It has been a shamefully long time since my last post but after a maniacally busy term I am returned to my sonnet project with apologies for the sonnetless stint. So, without further dilly dallying: to work!
When forty winters shall besiege thy brow,
And dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field,
Thy youth’s proud livery so gazed on now,
Will be a totter’d weed of small worth held:
Then being asked, where all thy beauty lies,
Where all the treasure of thy lusty days;
To say, within thine own deep sunken eyes,
Were an all-eating shame, and thriftless praise.
How much more praise deserv’d thy beauty’s use,
If thou couldst answer ‘This fair child of mine
Shall sum my count, and make my old excuse,’
Proving his beauty by succession thine!
This were to be new made when thou art old,
And see thy blood warm when thou feel’st it cold.
This sonnet seems particularly pertinent in the wake of last term; it continues to focus on ageing (years off my life…) or, more precisely, how the young man is obligated to take action against it. The argument runs in much the same way as Sonnet I: when you’re old and wrinkled by Time’s ‘deep trenches’, the elaborate garment of your beauty reduced to a ‘totter’d weed’ it would be shameful not to have a ‘fair child’ both to perpetuate and renew your beauty.
The opening image of the military siege figures Time as an attritional force acting on the Young Man’s beauty. The alliterative monosyllables of ‘dig deep’ in line 2 effectively evoke the action of digging and presents the violation of the Young Man’s beauty by time as an act of violation against Nature by a hostile army. The Biblical connotations of the number ‘forty’ (days and years in the wilderness…) combined with ‘winter’ suggest an infertile, fruitless life preparing the reader neatly for the poet’s solution: have a child!
The charge is roughly the same as the previous sonnet, one of Narcissism. It is worth identifying the erotic implications at work in the language here, extending the idea of self-love into that of unproductive sexual activity, that is, masturbation.
‘…All the treasure of thy lusty days,
To say within thine own deep-sunken eyes’
Whilst to our modern ear the sexual connotations of ‘lusty’ are obvious, ‘treasure’ could, at the time of our poet’s composition, refer to semen. Similarly, it would be entirely possible to connect the ‘deep sunken eyes’ – a traditional symptom of old age – as a symptom of over-exertion in this manner during the last forty, sterile winters. This reading ties in with the images of ‘Within thine own bud buriest thy content’ and being ‘contracted to thine own bright eyes/Feed’st thy light’s flame with self-substantial fuel’ of the preceding sonnet and it augments the presentation of a consummative self-adoration. So, with this in mind, the call to fatherhood to preserve beauty becomes a call to engage with the world and the final couplet, heralding the child as a renewal of beauty in the Young Man’s old age, easily reads with the implication that sexual intercourse itself may ‘see thy blood warm when thou feel’st it cold.’
It isn’t a favourite of mine in deepest truth. It is, however, quite refreshing to imagine this mythicalised coterie of high-brow intellectual young men sitting around, giggling at wanking jokes.
It is also entirely believable.