A reading of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 15
‘When I consider every thing that grows’: so begins William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 15, another example of the Bard’s ‘Procreation Sonnets’ addressed to the Fair Youth. In this post we offer a brief summary and analysis of Sonnet 15, focusing on the poem’s language, imagery, and overall meaning.
When I consider every thing that grows
Holds in perfection but a little moment,
That this huge stage presenteth nought but shows
Whereon the stars in secret influence comment;
When I perceive that men as plants increase,
Cheered and checked even by the self-same sky,
Vaunt in their youthful sap, at height decrease,
And wear their brave state out of memory;
Then the conceit of this inconstant stay
Sets you most rich in youth before my sight,
Where wasteful Time debateth with decay
To change your day of youth to sullied night,
And all in war with Time for love of you,
As he takes from you, I engraft you new.
As ever, we’ll begin by offering a short summary of Sonnet 15. Shakespeare begins by contemplating all living things which grow and are perfect for only a brief time, before they start decaying or ageing. He then likens the world to a ‘stage’ and our lives mere ‘shows’ or performances, which have a brief duration. (The implication is also that our lives are fake shams, just as stage shows are illusion.) The stars, unbeknownst to us, decide our fates – this reference to stars continuing the astrological metaphor introduced in the previous sonnet.
In lines 5-8, Shakespeare likens men to plants – both ‘things that grow’. Men, too, grow stronger thanks to the sky, or good weather (sunlight, rain – which influence whether that year’s crops are good or not, for instance) but men’s development can also be harmed or halted (‘checked’) by bad weather (leading to bad crops?), just as the same (or ‘self-same’) sky influences the growth or withering of plants. Both men and plants ‘[v]aunt in their youthful sap’, i.e. bask and grow strong and confident when their ‘blood’ is young. But when they have fully grown, they will more or less immediately begin to ‘decrease’, or decline, until the world cannot remember how they were in their prime.
In lines 9-12, Shakespeare says that considering how short life is, the Youth’s current prime is even more ‘rich’ to behold, and should be treasured; while Time and Decay (personified a bit like Death as the Grim Reaper) discuss and bicker over how best to bring about the Fair Youth’s decline into old age and death.
Shakespeare concludes by saying that the whole world, for love of the Youth, are at war with Time (that seeks to bring about the Youth’s destruction), and as Time seeks to take the Youth’s beauty and strength away from him, Shakespeare seeks to ‘engraft’ the Youth anew, i.e. graft a new piece of wood onto an old root to create a new tree (continuing the man = plants and other living things idea from earlier in the sonnet). The idea of engrafting also suggests scratching words on a page (graphos is the Greek for ‘to write’), suggesting – much as many of the later Sonnets will do – that Shakespeare is seeking to immortalise the Fair Youth through writing these Sonnets to his beauty.
That, in summary, is the ‘argument’ of Sonnet 15, but several questions suggest themselves which prompt closer analysis of the poem. The word ‘increase’ in line 5 takes us back to the very first line of the very first sonnet: ‘From fairest creatures we desire increase’. ‘Increase’ carries a double meaning in Sonnet 15, referring both to the individual’s growth and the act of multiplying or leaving offspring. The fact that Shakespeare rhymes ‘increase’ with its antonym ‘decrease’ points up the cycle of growth and decay, just as ‘sight’ and ‘night’ are put in pointed opposition.
In short, Sonnet 15 represents something of a development in the Sonnets, because it introduces the idea of Shakespeare immortalising the Fair Youth in poetry. This is something we will see again in later Sonnets, where it warrants closer analysis. We continue our analysis of the Sonnets with the 16th sonnet.