A critical reading of a Shakespeare sonnet
Shakespeare’s Sonnet 7 uses the image of the sun rising and then falling in the sky as a metaphor for the Fair Youth’s own life, beginning ‘Lo, in the orient when the gracious light / Lifts up his burning head’ in reference to the sunrise. Below is Sonnet 7, along with our analysis of the poem’s meaning and imagery, and a brief paraphrase and summary of it.
Lo, in the orient when the gracious light
Lifts up his burning head, each under eye
Doth homage to his new-appearing sight,
Serving with looks his sacred majesty;
And having climbed the steep-up heavenly hill,
Resembling strong youth in his middle age,
Yet mortal looks adore his beauty still,
Attending on his golden pilgrimage:
But when from highmost pitch, with weary car,
Like feeble age, he reeleth from the day,
The eyes, ‘fore duteous, now converted are
From his low tract, and look another way:
So thou, thyself outgoing in thy noon
Unlooked on diest unless thou get a son.
In summary, when the sun rises in the east of a morning, everyone living under it (‘each under eye’) pays homage to this blazing eye in the sky by looking up and admiring it. The sun is described in regal terms – ‘gracious’, ‘majesty’ – but also holy ones (‘sacred’).
Even when the sun is at its highest point, at noon, and is technically then in what we might call its ‘middle age’, people still admire it for its beauty. The phrase ‘golden pilgrimage’ reinforces the religious connotations of the sun in the ‘heavenly’ sky’. The implication to all this, of course, is that the Fair Youth, even if he leaves it to early middle age to marry and have a son, will still find many women to admire (and marry) him then.
But when the sun begins to set and is on its way down, like a man crawling towards ‘feeble [old] age’, those admirers, which were loyal to him until now, start to look elsewhere for things to admire. The implication here is that if the Fair Youth leaves it until he’s past his prime to choose a wife and have children, he may find it difficult to attract a mate, as he’ll have lost his youthful strength and beauty.
Shakespeare concludes by saying to the Fair Youth: similarly, if you leave it until your beauty is on the wane, no one will be there to love and admire you when you grow old and die – unless, of course, you marry and have a son.
In some ways, of course, the analogy is vaguely silly: people don’t look at the sun when it’s high in the sky at noon, at least not directly, and not if they have any sense (or unless they’re Isaac Newton). That’s a sure way to go blind. People are far more likely to look at the sun when it’s setting in the sky, as it’s safer to do so. But it’s easy to interpret the gist of Shakespeare’s meaning, and the comparison between the path of the sun and the Fair Youth’s life does at least implicitly suggest that his life is short – not literally as short as one day in the life of the sun, but briefer than he, as a young man, may realise.
Sonnet 7 is about the trajectory of the sun, but this word never appears in the sonnet, with Shakespeare instead using the word ‘light’ to describe it. This makes the appearance of the homophone ‘son’ right at the end of the sonnet all the more powerful, as if the word has suddenly been released, in punning form, like a blaze of light. It is this withholding of the very word that is the theme of the sonnet until the end of the poem, when it is release in punning splendour, that makes this a technically accomplished poem.
So much for our brief summary and analysis of Sonnet 7, which is by no means Shakespeare’s best-known sonnet. What do you think of it? There are ten more of these ‘Procreation Sonnets’ to come, so it’ll be interesting to see what the Bard does in terms of new analogies and subjects.
Continue to explore the early Sonnets with our analysis of Shakespeare’s eighth sonnet.