Imagery is probably the feature of language which we most associate with poetry and its use in the sonnet is worth our close attention. In discussing imagery it is useful to distinguish between the tenor (the substance of the message) and the vehicle (the comparison used to convey that message). Thus in Sonnet 8, Shakespeare attempts to convince the young man that he should wed by pointing to the example of harmony in music:
Mark how one string, sweet husband to another.
Strikes each in each by mutual ordering.
Resembling sire, and child and happy mother.
Who all in one, one pleasing note do sing.
The tenor of these lines is that marriage leads not to division but to mutual agreement and satisfaction. The vehicle is the image of musical harmony.
- G M. Ridden
Shakespeare’s sonnets are remarkable for several qualities, such as felicity of expression, profundity of thought. Variety of imagery rich similes and metaphors But they are more popular for the exquisite word-pictures. It may be observed that Shakespeare was endowed with the unique gift of word-painting. Consequently, his imagery used in the sonnets is varied. Realistic and striking. The sonnets are marked with vivid imagery which requires an exclusive study.
The sonnets are rich In Nature-pictures. Shakespeare was a great lover of Nature. Hence the beautiful sights of Nature. Particularly in the month of April, sweet singing of the birds and pleasing fragrance of flowers all these are picturesquely painted by the poet. In Sonnet 98, here is a beautiful Nature-picture:
When proud-pied April, dressed in all his trim,
Hath put a spirit of youth in everything,
That heavy Saturn laughed and leaped with him,
Yet nor the lay of words, nor the sweet smell
Of different flowers in odour and in hue….
The sonnet beginning “Let me not to the marriage of true minds” (116) has some very vivid pictures, like those of the polestar:
O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests and is never-shaken:
It is the star to every wandering bark
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
The imagery in the Sonnet 104 is quite sensuous:
Three winters cold
Have from the forests shook three summers’ pride,
Three beauteous springs to yellow autumn turned
In process of the seasons have I seen,
Three April perfumes in three hot Junes burned,
Since first I saw your fresh, which yet are green.
In some of the Nature pictures, Shakespeare makes use of some very striking similes. In one of the sonnets (7) he wishes to convey that his friend will ultimately grow old. He compares his friend with the sun which attains its greatest power at noon and in the evening it declines and finally sets completely. The picture is thus given:
Lo, in the orient when the gracious light
Lifts up his burning head, each under eye
Oath homage to his new appearing sight,
Serving with looks his sacred majesty:
And having climbed the steep-up heavenly hill.
Resembling strong youth in his middle age……
Shakespeare uses the picture of the ocean to represent the rift with his friend. The picture thus appears in Sonnet 56:
Let this sad interim like the ocean be,
Which parts the shore, where two contracted new
Come daily to the banks, that, when they see
Return of love, more blest may be the view.
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There are many other such pictures used as similes in the sonnets. But the pictures that Shakespeare paints to depict the passage of Time are no less striking. Time is a great killer. Shakespeare illustrates this fact with the help of such phenomena of Nature as the bright day giving place to the dark night or the violet gradually fading. The decaying process of Time works havoc with things by depriving them of their beauty and charm. So says Shakespeare in Sonnet 12:
When I do count the clock that tells the time,
And see the brave day sunk in hideous night;
When I beheld the violet past prime,
And sable curls all silvered over with white
In Sonnet 15. Shakespeare refers to the fact that beauty and perfection stay only for a short while:
That this huge stage presenteth nought but shows
Whereon the stars in secret influence comment:
When I perceive that men as plants increase,
Cheered and checked even by the self same sky,
Vaunt in their youthful sap, at height decrease,
And wear their brave state out of memory.
Thus, Shakespeare gives some very vivid pictures to illustrate the decaying of Time. These pictures are scattered all over the sonnets. Time will not spare anything. Stone monuments, brass memorials. Statues of great men – all are subject to the decay of Time. But the poet’s work (his poems) will shine more brightly in these sonnets. Neither the sword of Mars, nor the destructiveness of war will efface the beauty of these poems:
Nor Mar’s sword nor war’s quick fire shall burn
The living record of your memory.
The last two sonnets give very picturesque description of Cupid and Diana’s maids. Cupid is sleeping In a valley and a group or Diana’s maids by chance arrives their. They try to extinguish Cupid’s torch of love by dipping it in fountain water, But the result is just the opposite. Shakespeare paints the picture thus:
Cupid laid by his brand and fell asleep;
A maid of Diana’s this advantage found,
And his love-kindling fire did quickly steep
In a cold valley fountain of that ground:
Which borrowed from this holy fire of love
A dateless lively heat.
Thus, it is evident that Shakespeare’s sonnets bloom with lively word-pictures. They reveal the poet’s power of minute observation and sharpness of mind which enable him to create the Images to suit the situation and clarify his point. Shakespeare’s Imagery is realistic in character. He draws upon the day-to-day aspects of life to paint his pictures. Weird or supernatural does not find a place in these sonnets. So, the imagery contributes to the realism of sonnets making them more and more life-like in character and spirit.