A reading of Shakespeare’s sonnet 14
William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 14 is another ‘Procreation Sonnet’, which urges the Fair Youth, the addressee of the early Sonnets, to marry and sire an heir. What follows is a short summary and analysis of Sonnet 14, which takes astrology as its (rejected) trope, and begins with the line ‘Not from the stars do I my judgement pluck’. Let’s go star-gazing with the Bard…
Not from the stars do I my judgement pluck;
And yet methinks I have Astronomy,
But not to tell of good or evil luck,
Of plagues, of dearths, or seasons’ quality;
Nor can I fortune to brief minutes tell,
Pointing to each his thunder, rain and wind,
Or say with princes if it shall go well
By oft predict that I in heaven find:
But from thine eyes my knowledge I derive,
And, constant stars, in them I read such art
As truth and beauty shall together thrive,
If from thyself, to store thou wouldst convert;
Or else of thee this I prognosticate:
Thy end is truth’s and beauty’s doom and date.
In summary, Sonnet 14 sees Shakespeare rejecting the idea of ‘Astronomy’ (which in Shakespeare’s time was still used more or less interchangeably with ‘astrology’, or divining the future by the stars) as a way of making predictions about the future concerning such things as plagues or famines (‘dearths’ – but only one letter away from out-and-out death) or whether the harvests will be good.
In lines 5-8, Shakespeare goes on to admit that he cannot predict anyone’s fortune with accuracy (to the nearest minute), pointing out the bad omens (symbolised by bad weather) that bode ill for their futures. Nor can he predict the fate of whole kingdoms by frequently looked at the sky or ‘heaven’ and interpreting what he finds there.
In lines 9-12, Shakespeare introduces a volta or ‘turn’, more associated with Italian sonnets at this point in the sonnet than with English sonnets, where the turn normally waits until the final couplet. But by opening the new sentence with the word ‘But’, Shakespeare indicates that his argument is changing direction: although I may not be able to predict any man’s fortune by observing the real stars in the sky, I can prophesy the future by looking into the ‘stars’ that are the Fair Youth’s eyes. And what Shakespeare finds is truth and beauty coexisting in some future state – but only if the Fair Youth has a child, converting himself into ‘store’, i.e. shoring his beauty up for future generations.
Shakespeare concludes his argument, in the final couplet, by saying that if the Fair Youth does not ‘store’ himself up by having a child, the Bard can foretell (or ‘prognosticate’) the death of truth and beauty, which will perish when the Fair Youth lets his family line die out.
Sonnet 14 is one of the more challenging Sonnets in terms of its syntactical construction. That eighth line, for instance, ‘By oft predict that I in heaven find’, could mean ‘by frequent prediction of what I find in heaven’, but sometimes ‘oft’ has been emended to ‘aught’, meaning ‘anything’, so the line’s meaning could be analysed as ‘nor can I predict anything from what I observe in heaven’.
Sonnet 14 introduces astrological language and imagery that we’ll also encounter later in Shakespeare’s Sonnets, but here the Bard’s argument boils down to the idea of divining the doom of beauty if the Fair Youth doesn’t procreate. Which, to say the least, puts quite a lot of responsibility on the young man’s shoulders…
If you found this analysis of Sonnet 14 useful, you can discover more of Shakespeare’s best sonnets with our analysis of the 15th sonnet, or with ‘That time of year thou mayst in me behold’, ‘Let me not to the marriage of true minds’, and ‘When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defaced’.
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.