse as a means to preserve. In Sonnet 17, Shakespeare explores, with perhaps more conviction than when exploring other methods of eternalisation, the idea that procreation and poetry might work together. The poet declares that, if he were to do justice to his beloved’s beauty in verse, nobody would believe him. People would begin to discard his poetry with disbelief, and the papers would be “yellow’d with their age.” He concludes in the couplet: “But were some child of yours alive that time / You should live twice,-- in it and in my rhyme.” Shakespeare suggests that he and the beloved make a collaborative effort, he through poetry, and the beloved through a child. Thus, the poetry would serve as a description of the beloved’s beauty, and the child would serve as proof that such immense beauty could be possible.
What remains unclear is whether Shakespeare intended for his proposed preservation to be eternal. Although he seems to have been influenced by Lucretian beliefs about the afterlife, in Sonnet 55 he says: “So, till the judgment that yourself arise.” This line suggests that, at least while he was writing a few of the Sonnets, he believed in the Christian concept of resurrection and life after death. Thus, it might be said that the preservation that Shakespeare is attempting to achieve is only temporary: the begetting of children, the immortality of ideal love, and the writing of poetry are only necessary until the beloved is resurrected to live as an immortal. The poet appears to recognise that it is only God who can create the miracle of eternal preservation hoped for in Sonnet 65. But that is not to say that the poet’s attempts at preservation are in vain. The fact that Shakespeare’s sonnets are still fervently read today, four centuries after they were first published, is testament to the ability of poetry to transcend time. Although he may have written the sonnets about immortalisation slightly with his tongue in his cheek, and although nobody has literally been immortalised by art, Shakespeare’s poetry still remains to recount the story of his love for the Youth. Moreover, the fact that many essays about the Fair Youth and his immortalisation have been written in the centuries since Shakespeare’s death demonstrates that the Youth’s legacy still survives. And so, Shakespeare has offered an effective solution to the problem of Time’s tyranny in that his poetry will, “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,” (Sonnet 18) preserve the love that it is impossible not to feel when reading his sonnets. Once man no longer breathes and eyes can no longer see, the preservation of love is a matter for God. That seems to me, and I think Shakespeare would agree, to be fair enough.