A reading of a Shakespeare sonnet
William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 13, beginning ‘O that you were yourself!’, continues the procreation theme established in the previous dozen sonnets. What follows is a short analysis of Sonnet 13 – its language, its meaning, and its imagery.
O that you were your self! but, love, you are
No longer yours, than you your self here live:
Against this coming end you should prepare,
And your sweet semblance to some other give:
So should that beauty which you hold in lease
Find no determination; then you were
Yourself again, after yourself’s decease,
When your sweet issue your sweet form should bear.
Who lets so fair a house fall to decay,
Which husbandry in honour might uphold,
Against the stormy gusts of winter’s day
And barren rage of death’s eternal cold?
O! none but unthrifts. Dear my love, you know,
You had a father: let your son say so.
A brief summary of Sonnet 13 first. Shakespeare starts off by exclaiming to the Fair Youth, if only you were yourself! This seems like a paradox – how can the Youth not be himself? – but Shakespeare elaborates, saying that the Youth is only ‘himself’ as long as he lives, and that isn’t for long. In order to prepare for his own death, the Youth should pass on his ‘sweet semblance’, or likeness, to another – i.e., his child.
In lines 5-8, Shakespeare reminds the Youth that his beauty, which the Youth possesses now, is only ‘leased’ him by nature – and in order to avoid that lease coming to an end (‘determination’, from the Latin terminus meaning ‘end’), the Youth should have a child so that he can be ‘himself’ again even after death, by reliving, as it were, in the form of a son, because his son would inherit the ‘sweet’ looks of his father.
In lines 9-12, the Bard returns to his beloved house metaphor, which we previously encountered in Sonnet 10, and his ‘husbandry’ pun, first used in Sonnet 3. What sort of man, Shakespeare asks rhetorically, lets such a beautiful house fall into ruin, which, if it were maintained, would provide protection against the winter’s cold? Here ‘house’ resonates with a double meaning, as it did in Sonnet 10: the house is both a metaphor for the Youth’s body and a metonymic reference to the family ‘house’ the Youth belongs to. Who would let his family name die out, by refusing to continue the family line? ‘Husbandry’ also carries its double meaning: both becoming a husband (and, by extension, a father) and the management and maintaining of something (though with a specific emphasis on the breeding of animals and livestock, so Shakespeare also hints at breeding, and childbearing, here too). Just as a well-maintained house provides protection against the cold during winter, so having children provides warm comfort in a man’s ‘winter’ years, as he grows old.
In the concluding couplet, Shakespeare answers his own question: none but ‘unthrifts’ behave like this and refuse to have children. (Sonnet 4 began with the word ‘Unthrifty’, while ‘unthrift’ has appeared in Sonnet 9.) An ‘unthrift’ calls to mind someone extravagant who gives no thought for the future and spends all of his money and resources now; he doesn’t consider how he will provide for himself in his old age. Shakespeare then ends by trying to guilt-trip the Youth: he wouldn’t be here now if his father hadn’t sired him, so he should pass on the favour so that his son might say the same thing of him one day.
Sonnet 13 is one of the easiest of the Procreation Sonnets to follow, analyse, and interpret, partly because, if you’re reading the Sonnets in sequence, it borrows from previously used tropes and ideas. Continue to explore Shakespeare’s Sonnets with the 14th sonnet.
Yes, my students become a bit bothered when I tell them the sonnets were actually all about convincing a guy to marry and have a kid of two. In their minds all sonnets are all about wooing ladies.
I’m curious – what was Shakespeare’s preoccupation with procreation? Why did he care so much that the ‘fair youth’ have children?
There are various theories about this. One of the leading ones is that Shakespeare was commissioned to write the first 17 or so sonnets by the Fair Youth’s parents: the theory goes that the young man was headstrong and reluctant to marry, but that he may have admired Shakespeare’s poetry (e.g. Venus and Adonis) and so would be persuaded to give marriage and fatherhood a go if his favourite poet personally told him to do so. But, as with most things about the Sonnets, we cannot say for sure :)
Thanks. That’s very interesting.