A commentary on Shakespeare’s 106th sonnet
‘When in the chronicle of wasted time’ is one of the more famous poems in Shakespeare’s cycle of 154 sonnets. Before we proceed to an analysis of the poem’s features, here’s a reminder of Sonnet 106.
When in the chronicle of wasted time
I see descriptions of the fairest wights,
And beauty making beautiful old rhyme,
In praise of ladies dead and lovely knights,
Then, in the blazon of sweet beauty’s best,
Of hand, of foot, of lip, of eye, of brow,
I see their antique pen would have expressed
Even such a beauty as you master now.
So all their praises are but prophecies
Of this our time, all you prefiguring;
And for they looked but with divining eyes,
They had not skill enough your worth to sing:
For we, which now behold these present days,
Have eyes to wonder, but lack tongues to praise.
Sonnet 106 is another poem addressed to the Fair Youth, whose beauty Shakespeare praises. To paraphrase the meaning of Sonnet 106: ‘When I read descriptions of beautiful people in old books, people whose beauty inspired old poems, praising women who are now dead and handsome knights, I see in such descriptions of these paragons of beauty that the authors would have gladly described your beauty. So all of their praise of others is merely a foreshadowing of your beauty in the present time – yet although they had the wit to predict your arrival, they did not have the skill to describe you. For even we poets who live now at the same time as you can admire your beauty, but we don’t have the skill to put such beauty into adequate words.’
A straightforward poem, this, in terms of its meaning. The effects Shakespeare generates are worthy of analysis, though: ‘wights’ is an odd choice of word perhaps, to describe ‘people’, but since ‘wight’ is an archaic term for ‘person’, it’s appropriate, given that Shakespeare is talking about having his nose in old books of poems at this point. It’s also fitting that the Bard mentions both ‘ladies’ and ‘knights’ (again, calling up a bygone medieval age of chivalry), since the Fair Youth, as Sonnet 20 had shown most clearly, possessed an androgynous beauty, being delicate but also manly, with masculine as well as feminine qualities. ‘Wights’ is similarly an apt word, then, in this context, since it’s a gender-neutral word.
This poem follows hot on the heels of Sonnet 105, in which Shakespeare had offered the blasphemous view that the Fair Youth was like God. In this sonnet, Shakespeare continues this blasphemous line of praise by casting the Fair Youth as a Christ-like figure, with these previous paragons of beauty being John the Baptists who prefigure the Coming of the Saviour. Shakespeare’s point in the concluding couplet is that even though he and his contemporaries are fortunate enough to live at the same time as the Fair Youth, rather than the poets of old who could merely look forward to the arrival of such a beautiful human, they still can’t find the words to do such beauty justice, even though they are able to behold his beauty with their own eyes.
Why ‘wasted time’ in that opening reference to ‘the chronicle of wasted time’? ‘Wasted’ here should be interpreted as meaning ‘consumed’ or ‘spent’: essentially, time that has passed. A ‘blazon’, by the way, is a list of admirable qualities, from the heraldic term (meaning ‘shield’) for a coat of arms.
If you found this analysis of Sonnet 106 useful, you can discover more of Shakespeare’s best sonnets with ‘Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore’, ‘When to the sessions of sweet silent thought’, and ‘Farewell! thou art too dear for my possessing’.
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.