‘Sonnet 12‘ is one of 154 sonnets that Shakespeare wrote over his lifetime. It is part of the prolonged Fair Youth sequence of sonnets that lasts from sonnet one through sonnet one 126. These 126 sonnets are divided into small sequences. This particular poem is in the group known as the “Procreation sonnets”. It is directed towards The Fair Youth, who is the intended listener and subject of the vast majority of Shakespeare’s sonnets. He is encouraged throughout sonnets one through seventeen to have children.
Sonnet 12 William Shakespeare When I do count the clock that tells the time, And see the brave day sunk in hideous night; When I behold the violet past prime, And sable curls, all silvered o'er with white; When lofty trees I see barren of leaves, Which erst from heat did canopy the herd, And summer's green all girded up in sheaves, Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard, Then of thy beauty do I question make, That thou among the wastes of time must go, Since sweets and beauties do themselves forsake And die as fast as they see others grow; And nothing 'gainst Time's scythe can make defence Save breed, to brave him when he takes thee hence.
The speaker goes through images of dying trees, flowers, old men and the setting of the sun in order to get his point across the Fair Youth. It is a terrible thing to grow old and die and he’s trying to help the young man acid it. As much for his sake as for the world’s. The only way that the can be sure that his youth will last forever is if he has a child.
‘Sonnet 12’ by William Shakespeare is a traditional fourteen-line poem sonnet. The poem is structured in the form which has come to be synonymous with the poet’s name. It is made up of three quatrains, or sets of four lines, and one concluding couplet, or set of two rhyming lines. The poem follows a consistent rhyme scheme that conforms to the pattern of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG and it is written in iambic pentameter. This means that each line contains five sets of two beats, known as metrical feet. The first is unstressed and the second stressed. It sounds something like da-DUM, da-DUM.
As is common in Shakespeare’s poems, the last two lines are a rhyming pair, known as a couplet. They often bring with them a turn or volta in the poem. They’re sometimes used to answer a question posed in the previous twelve lines, shift the perspective, or even change speakers. In this case of sonnet 12, questioning the Youth’s beauty.
Shakespeare makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Sonnet 12’. These include but are not limited to alliteration, imagery, and metaphor. Imagery is one of the most important techniques in this poem. It refers to the elements of a poem that engage a reader’s senses. Traditionally, the word “image” is related to visual sights, things that a reader can imagine seeing, but imagery is much more than that. It is something one can sense with their five senses. For example, the image of the dark hair turning grey and white or of the old man being carried on his funeral bier.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “tells” and “time” in the first line and “past prime” in the third.
A metaphor is a comparison between two unlike things that does not use “like” or “as” is also present in the text. When using this technique a poet is saying that one thing is another thing, they aren’t just similar. The first eight lines of this poem are a comparison between the youth’s eventually aging and the general cycle of life in the larger world.
When I do count the clock that tells the time,
And see the brave day sunk in hideous night;
When I behold the violet past prime,
And sable curls all silvered o’er with white;
In the first quatrain of ‘Sonnet 12,’ the speaker begins with the first in a series of metaphors that compares the Fair Youth’s beauty to something natural and sublime, but also temporary. The speaker is thinking of the way that the day gives way to night, the greying of black hair, and the dying of flowers. He images the violets “past prime” (a good example of alliteration) and sees the Fair Youth’s complexion wrinkling, his body giving out and everyone forgetting about him. The day that was once “brave” becomes “hideous” and the “sable,” black, curls turn silver and white. None of these things are preferable.
When lofty trees I see barren of leaves,
Which erst from heat did canopy the herd,
And summer’s green all girded up in sheaves
Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard;
In the next four lines of ‘Sonnet 12’ the speaker continues this series of metaphors used to describe the Fair Youth in the future. He thinks about the trees which at this point in their prime, “barren of leaves”. The speaker also imagines the herds down below stuck out in the heat for the loss of that shade.
The summer will be stripped of its beauty and its worth just as crops are tied up and taken in sheaves to the barn. The last image in this quatrain is that of an old man, “Borne on a bier” being carried to his grave. None of these images are at all uplifting, and they’re not meant to be. The speaker is hoping to shock the Fair Youth into considering his future seriously.
Then of thy beauty do I question make,
That thou among the wastes of time must go,
Since sweets and beauties do themselves forsake
And die as fast as they see others grow,
And nothing ‘gainst Time’s scythe can make defense
Save breed to brave him when he takes thee hence.
In the third and final quatrain of ‘Sonnet 12,’ the speaker finally gets around to directly addressing the youth. When he sees all the things listed out in the last eight lines he questions the youth’s beauty. He knows it can’t last forever. He will also have to deal with the “wastes of time”.
Unfortunately, all sweet and beautiful creatures eventually lose themselves to time. They do “themselves forsake”. It is in their wake that others grow.
The couplet that concludes the poem gets around to the speaker’s main point that there is nothing the youth can do, expect to have children, to fight off time. Continuing one’s life through another is the only way to gain immortality and outwit time.