A reading of a Shakespeare sonnet
‘When I do count the clock that tells the time’: so begins one of the more famous ‘Procreation Sonnets’, the suite of 17 sonnets that begin Shakespeare’s cycle of poems to the Fair Youth. But how should we analysis Sonnet 12? Below are some notes towards an analysis of this poem.
When I do count the clock that tells the time,
And see the brave day sunk in hideous night;
When I behold the violet past prime,
And sable curls, all silvered o’er with white;
When lofty trees I see barren of leaves,
Which erst from heat did canopy the herd,
And summer’s green all girded up in sheaves,
Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard,
Then of thy beauty do I question make,
That thou among the wastes of time must go,
Since sweets and beauties do themselves forsake
And die as fast as they see others grow;
And nothing ‘gainst Time’s scythe can make defence
Save breed, to brave him when he takes thee hence.
First, a brief summary of Sonnet 12: Shakespeare presents a series of images suggesting the passing of time and the ageing and decaying of living things. Observing how everything decays and dies, Shakespeare begins to question the Fair Youth’s beauty, which he has been praising till now: even the Youth, young as he is now, will grow old and die. And the only thing that can ‘defend’ us from this inevitable process is breeding, so that as we grow old we can be content that we left behind something that will outlast us.
The first four lines of Sonnet 12 introduce the poem’s theme: the passing of time. Shakespeare ‘count[s] the clock that tells the time’, and observes the sun (‘brave day’) sinking below the horizon, giving way to the ‘hideous’ night. He sees violets withering and ‘past [their] prime’ and the black hair of men (or women) in their prime turn to white as a result of the ageing process.
Lines 5-8 continue this succession of images: tall and mighty trees without leaves in the autumn which, when they had leaves, could provide shelter from the sun or rain for the animals in the wood; and the once-green grasses of summer which have been gathered up into hay bundles, and have turned white where they have been harvested and stacked up (a ‘bier’ is a sort of mobile table used at funerals for conveying dead bodies, and so the grasses are implicitly associated with human life). These two images cleverly continue the images offered in the first quatrain, but also add something: the images being offered to us are now hinting at associations with bearing and raising children, even though the Bard is talking about trees and grass. Note how he focuses on the way the trees, when they were in the prime of summer, used their leaves to provide a shelter or ‘canopy’ for the animals under their leaves (under their care, like symbolic children?); and look at how he focuses on the grass which has been cut and bundled up for the harvest, a time when fruit and crops are ripe for picking, suggesting ideas of fertility, which are designed to call to mind the Fair Youth’s own prime and his fitness to produce children.
In lines 9-12, Shakespeare makes this association explicit: all of these images of things once in their prime now growing old prompts him to consider and analyse the Youth’s own mortality. He, too, will lose his beauty and grow old. Note how Shakespeare uses the phrase ‘the wastes of time’, with ‘wastes’ not only suggesting a desolate (i.e. infertile) land but also hinting at the ‘waste’ of a life if it is not used to create new life through bearing offspring. Sweet and beautiful things, Shakespeare says, ‘forsake’ themselves, give themselves up to the ravages of time, and die as quickly as new things grow to replace them. Again, Shakespeare is hinting here that the natural order demands that men, including the Youth, should sire children to replace them when they themselves decay and perish.
In the concluding couplet, Shakespeare says that nothing can offer protection against time and death – both Time and Death, of course, often being personified with a scythe, with Death as the Grim Reaper – except having children, since this can help you to ‘brave’ or face Time (or Death) when he comes to take you. At least you can rest assured, as you wither and die, that you have done as nature expected and that you will live on through your offspring.
One final word of analysis of Sonnet 12: that word ‘brave’, used in the last line, returns us to the ‘brave day’ in the second line of the sonnet. It implicitly suggests that, although putting on a brave face when confronted with Death won’t save you from him, any more than the ‘day’ or sun was kept in the sky when night came on, you will, in a sense, ‘rise again’ as the sun does, through your children. (It’s probably going too far to suggest there’s a buried pun on sun/son going on here, though it has been suggested that we find such wordplay later in Shakespeare’s Sonnets.)
Sonnet 12 is a great poem to analyse, because it provides a series of images, beginning with Shakespeare counting ‘the clock that tells the time’, which gradually and subtly move towards suggestions of breeding as a way to defy time’s destructiveness, until this solution is explicitly offered in the poem’s final line.
Continue to explore Shakespeare’s sonnets with Sonnet 13, or if you’re getting tired of the procreation motif, we advise rushing ahead to the classic that is Sonnet 18. Alternatively, check out our pick of the 10 greatest Shakespeare plays and our rundown of the commonest misconceptions about the Bard.
If you’re studying Shakespeare’s sonnets and looking for a detailed and helpful guide to the poems, we recommend Stephen Booth’s hugely informative edition, Shakespeare’s Sonnets (Yale Nota Bene). It includes all 154 sonnets, a facsimile of the original 1609 edition, and helpful line-by-line notes on the poems.