A reading of a Shakespeare sonnet
Sonnet 17 is the last of the ‘Procreation Sonnets’, the series of poems with which the cycle of Sonnets begins, which see William Shakespeare trying to persuade the addressee of the Sonnets, the Fair Youth, to sire an heir. What follows is a brief summary and analysis of Sonnet 17 in terms of its language, meaning, and themes.
Who will believe my verse in time to come,
If it were filled with your most high deserts?
Though yet heaven knows it is but as a tomb
Which hides your life, and shows not half your parts.
If I could write the beauty of your eyes,
And in fresh numbers number all your graces,
The age to come would say ‘This poet lies;
Such heavenly touches ne’er touched earthly faces.’
So should my papers, yellowed with their age,
Be scorned, like old men of less truth than tongue,
And your true rights be termed a poet’s rage
And stretched metre of an antique song:
But were some child of yours alive that time,
You should live twice, in it, and in my rhyme.
Sonnet 16 continued, or began by answering, the claims made in the previous sonnet, and the same is true of Sonnet 17, whose opening line, ‘Who will believe my verse in time to come’, takes us back to the Bard’s ‘barren rime’ referred to in Sonnet 16.
In summary, then, Shakespeare starts by asking who will believe his claims about the Youth’s beauty in the future, even though he, Shakespeare, is merely giving credit where it’s due? The Fair Youth really is as fair as Shakespeare describes him, but few readers would believe it. So Shakespeare’s poems praising the Youth will be like a tomb – which hides the body away from the world – and keeps many of his best qualities hidden, because poetry cannot truly capture the Youth’s beauty.
In lines 5-8, Shakespeare says that if he could capture in writing the Youth’s beautiful eyes, and in ‘fresh numbers’ (i.e. new, exciting poetry) list all of the Youth’s fine qualities, future generations reading the Bard’s verses would accuse him of lying and say that nobody is as beautiful as the young man described in Shakespeare’s (exaggerated) poetry.
In lines 9-12, Shakespeare says that because future readers would think that he was lying, his poetry would lie forgotten and unread, like old men who gabble all the time but make up tall stories and can’t be trusted to tell the truth. The Fair Youth’s beauty, which deserves to be honoured, would be dismissed as mere fabrication of Shakespeare’s fevered imagination, his ‘poet’s rage’, with the Bard making the Fair Youth’s (actual) beauty stretch much further than it really does, by exaggerating it.
In the concluding couplet, Shakespeare returns to the whole point of these early Sonnets: if you, the Fair Youth, were to have a child, you would in fact live again twice: once in the form of your child who would inherit your manners and looks, and again in these poems that I, Shakespeare, have written to praise you. The implication is that, if the Youth’s own son were around, then people wouldn’t be able to dismiss Shakespeare’s poetry as over-the-top – they would see that the praise he heaped upon the Youth’s beauty was justified and accurate, because they would be able to behold for themselves the proof of such beauty, in the Youth’s son. Clever, eh?
Although, it needn’t be a son: Shakespeare uses ‘it’ to describe the Youth’s hypothetical child (‘in it’), revealing that it doesn’t actually matter whether he sires on a son or a daughter. The main thing is to procreate.
Sonnet 17 is the last of the Procreation Sonnets; in the next sonnet, Shakespeare will begin to praise the Youth’s beauty for its own sake, and start viewing his own poetry as a fit monument to the young man. Did he give up, or did the Youth give in? It’s difficult to tell. But analysing Sonnet 17, and the other Procreation Sonnets, brings home just how much Shakespeare got out of relatively little: he riffed extensively on a simple idea, and now he washes his hands of it.
Continue to explore Shakespeare’s Sonnets with our summary of the most famous sonnet of them all. If you found this analysis of Sonnet 30 useful, you can discover more of Shakespeare’s best sonnets 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’.
And 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.
Loved the analysis.
Shakespearean sonnets are like an amalgamation of all topics that can be thought ever. Waiting for the analysis of sonnet 18, 94 and the most remarkable one – 116 (ideal love) :D
Thank you! I agree – everything is in them, somewhere, and the same is true of the plays, I think. Sonnet 18 is nearly ready to go and I’m looking forward to tackling 94 especially (one of my favourites) :)
Sonnet 94, especially, the ending couplet- “For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.” (Amazing 😃)
Sends a shiver down the spine, that. That’s what’s so marvellous about the best of the Sonnets – everything is so well put :)
I wouldn’t mind seeing a painting of the ‘fair youth’, just to see how fair he actually was.
If the Fair Youth was the Earl of Southampton (probably the leading candidate for a real-life model), I’ll see if a picture of him is available for reuse here!
Thank you. Then I can see if he was worth all the fuss.
The Procreation sonnets are among the strongest circumstantial evidence leading to Edward deVere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, as the true author of the sonnets. #1 reason for this is that the “fair youth”, the 3rd Earl of Southampton, was tentatively engaged to Oxford’s daughter. This allows for common sense to come into play, as the elderly Earl, “besmirched by time” is attempting to bring the young earl into his family, more by beguiling poetry than any hope for money, as the Earl had squandered his money on acting troupes, literary projects, high living, a grand tour of Italy, and bad investments. There is NO plausible reason why a commoner would be writing poetry to a member of the peerage in support of him having children, which would have been a serious and perhaps fatal breach of social protocol at the time.
What about if he were paid to do so? That seems plausible.