A critical reading of a Shakespeare sonnet
The Shakespeare sonnet that begins ‘When forty winters shall besiege thy brow’ is sonnet 2 of 154, and the second in a series of ‘Procreation Sonnets’. It’s a poem about ageing, and about the benefits of having children – continuing the argument begun in the previous sonnet. Below is Sonnet 2, and a few words of summary and analysis.
When forty winters shall besiege thy brow,
And dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field,
Thy youth’s proud livery so gazed on now,
Will be a totter’d weed of small worth held:
Then being asked, where all thy beauty lies,
Where all the treasure of thy lusty days;
To say, within thine own deep sunken eyes,
Were an all-eating shame, and thriftless praise.
How much more praise deserv’d thy beauty’s use,
If thou couldst answer ‘This fair child of mine
Shall sum my count, and make my old excuse,’
Proving his beauty by succession thine!
This were to be new made when thou art old,
And see thy blood warm when thou feel’st it cold.
In summary, Sonnet 2 sees Shakespeare pleading with the ‘Fair Youth’ to beget children and pass on his beauty, much as in the previous sonnet. But here he focuses on the ageing process: when you are forty years old and wrinkles have begun to show on your skin (the language taking on a military flavour: time being likened to an army that will ‘besiege’ the Youth’s forehead and will ‘dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field’), then the beauty the Youth now boasts (likened to ‘proud livery’ – i.e. bright and colourful servants’ uniform) will be reduced to a tattered old piece of clothing (‘weed’ here referring to a garment) that nobody will admire.
If you are asked in the future where your beauty and youthful vigour are now to be found, and all you can reply is ‘in my eyes, which are now sunken within my head’, that would be a shame – and scant and damaging praise indeed.
No: your beauty deserves much greater praise than this. How much better would it be if you could reply, when you are a man of forty years old, that your beauty now resides in your child, who has inherited your good looks? This child could ‘sum thy count’, i.e. make your balance sheet add up so as to prove you spent your youth wisely, and justify your existence. This child would prove that he is truly the heir to your beauty, and would make your beauty live again in him.
Shakespeare then concludes the sonnet by saying that having a son would be much as if you had been newly created, so closely would your son resemble you – and your blood, which flows colder in old age, would be warm again thanks to your son.
There are several things about such a summary or paraphrase which raise further questions, or points of analysis. First, that final line carries a clever double meaning: will the father’s cold blood be warmed by the cheering sight of his offspring? Or does Shakespeare mean that, because the son will so resemble his father, the child will be like a ‘warm-blooded’ version of his now cold-blooded father? (This was a Renaissance idea, that the blood began to cool in old age: hot-bloodedness was associated with the impetuous passions of youth.)
Second, several phrases in Sonnet 2 suggest a link back to the previous sonnet, which had hinted that the Fair Youth was wasting his beauty and his ‘fuel’ on himself, suggesting masturbation, which Shakespeare seems to refer to in a later sonnet as ‘the expense of spirit in a waste of shame’. ‘Shame’ is a word that often conjures up what would later be known as ‘self-abuse’ or ‘self-pollution’: here, in ‘When forty winters’, Shakespeare’s reference to the Youth’s ‘deep sunken eyes’ of the future recalls the reference to the Youth’s ‘eyes’ in the previous sonnet (‘thou contracted to thine own bright eyes’), while ‘lusty days’ (suggesting not only robustness but lust) and ‘all-eating shame’ both perhaps refer also to solitary sexual pleasures, shall we say.
These potential double meanings are partly what make Shakespeare’s Sonnets such fun to discuss and analyse, and ‘When forty winters shall besiege thy brow’ offers a nice continuation of the ‘get married and beget an heir’ argument that Shakespeare had begun in the previous sonnet. Continue to explore the Sonnets with our analysis of Sonnet 3.
Discover more about the Bard with these recommended books about Shakespeare, pick up some tips about close reading here, and learn some English literature essay-writing tips here.
It seems to roll off the tongue without a hitch even when you don’t really understand it. I loved the way you coined procreation sonnets. It seems to me Shakespeare may well have supported eugenics by insisting the perfect must procreate. Could it be that Francis Galton got his ideas from the bard. In those days well educated men were brought up on Shakespeare. Poetry need not follow reality and we know that looks are not always inherited.
A great analysis – I’ve always been intrigued to know exactly who these passionate, persuasive verses were trying to convince and why…