A reading of a classic Shakespeare sonnet
Widely regarded as one of the finest of all the Sonnets, Sonnet 60, beginning ‘Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore, / So do our minutes hasten to their end’, is a meditation on mortality, with Shakespeare once again proposing that his poetry about the Fair Youth will secure the young man’s immortality. The language and imagery, which lend themselves to close analysis in particular here, are triumphs.
Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore,
So do our minutes hasten to their end;
Each changing place with that which goes before,
In sequent toil all forwards do contend.
Nativity, once in the main of light,
Crawls to maturity, wherewith being crown’d,
Crooked eclipses ’gainst his glory fight,
And Time that gave doth now his gift confound.
Time doth transfix the flourish set on youth
And delves the parallels in beauty’s brow,
Feeds on the rarities of nature’s truth,
And nothing stands but for his scythe to mow:
And yet to times in hope, my verse shall stand
Praising thy worth, despite his cruel hand.
First, as is customary, a brief paraphrase of the poem’s meaning: ‘Just as the tide comes in and covers up the pebbles on the shore, our lives are relentlessly heading towards death. Each minute replaces the previous one, in a linear sequence, forever moving forward. Our births, which were once new as in full daylight, now give way towards our maturity, and as soon as we are “crowned” with middle age our lives begin to darken with the onset of old age and death, as Time, which gave us life, now threatens to take it away again. Time sets our youthful looks in place, carving wrinkles in our beautiful brows, and feeds on the genuine wonders of our beauty, and everything exists for Time, like Death, to mow down with his scythe. And yet my verse will stand the test of time, and will survive into the future (“times in hope”) to praise your beauty, despite Time’s cruel hand wanting to destroy my poems too.’
Sonnet 60 is one of those sonnets which contains a simple message or core meaning – that we are all going to die – but it’s rightly praised as a tour de force because of the deft way in which Shakespeare’s images work together. As Don Paterson notes in his wonderfully stimulating commentary, Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets, ‘main’ in ‘main of light’ (l. 5) suggests the alternative word for the sea, and thus recalls the ‘waves’ with which Shakespeare began the sonnet. Paterson also notes how ‘Crooked eclipses’ (l. 7) suggests not only malignancy (much as we talk of corrupt criminals being crooked) but also the crooked shape of the body in old age.
In addition, though, we might also observe the clever way that the word ‘Time’ – proudly personified throughout Sonnet 60, and mentioned twice in ll. 8-9 – shrinks to the more everyday ‘times’ in the concluding couplet, at the precise moment where the argument of the sonnet ‘turns’ and Shakespeare offers a corrective to Time’s ‘cruel hand’: his own poetry. Similarly, the repetition of ‘stand’ in two successive lines in ll. 12-13 (‘nothing stands’ … ‘my verse shall stand’) counters the idea that everything exists to be mown down by Time, who appears as Father Time (a personification of time, and usually depicted as an old man) but wordlessly merges with Death (the Grim Reaper with his scythe). Poetry cannot be killed so easily: only the poet’s mortal body.
With this in mind, it’s tempting to speculate that Shakespeare may also have been playing on the etymology of the word ‘verse’, in the Latin versus for ‘turn’, and specifically, the turn of the plough – given the agricultural flavour to the earlier imagery (Time mowing with his scythe, and the way he ‘delves the parallels’, or furrows, in ‘beauty’s brow’), this is another part of the poem’s final couplet which may be intended to compliment, and oppose, the images found earlier in the poem.
If you found this analysis of Sonnet 60 useful, you can discover more about the Sonnets here.