Shakespeare’s Sonnets: Time and Decay
Eventually, time and decay effect everything. Shakespeare uses this theme in many of his sonnets. The sonnets give no hint of an afterlife and express that nothing survives time. Shakespeare used numerous methods to depict this theme including personification, metaphors and similes. Even though Shakespeare says that time destroys everything, he also addresses how to “defeat” time to a degree. One way to “defeat” time is to marry and have children. A person’s offspring will in some measure carry him or her on throughout time. Shakespeare also believed that poetry is immortal and those who are featured in them will be also. He offers this immortality to his friend and the dark lady. This paper will examine the theme of time and decay in sonnets 15, 18, and 73.
In sonnet 15, Shakespeare writes about the changes that people go through and maturity. In it the sonnet states that perfection only lasts for a little time. He writes, “When I consider every thing that grows holds in perfection but a little moment…” (lines 1 -2). He compares men to plants and says that they display themselves at the height of their perfection and then are slowly forgotten. In other words life is like a flower that blooms. It bursts out with beauty and then time and decay cause it to slowly wither away to old age and death. In the last couplet of the sonnet, Shakespeare gives his friend a way to win the war with time and decay and implant his beauty again. The way offers this is to be featured in his poetry. What better way to “live on” then to be read about for centuries?
The cycle of the year is used to describe life in sonnet 18. Spring equals youth, summer equals maturity and perfection, fall equals middle age and winter equals old age. Shakespeare writes “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate…And summer’s lease hath all too short a date…” (lines 1,2 and 4). He is saying to his friend that he is in the height of his perfection right now, but it will not last for very long. Again towards the end of the sonnet he tells him that he shall conquer time and decay by being immortal in his poetry “But thy eternal summer shall not fade…When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st” (lines 9 and 12).
Sonnet 73 is a little different because Shakespeare is making a plea to the dark lady because their love is dying. The whole sonnet has indications of fall such as “That time of year thou mayst in me behold when yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang…” (lines 1 and 2). This is making use of the cycle of the year again and he is expressing that he is in middle age and soon approaching twilight or death
“In me thou seest the twilight of such a dayAs after sunset fadeth in the west;Which by and by black night doth take away,Death’s second self that seals up all in rest.” (Lines 5-8)
He is saying that he is past his moment of perfection and that death will come soon. Time and decay have started to affect him. In the last couplet of the sonnet he states that the dark lady should value him more because he won’t be here for long, instead of forgetting him because he is no longer in his moment of perfection.