A reading of a classic Shakespeare sonnet
‘When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defaced’ is one of the more famous sonnets by Shakespeare, and, like Sonnet 60, has a fairly straightforward sentiment at its heart. Also, like Sonnet 60, it is a meditation on the destructive power of Time, which is personified with a capital T once again.
When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defaced
The rich proud cost of outworn buried age;
When sometime lofty towers I see down-razed,
And brass eternal slave to mortal rage;
When I have seen the hungry ocean gain
Advantage on the kingdom of the shore,
And the firm soil win of the watery main,
Increasing store with loss, and loss with store;
When I have seen such interchange of state,
Or state itself confounded to decay;
Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate
That Time will come and take my love away.
This thought is as a death which cannot choose
But weep to have that which it fears to lose.
We’ve enjoyed analysing these sonnets from the middle stretch of Shakespeare’s sonnet sequence, and Sonnet 64 is another gem. In paraphrase, the meaning of the sonnet can be summarised as follows: ‘When I see time destroy those monuments and buildings which I thought would stand forever, when I watch the tide come in and swallow up the shore, when I observe whole kingdoms change in the way they are governed, all of this destruction has taught me to reflect that time will also take the one I love. Such a thought is like suffering a death, and I cannot help weeping to possess someone whom I know I must, in the end, lose.’
As we said at the outset, a straightforward sonnet, but all the better for that: as with Sonnet 60, Shakespeare carefully builds his images of ‘time’s fell hand’ and its destruction, creating a picture of near-apocalyptic terror where even the mighty towers of great civilisations are not safe. In the last analysis, what’s the point of anything if it isn’t going to last? To co-opt a famous thought-experiment, if you knew that one day after you yourself died, everyone else were going to die too, would it be worth writing that novel, or finding that cancer cure? (Well, yes, because there would still be people around now to benefit from your medical breakthrough, and to read your book! But no, in the long run, it does fill us with a sense of futility. We set more store by posterity than we are usually prepared to acknowledge.)
Don Paterson, in his excellent Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets, detects a historic significance to Shakespeare’s talk of ‘interchange of state / Or state itself confounded to decay’: Shakespeare, Paterson points out, was born at a time when it was still possible to feel the rawness of England’s violent change from Catholicism to Protestantism during the reign of King Henry VIII, only a few decades before the Bard was born. The Reformation brought with it the Dissolution of the Monasteries: as Paterson puts it, ‘buildings which looked like they’d survive the sun’s extinguishing could be razed in days’. It’s true that critics have analysed the Sonnets as displaying Shakespeare’s response to the interesting century into which he was born (Empson’s famous reading of the ‘bare ruined choirs’ of Sonnet 73, which we’ll analyse in due course), specifically the Dissolution of the Monasteries, although we would do well to remember that Shakespeare talks in Sonnet 64 of Time’s destruction, and the fact that empires and civilisations will fall into disuse and be subject to the ravages of time, rather than wanton violent destruction by men. Of course, it can mean both.
On a technical note, it’s worth observing that ten out of the fourteen lines of Sonnet 64 end with a long ‘a’ vowel sound: defaced, age, razed, rage, gain, main, state, decay, ruminate, away. This repetition of the same sound underscores the march of time, building a relentlessness to the line endings which is only marginally offset by the break provided by ‘shore’ and ‘store’; it also mimics the gaping incredulity Shakespeare feels when confronted with such devastation. (‘Down razed’ is an inspired piece of phrasing, too, threatening to sound an oxymoron by summoning the homophonic ‘raised’, which carries almost the precise opposite meaning.) Stephen Booth, in his Shakespeare’s Sonnets, detects numerous words with a sexual double meaning in this sonnet, though we have to say we didn’t read it that way (for once).
If you found this analysis of Sonnet 64 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 in the chronicle of wasted time’.
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.