The Use of Time in Shakespeare’s Sonnets

Shakespeare”s Sonnets are provocative and emotional reflections on intimate relationships possibly inspired by lovers from the early part of Shakespeare”s career, the same time during which Romeo and Juliet was composed. Through the use of personification, Shakespeare confronts the natural processes which create and destroy life, especially concentrating on the vigorous beauty of creation in its prime, “When I consider every thing that grows/ Holds in perfection but a little moment,” (Sonnet 15, 1-2). He is sensitive to the frailty of the peak of life, how time hastily takes it as soon as it is displayed. He strives through the Sonnets to capture the youth so quickly lost to Time. Shakespeare allots human characteristics to Time in some of his Sonnets in order to give it a form so that it is something which can be palpated and conceptualized in essence.

He likens time to a giver and taker of youth and defies its inevitable confiscation by absorbing his attention in stylizing perfect verse which exclaims and imitates his love”s beauty and provides a residence for it within the confines of his words. By recognizing Time as a natural power among other forces which control the Earth”s processes, and by giving these forces traits which we can relate to, he then qualifies himself to contest these agents of change. Time to Shakespeare is an authority, a deity, and an inevitable aspect of existence which cannot be changed, but can only challenged through perfect re-creation of its victims in his poetry.

Sonnet 126 demonstrates Times struggle with Nature over the lover mentioned. “If Nature, sovereign mistress over wrack,/ As thou goest onwards, still will pluck thee back,” He explains that though Nature wants to maintain his lover”s youth, Time is owed his due and Nature will eventually have “to render thee” (12). Shakespeare presents time to us as an ultimate authority and an unalterable catalyst for the eventual demise of creation. He gives Time in this role human characteristics which allows him to address and question why beauty must fade and eventually die. In Sonnet 15 he includes Decay in the panel of natural forces as a counterpart to Time. This sonnet gives to Decay the ability to empathize with his subject and displays Time as the adversary to beauty, “Where wasteful Time debateth with Decay/ To change your day of youth to sullied night,/ And all in war with Time for love of you” (11).

Shakespeare is empowered by “All” other forces to help cement his love”s beauty by solidifying it from the reach of Time, yet maintains that he is able to do so with the support of all of the other heavenly bodies. Here he is able to challenge Time”s authority by giving this infinite measurement the boundaries of human behavior, and does so in the final line, “As he takes from you, I ingraft you new” (14).

Again in Sonnet 60, Time is viewed as an authority, but now Shakespeare gives this manmade chronicling device the supernatural abilities of a deity, one with the power to give and take life. It is no longer part of fate”s mechanism, but is the ultimate controller of life, the gardener of life”s bounty. “And Time that gave doth now his gift confound” (8) Time is the cultivator and harvester of beauty and youth, “And nothing stands but for his scythe to mow” (12). This reaper metaphor for Time is continued in Sonnet 116, his scythe now described as a sickle which cuts down Love”s “rosy lips and cheeks” (9). Again in Sonnet 126, the personified Time uses a sickle to reap his harvest. This metaphor for time is greedy, hasty, and unbiased. It takes back creation after it”s peak and produces it anew. Shakespeare is occupied with this destruction of beauty and youth and wishes to intervene with capturing their essences before they are lost to Time. Because his Sonnets have proven fit to endure the tests of time and have remained in turn, timeless and universal human sentiments, he succeeded in preserving this beauty in it”s purest possible form- through the use of beautiful language which mimics and admires that which has already passed.

Sonnet 123 directly addresses Time, and explains that he must defy it because due to it”s hasty passage these ruins of previous lives are either over-embellished or diminished. It”s remnants are misconstrued, “Thy registers and thee I both defy,/ Not wondering at the present nor the past,/ For thy records and what we see doth lie,/ Made more or less by thy continual haste,” (10-13). Time is described as hasty, fickle, and unyielding. In Sonnet 64 it is described as a defacer, a corrosive agent to life exposing man”s mortality. Time is a thief, “That time will come and take my love away,/ This thought is as a death, which cannot choose,/ But weep to have that which it fears to lose” (12-15). He indicates that he aims to preserve actuality through laborious language, as in Sonnet 60: “And yet to times in hope my verse shall stand, Praising thy worth despite his cruel hand” (13-15). Again he explains his purpose for eternalizing his lover”s “eternal summer,” in Sonnet 18:

“But thy eternal summer shall not fade/ Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow”st;/…When in eternal lines to time thou grow”st/”(10-13).

Is Shakespeare explaining mankind”s urge to immortalize beauty, or is he immortalizing the beauty of his lovers through his Sonnets? He writes human nature with candor, addressing the core fear of death and aging which permeates all civilization and initiates faith in supreme beings and religion. His personification of these natural forces which maintain life”s cyclical tendencies indicate a polytheistic viewpoint. It echoes mythological gods and goddesses in how these different phenomena are assigned certain roles in the cycle of life, such as Decay when it waits for Time”s cue, or Nature”s tendency to pluck back youth as it slips towards Death. In Sonnet 60, he challenges the mysterious element, Time, which indicates that he has harnessed a power which he will concentrate into his verse in order to overcome the erosional effect time has on youth.

Though Shakespeare admits his powerlessness over Time”s clutches and his “fickle glass,” he purposes to write with such delicate style and universal imagery that centuries of time past could not deteriorate his verses” meanings, thus preserving and immortalizing youth in contradiction to the tendencies of the elements: “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,/ So long lives this, and this gives life to thee” (Sonnet 18, 14-15). Through personification, he demonstrates qualities of authority in his use of Time who sometimes is displayed as the ultimate supernatural force, and seeks through language to challenge this by preserving his love forever within the Sonnets.

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