A reading of a Shakespeare sonnet
We are getting into very different territory from that in which the Sonnets began, way back in that opening sonnet. ‘My glass shall not persuade me I am old’ is a world away from ‘From fairest creatures we desire increase’ in terms of its depth of feeling for the addressee. Here we’re going to analyse Shakespeare’s Sonnet 22 in terms of its language and meaning.
My glass shall not persuade me I am old,
So long as youth and thou are of one date;
But when in thee time’s furrows I behold,
Then look I death my days should expiate.
For all that beauty that doth cover thee,
Is but the seemly raiment of my heart,
Which in thy breast doth live, as thine in me:
How can I then be elder than thou art?
O! therefore, love, be of thyself so wary
As I, not for myself, but for thee will;
Bearing thy heart, which I will keep so chary
As tender nurse her babe from faring ill.
Presume not on thy heart when mine is slain,
Thou gav’st me thine not to give back again.
In summary, Sonnet 22 sees Shakespeare declaring that as long as the Youth remains young, so does he, the poet, too. He says that his ‘glass’ (i.e. his looking-glass or mirror) will not reveal an ageing face to him, as long as the Fair Youth is young; as soon as the day comes when the Youth has aged – and his face shows it – Shakespeare will long for death to ‘expiate’ or make amends for his own old age and decrepitude.
Shakespeare follows this up in the second quatrain (lines 5-8) by saying that all of the Fair Youth’s beauty is the ‘raiment’ or clothing covering the poet’s heart. What does he mean here? It’s as if the poet’s heart is made more ‘seemly’ or beautiful by the fact that he, Shakespeare, loves someone as beautiful as the Fair Youth. The whole heart-business is about to get far more complicated: Shakespeare states that his heart lives in the Youth’s breast, just as the Youth’s heart is in Shakespeare’s chest – this is a variation on the lovers’ exchange of hearts we see in Sir Philip Sidney’s ‘My true love hath my heart, and I have his’ (as many writers on Sonnet 22 have observed). How can Shakespeare be older than the Youth since they are, to all intents and purposes, equals in terms of love and affection, and the Bard feeds off his beloved’s beauty and youth?
In lines 9-12, Shakespeare cautions the Youth – whom he now addresses as ‘love’ – to look after himself, just as Shakespeare will endeavour to look after himself, for the Youth’s sake; Shakespeare then promises to keep the Youth’s heart safe, like a gentle and kind nurse watching over the baby in her care.
As Don Paterson remarks in his reading of Sonnet 22 in Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets: A New Commentary, the concluding couplet to this sonnet is unusual in that, rather than being a ‘redundant coda’ it’s ‘a catastrophe in its own right’. It comes as something of a warning: don’t think you can survive with your heart in one piece if my heart is broken; because we’ve already exchanged hearts as love-tokens, if my heart breaks, yours will too. In essence, the whole heart-as-love-token thing is carried to such an extreme that this poem almost becomes about human heart transplants rather than about love.
Yet it’s expressed exquisitely, and the extended metaphor of conceit is cleverly and deftly handled. The echoes of certain key words is also a nice touch: for instance, note in that third quatrain how ‘wary’ rhymes with ‘chary’, which essentially carry the same meaning, while ‘Bearing’ and ‘faring’ also internally echo these end-rhymes, suggesting the care that needs to be taken with each other’s heart. Shakespeare comes across as the older and more insecure one in the relationship (if we may so use the word): ‘the more loving one’, in W. H. Auden’s phrase. Yet there is a bite to that final couplet, a veiled threat, which gives the poem a sting in its tail.
As we’ve endeavoured to highlight in this short analysis, Sonnet 22 may begin ‘My glass shall not persuade me I am old’ but it ends in slightly different and new territory, territory which will be further explored as the drama of the Bard’s love for the Fair Youth is played out in the ensuing Sonnets.
Continue to explore the Sonnets with our short summary and analysis of Sonnet 23.