A summary of a Shakespeare sonnet
Sonnet 19 has a hard act to follow in the sequence of 154 poems that comprise Shakespeare’s Sonnets, as it is usually organised. What follows is a brief summary and analysis of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 19 in terms of the poem’s language, meaning, and themes.
Devouring Time, blunt thou the lion’s paws,
And make the earth devour her own sweet brood;
Pluck the keen teeth from the fierce tiger’s jaws,
And burn the long-lived phoenix in her blood;
Make glad and sorry seasons as thou fleet’st,
And do whate’er thou wilt, swift-footed Time,
To the wide world and all her fading sweets;
But I forbid thee one most heinous crime:
O! carve not with thy hours my love’s fair brow,
Nor draw no lines there with thine antique pen;
Him in thy course untainted do allow
For beauty’s pattern to succeeding men.
Yet, do thy worst old Time: despite thy wrong,
My love shall in my verse ever live young.
In summary, Shakespeare begins Sonnet 19 by considering how time (personified as Time, as in several of the earlier Sonnets) destroys both the mighty and the mild, the strong and the gentle: the lion’s paws are blunted by time, as are the tiger’s jaws, and the earth which gives life to every living thing ends up devouring every creature (because we and other land animals end up in the ground, rotting into the earth). Even the phoenix – the mythical bird that was supposed to live forever, as it rose from its own ashes to live again – will be devoured, in the end, by time. Here we have a view of time not unlike the ‘cormorant devouring time’ described at the beginning of Love’s Labour’s Lost.
In lines 5-8, Shakespeare tells Time to do as it wants – but he urges it not to commit one particularly ‘heinous crime’. We have to wait until the third quatrain, beginning at line 9, to find out what ‘crime’ Shakespeare wants Time to refrain from committing.
In line 9, we find out: Shakespeare asks Time to refrain from carving the Fair Youth’s brow with its ‘hours’: i.e. not to let the young man’s youthful features give way to wrinkles and other signs of age. He then asks, in line 10, that Time ‘draw no lines there with thine antique pen’. This essentially rephrases what the previous line had said, but Shakespeare’s use of the word ‘lines’ – which he had previously used in several of the Sonnets to refer to his own ‘lines’ of verse – gives the word a loaded meaning here. It is as if Shakespeare, the writer of lines, is in a battle with Time, the etcher or drawer of lines, as to who can win out – and whoever wins will determine whether or not the Fair Youth will ever age and die or not. (If Shakespeare wins, although the Youth will physically wither and die, his youth and beauty will be forever preserved in Shakespeare’s poems.)
Lines 11-12 then continue this entreaty, with Shakespeare asking Time to leave the Fair Youth alone as it continues on its course – allow the Youth, Shakespeare urges, to remain so he may serve as a template or guide for future generations.
The concluding couplet is unusual in that it doesn’t simply wrap up the preceding argument made in the rest of the sonnet: it overturns it. You know what, Shakespeare says: forget it. Do what you want. The Youth will remain forever young in Shakespeare’s verse, which will serve to ‘immortalise’ him.
How should we analyse Sonnet 19? One of the first things to say about this poem is that it’s the first sonnet in the sequence (as it is usually ordered) that is not addressed to the Fair Youth: instead, Shakespeare addresses Time, and refers to the Fair Youth as ‘my love’. Shakespeare appears, by this stage, to have fallen for the Fair Youth and not to be above saying so. There’s a deeper intensity to his attachment here: if we want to read the Sonnets as a narrative sequence (of sorts), telling a developing story, then Shakespeare has abandoned the idea of trying to persuade the Fair Youth to marry a woman and have children, perhaps because he’s now realised he wants the Youth all for himself.
Sonnet 19 represents a clear watershed in the Sonnets, and Shakespeare’s praise of the Fair Youth appears to have blossomed into something more personal and deeply felt. Yet the technical artistry is still paramount, and analysing Sonnet 19 can prove great fun, especially in that sudden twist in the final couplet.
If you found this analysis of Sonnet 19 useful, we continue our analysis of Shakespeare’s Sonnets with a real corker: Sonnet 20. Or 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’.
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.
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Once again Shakespeare leans on the conceit of how his words win in the end. It’s surprising that this sonnet doesn’t receive more attention as it is clever and as poignant as 18.