Short Analysis of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 19

In summary, Shakespeare begins Sonnet 19 by considering how time (personified as Time, as in several of the earlier Sonnets) destroys both the mighty and the mild, the strong and the gentle: the lion’s paws are blunted by time, as are the tiger’s jaws, and the earth which gives life to every living thing ends up devouring every creature (because we and other land animals end up in the ground, rotting into the earth). Even the phoenix-the mythical bird that was supposed to live forever, as it rose from its own ashes to live again will be devoured, in the end, by time. Here we have a view of time not unlike the “cormorant devouring time’ described at the beginning of Love’s Labour’s Lost.

In lines 5-8, Shakespeare tells Time to do as it wants-but he urges it not to commit one particularly ‘heinous crime’. We have to wait until the third quatrain, beginning at line 9, to find out what ‘crime’ Shakespeare wants Time to refrain from committing.

In line 9, we find out: Shakespeare asks Time to refrain from carving the Fair Youth’s brow with its ‘hours’: i.e. not to let the young man’s youthful features give way to wrinkles and other signs of age. He then asks, in line 10, that Time ‘draw no lines there with thine antique pen’. This essentially rephrases what the previous line had said, but Shakespeare’s use of the word ‘lines’ – which he had previously used in several of the Sonnets to refer to his own ‘lines of verse gives the word a loaded meaning here. It is as if Shakespeare, the writer of lines, is in a battle with Time, the etcher or drawer of lines, as to who can win out- and whoever wins will determine whether or not the Fair Youth will ever age and die or not. (If Shakespeare wins, although the Youth will physically wither and die, his youth and beauty will be forever preserved in Shakespeare’s poems.)

Lines 11-12 then continue this entreaty, with Shakespeare asking Time to leave the Fair Youth alone as it continues on its course – allow the Youth, Shakespeare urges, to remain so he may serve as a template or guide for future generations.

The concluding couplet is unusual in that it doesn’t simply wrap up the preceding argument made in the rest of the sonnet: it overturns it. You know what, Shakespeare says: forget it. Do what you want. The Youth will remain forever young in Shakespeare’s verse, which will serve to ‘immortalise’ him. How should we analyse Sonnet 19? One of the first things to say about this poem is that it’s the first sonnet in the sequence (as it is usually ordered) that is not addressed to the Fair Youth: instead, Shakespeare addresses Time, and refers to the Fair Youth as ‘my love’. Shakespeare appears, by this stage, to have fallen for the Fair Youth and not to be above saying so. There’s a deeper intensity to his attachment here: if we want to read the Sonnets as a narrative sequence (of sorts), telling a developing story, then Shakespeare has abandoned the idea of trying to persuade the Fair Youth to marry a woman and have children, perhaps because he’s now realised he wants the Youth all for himself.

Sonnet 19 represents a clear watershed in the Sonnets, and Shakespeare’s praise of the Fair Youth appears to have blossomed into something more personal and deeply felt. Yet the technical artistry is still paramount, and analysing Sonnet 19 can prove great fun, especially in that sudden twist in the final couplet.

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Shakespeare’s Sonnet 19 can be seen as a meditation on the inexorable nature of time and its impact on human life. It explores the theme of mortality, emphasizing the ephemeral nature of physical beauty and the inevitability of aging and decay. The sonnet serves as a reminder of the fleetingness of existence and the universal experience of grappling with the passage of time.

Through vivid imagery and metaphorical language, Shakespeare draws attention to the power and relentlessness of time. The personification of time as a devourer and the lion as a symbol of strength and power create a sense of the looming presence of mortality. The speaker’s plea for time to “blunt thou the lion’s paws” can be interpreted as a desire to temper time’s destructive force, to slow down its relentless march.

Furthermore, the sonnet explores different ways in which humans attempt to combat the transient nature of life. The idea of procreation is introduced as a means of preserving beauty and perpetuating one’s essence beyond one’s own lifetime. However, the sonnet acknowledges the limitations of this solution, as even the children born from such acts will eventually succumb to the ravages of time.

In the final couplet, the focus shifts to the enduring power of poetry. The speaker suggests that through the written word, beauty can be immortalized and preserved. The act of capturing beauty in verse becomes a form of defiance against the transitory nature of life. The sonnet itself serves as a testament to the potential of art to transcend time, providing a glimpse of immortality through the enduring power of language and expression.

Sonnet 19 encapsulates the universal human desire to confront and navigate the passage of time. It raises profound existential questions about the nature of mortality, the significance of beauty, and the role of art in preserving and transcending the limitations of human existence. The sonnet’s exploration of these themes, combined with its skillful employment of poetic techniques, contributes to its enduring appeal and timeless relevance.

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 19 serves as a poignant reminder of the transient nature of life and the power of art to transcend the limitations of time. It invites readers to contemplate the fragility of existence and the profound impact of time’s passage on the beauty and vitality of the human experience.



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