‘Sonnet 123′ is one of William Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets. It is directed towards a young man known as the “Fair Youth.” The Fair Youth, who the speaker has cheated on, is someone who has never been identified in real life, nor has the true nature of the poet’s relationship with him been uncovered. This has led many readers and scholars to speculate about Shakespeare’s sexuality or if the poet is meant to be the speaker in these lines at all. Readers might take note of the speaker’s dislike for writing down memories and recording the past in the third quatrain, something that was discussed in detail in ‘Sonnet 122.’
Explore Sonnet 123
Throughout the fourteen lines of this sonnet, the speaker describes how Time has incredible power in the world but that he isn’t going to allow to change him. He might grow old, but his character isn’t going to change. His personality, his love for the Fair Youth, and everything that makes him who he is going to remain. This is something he swears at the end of the poem. These are not new ideas in Shakespeare’s sonnets. They can be found scattered throughout the previous 122 sonnets.
Shakespeare engages with themes of time, change, and love in ‘Sonnet 122.’ The poet explores what time can and cannot do. Through personification, he depicts it as a force that takes from and controls humankind. It has a power that’s undeniable, but that doesn’t mean he has to give up his life and personality to it. He’ll only concede certain things to time. He’s not ready to give up who he is and the love he’s shared with the Fair Youth, turning both into monuments to be marveled over by future generations.
Structure and Form
‘Sonnet 123’ by William Shakespeare is a Shakespearean sonnet containing fourteen lines. It follows a consistent rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG and is written in traditional iambic pentameter, the most common of all English meters. In iambic pentameter, each line contains five sets of two beats, known as metrical feet. The first is unstressed, and the second is stressed. It sounds something like da-DUM, da-DUM.
The poem can also be divided into three sets of four lines and a final two-line couplet. The last couplet usually comes after the turn or volta. In this case, the poet uses the last two lines for his speaker to declare that he’s never going to change in the face of Time. This is the pattern that most Shakespearean sonnets follow, although there are always a few instances in which the meter or rhyme is broken.
Shakespeare makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Sonnet 123’. These include but are not limited to examples:
- Alliteration: the repetition of words with the same consonant sound. For example, “nothing novel, nothing” in line three and “Made more” in line twelve.
- Personification: using human characteristics to describe someone non-human. In this case, time.
- Caesura: occurs when the poet inserts a pause into the middle of a line of verse, for example, “Our dates are brief, and therefore we admire.”
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point, usually requiring the reader to move down to the next line to conclude a thought—for example, the transition between lines two and three as well as seven and eight.
No, Time, thou shalt not boast that I do change:
Thy pyramids built up with newer might
To me are nothing novel, nothing strange;
They are but dressings of a former sight.
In the first lines of ‘Sonnet 123,’ the speaker asserts that he is not controlled by time. Time, a force he personifies, cannot “boast that” the speaker changes. He’s not acting for Time’s pleasure and enjoyment. Through this broader allusion to life and death, he’s trying to allude more specifically to his relationship with the Fair Youth. His love is not something that can decay and change one time. It is not subject to Time’s degradations.
The speaker uses the pyramids as a symbol of the change that occurs in the world, but that doesn’t affect him on a personal level. He might get older, but his character remains the same. The pyramids are “dressings of a former sight.”
Our dates are brief, and therefore we admire
What thou dost foist upon us that is old;
And rather make them born to our desire
Than think that we before have heard them told.
In the next four lines, the speaker suggests that life is short and that often, people turn to the oldest things, like the pyramids, and admire them. They are foisted upon humankind by time. The things that happened in the past should be respected, but they don’t have to be revered. People see objects and accomplishments through a certain lens, not truly seeing what is there. That’s why it’s important to consider one’s lifespan and how much control Time has.
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.
This I do vow and this shall ever be;
I will be true despite thy scythe and thee.
In the third and final quatrain, the speaker says that his love is not like the pyramids. It’s not a thing that people will marvel over as something of the past. It’s true love and therefore unaffected by time, he later suggests. He pushes back against the idea of registers and writing down things that happened. It’s pointless and a waste of time as Time is continually moving.
In the last two lines, the speaker says that no matter what happens in the world, he’s going to be true to himself and to his love. Readers of Shakespeare’s sonnets will recognize several familiar themes in these lines.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Sonnet 123’ should also consider reading some of the other William Shakespeare poems. For example:
- ‘Sonnet 17’ – the last of the procreation sonnets in which the speaker tried to convince the Fair Youth to have children.
- ‘Sonnet 42’ – addressees the Youth’s misdeeds and the fact that he slept with the speaker’s mistress. Alludes to the future sonnets.
- ‘Sonnet 29’ – is dedicated to the Fair Youth and discusses the speaker’s depression.