Time, Preservation, and Beauty in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 19
Kristina L. Ginnick
Many of William Shakespeare’s sonnets exhibit the theme of preservation, specifically in relation to the art of poetry. It has been well documented by critics that a number of the sonnets that portray the Fair Youth (Sonnets 1-126) immortalize the beauty of the unidentified young man, with whom the speaker/poet is very clearly enamored. Shakespeare’s use of time-related language throughout the sonnets evokes a preservative quality within the sonnet form, which immortalizes the subject’s beauty. There are elements within Sonnet 19 that differentiate it from many of the other thematically similar sonnets, particularly the inclusion of Time as a personified being in addition to the discussion of beauty in conjunction with animal-related nature imagery, especially that of the phoenix. The repeated animal images and the personification of Time as a threatening and competing artist in Sonnet 19 suggests that the sonnet form in particular can preserve beauty forever.
The ways in which Time is described and portrayed within Sonnet 19 are essential to discuss in relation to the sonnet form and the preservation of the Fair Youth’s beauty. The lovestruck speaker states, “Devouring Time, blunt thou the lion’s paws, / And make the earth devour her own sweet brood” (1-2). From the very first line of Sonnet 19, it is apparent that the speaker views Time as a force that is both omnipresent and impossible to work against. Time is portrayed as a personified, all-consuming criminal that robs beauty from the beloved and all of the “sweet things” of the world; as editors Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine state in their gloss for line 1 of Sonnet 19, “Time devours all things” (56). The speaker, despite having no control over the passage of time, nevertheless attempts to fight back against personified Time. For example, in lines 6-9, the speaker simultaneously addresses the limit of his influence on Time while forbidding it from destroying the beauty of his beloved:
And do whate’er thou wilt, swift-footed Time,
To the wide world and all her fading sweets.
But I forbid thee one most heinous crime:
O, carve not with thy hours my love’s fair brow. (6-9)
The alliteration involving the “w” sound specifically (“whate’er,” “wilt,” “wide world,” “swift-footed,” and “sweets”) visually performs the act of carving, which ultimately strengthens the speaker’s plea. The letter “w,” because of its stark use of lines to create angles, actually mimics the wrinkles that the speaker abhors. The speaker is aware that there is only so much he can do or say to affect the passage of time, if at all; however, he specifically urges Time to not etch lines upon his beloved’s face, and in doing so, both demonstrates and preserves the physical effects of aging within his poem.
Time is portrayed not only as a being that has agency and autonomy, but as an artist that can somehow influence and preserve its subject, much like the speaker. Consider the verb used by the speaker in relation to Time in line 9: “carve.” It is no mistake that a word that describes an artistic activity is used by the speaker, a poet, to appeal to the force of Time, a sculptor. The artistic abilities of Time are further illuminated by the speaker in line 10, where he urges Time to “draw no lines there with thine antique pen.” The pen is a tool that can be used not only to draw, but to write as well, which certainly alludes to the act of writing poetry. Additionally, the inclusion of the word “line” is self-referencing the poetic form, as it may refer to poetic lines. The self-referencing in line 10 is reprised in relation to the preservation function of the sonnet in the concluding couplet, where the speaker claims that his beloved’s beauty will be captured forever in his verse (“My love shall in my verse ever live young”).
In addition to the personification and portrayal of Time, there are other aspects of Sonnet 19 that are significant to consider in terms of how the speaker uses the sonnet form to preserve the beauty of the Fair Youth. More specifically, the inclusion of nature imagery in the form of animals—the lion in line 1, the tiger in line 3, and though it is a mythological animal, the phoenix in line 4—lends itself well to the discussion of time in relation to beauty and preservation. Though inherently different from the lion or the tiger in that the phoenix (regrettably) does not actually exist, its inclusion by the speaker introduces a multifaceted effect on the overall message of Sonnet 19. In line 4, the speaker encourages Time to “burn the long-lived phoenix in her blood,” which implies that the phoenix in question would permanently perish from said burning. The speaker would rather see the demise of an immortal, legendary creature than to have the beauty of his beloved Fair Youth etched away by the hand of Time.
However, given how the phoenix has traditionally been portrayed, there is something to be said for the likeness in quality between the phoenix and the Fair Youth. One of Michael Ferber’s remarks on the literary symbolism of the phoenix is that it “became an emblem of rarity or uniqueness” throughout literature over time (154). It is apparent that the speaker feels that the Fair Youth’s beauty is important because it far transcends standard notions of beauty, which would certainly make him a unique individual. Therefore, the speaker feels the need to draw comparisons between the Fair Youth and the phoenix, both of whom he deems worthy of remembrance. As critic Amanda Watson elucidates, “Verse is one of the oldest mnemonic devices … And when Shakespeare’s speaker begins to praise poetry, he hails it as a both a worthy object to be remembered and as an ideal means of preservation” (351). Despite the speaker encouraging Time to “blunt the lion’s paws,” “pluck keen teeth from the tiger’s jaws,” or “burn the long-lived phoenix in her blood,” the animals in Sonnet 19 are inadvertently immortalized along with the Fair Youth and his beauty, which is due to the speaker’s adoration of the preservation function that the sonnet performs on his behalf.
The Shakespearean sonnet is an ideal poetic form for the expression of the patterns of logic in addition to grand existential themes, particularly those regarding love and beauty. Walter Cohen excellently captures the effects that the Shakespearean sonnet form can have upon its content:
This organization offers greater conceptual range than does the Petrarchan model. The quatrains can operate in parallel, represent steps in a logical argument, or contradict each other … In turn, the epigrammatic concluding couplet, whose analytical tendencies contrast with the more experimental approach of at least the first two quatrains, can summarize the preceding lines, generalize from them, draw appropriate inferences, contribute a new thought, or even reverse the preceding argument. (1938)
Cohen’s observations on the various functions that the Shakespearean sonnet performs certainly hold true in Sonnet 19. The quatrains have discernable themes and ideas which interrelate to one another and show the progression of a thought process on the part of the speaker, and the ending couplet echoes a sentiment of preservation of the Fair Youth’s beauty through the speaker’s poetry: “Yet do thy worst, old Time! Despite thy wrong/ My love shall in my verse ever live young” (13-4). Helen Vendler also notes the significance of the concluding couplet, especially in relation to art as preservation; she states, “Yet do thy worst (“even if you do the worst you can”) allows the transition from the realm of flesh to the realm of art, as defeat conceded in one sphere (the commanding of Time) is avoided by triumph in another (living verse)” (126). The speaker is overtly claiming that the Fair Youth’s beauty will be preserved forever through his poems, despite the poems themselves potentially falling prey to the effects of time, as Aaron Kunin notes; he writes that, “like the human body, the poem’s material embodiment is subject to time … and requires an additional preservative to be fail-safe” (98). The “additional preservative” Kunin alludes to may refer to the actual words themselves—after all, much poetry is recited orally, and renowned for the ways it can play with various aspects of sound in relation to language. Even if the physical representation of the poetry becomes vulnerable to time-related decay, the words may be passed from one person to another, and thus the beauty of the Fair Youth would be preserved in another fashion.
Despite the organizational advantages that the Shakespearean sonnet form holds, the question remains as to why the speaker chose the sonnet over other poetic forms to express his adoration for the Fair Youth. The sonnet is quite brief—unlike some other forms of poetry, it is a complete poem at just fourteen lines. Considering how prevalent the notion of preservation through poetry is throughout Shakespeare’s sonnets, it initially seems to be an odd choice of poetic form because of its length; however, the short length of the sonnet is an advantage for the thematic expression of preservation. Dympna Callaghan claims that the brevity of the sonnet form “intensifies the young man’s beauty” because of the powerful emotional journey that occurs in the “mere span of fourteen lines” (106). Shakespeare’s speaker plays with the boundaries of time through the sonnet form by addressing extraordinarily profound concepts in such a small poetic space, and uses extensive alliteration, animal imagery, and the personification of Time to do so. In the case of Sonnet 19, the speaker is the creator, and Time is the destroyer, with the Fair Youth unwittingly occupying a space between them.
Callaghan, Dympna. “Confounded by Winter: Speeding Time in Shakespeare’s Sonnets.” A Companion to Shakespeare’s Sonnets, edited by Michael Schoenfeldt, Blackwell Publishing, 2007, pp. 104-18.
Cohen, Walter. “The Sonnets and ‘A Lover’s Complaint.’” The Norton Shakespeare, edited by Stephen Greenblatt et al., 2nd ed., W.W. Norton, 2008, pp. 1937-1945.
Ferber, Michael. A Dictionary of Literary Symbols. 2nd ed., Cambridge UP, 2007.
Kunin, Aaron. “Shakespeare’s Preservation Fantasy.” PMLA, vol. 124, no. 1, 2009, pp. 92–106, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25614250
Shakespeare, William. Shakespeare’s Sonnets and Poems, edited by Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine, Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2009, pp. 56-7, 126-7.
Vendler, Helen. The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Harvard UP, 1997.
Watson, Amanda. “‘Full-character’d’: Competing Forms of Memory in Shakespeare’s Sonnets.” A Companion to Shakespeare’s Sonnets, edited by Michael Schoenfeldt, Blackwell Publishing, 2007, pp. 343-360.