A critical reading of a Shakespeare sonnet
Shakespeare’s Sonnet 6, which begins ‘Then let not winter’s ragged hand deface / In thee thy summer’, is not the most famous of the 154 Sonnets Shakespeare wrote. And yet it develops the theme of procreation – seen in the first 17 poems in the sequence – in interesting ways. Here is Sonnet 6, along with a brief analysis of its language and a summary of its argument.
Then let not winter’s ragged hand deface,
In thee thy summer, ere thou be distilled:
Make sweet some vial; treasure thou some place
With beauty’s treasure ere it be self-killed.
That use is not forbidden usury,
Which happies those that pay the willing loan;
That’s for thy self to breed another thee,
Or ten times happier, be it ten for one;
Ten times thy self were happier than thou art,
If ten of thine ten times refigured thee:
Then what could death do if thou shouldst depart,
Leaving thee living in posterity?
Be not self-willed, for thou art much too fair
To be death’s conquest and make worms thine heir.
In summary, and as that opening word ‘Then’ suggests, Sonnet 6 sees Shakespeare developing the metaphor of ‘distillation’ (of flowers into perfume) which he’d introduced in the previous sonnet, although with its reference to ‘usury’ or moneylending he also looks back to Sonnet 4, which addresses the Fair Youth as a ‘Profitless usurer’.
Shakespeare’s argument is as follows, in paraphrase: he implores the Youth not to let old age overtake and destroy the beauty of his prime, which he now enjoys, until the Youth has ‘distilled’ himself through having children (who will preserve his beauty for future generations, much as a distilled perfume preserves the scent of the flower even after the flower itself has withered). The Fair Youth is told to make a ‘vial’ that will contain his beauty – i.e. an heir. The following phrase, ‘treasure thou some place / With beauty’s treasure’ seems to hint at the process of conception itself: honour a woman’s womb, Shakespeare’s treasured metaphor suggests, with your treasure, i.e. your seed, which will preserve your beauty through creating a child that will keep that beauty alive. Do this, Shakespeare entreats, before you kill your own beauty by letting it pass unused and it is too late for you to sire any children.
In the second quatrain, lines 5-8, Shakespeare reintroduces the financial language first seen in Sonnet 4: such a use of your beauty is not forbidden (extortionate moneylending was considered unchristian at the time), not least because the borrowers of your beauty – both the mother of your children, and the children themselves – are made happy by the loan (a rare use of ‘happies’ as a verb here). It’s for a good cause – breeding another copy of yourself – or, if you should have ten children, it would make them ten times happier.
In the third quatrain, lines 9-12, Shakespeare continues this idea of multiplication tenfold: imagine if you have ten children, and then each of those children was to have ten children! Your beauty would be multiplied a hundredfold. Death would be left pretty powerless then: he could take you, of course, but you would be left ‘living in posterity’ through all of your children, and, in time, your children’s children. (Note: such rampant breeding is not advised in our own overcrowded times.)
Shakespeare’s concluding couplet then analyses the situation, summarising his argument by urging the Fair Youth not to be stubborn, because he is far too beautiful to let death win, and to end up with the worms that feed on him in the grave as his only heir or beneficiary. (Note in this concluding couplet how ‘self-willed’ in that penultimate line echoes and recasts the earlier phrase ‘self-killed’: being stubborn is subtly aligned with self-destruction.)
Sonnet 6 is an easier one of Shakespeare’s Sonnets to analyse in some ways, because several of the metaphors had already been introduced in the earlier sonnets. And whilst ‘Then let not winter’s ragged hand deface’ may not be an opening line that has lodged in the public memory in the same way as ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’, the sonnet advances the Bard’s argument in a striking and effective way. Who wants to consider the worms in the grave their sole heir?
Continue to explore Shakespeare’s Sonnets with our discussion of sonnet 7.
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I just might launch this on my AP students to find the claim, evidence, and then explain the persuasive argument Shakespeare presents.
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