‘Sonnet 126′ is one of William Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets. It is the very last poem in the series of Fair Youth sonnets that began with ‘Sonnet 1.’ These are dedicated to an unknown young man, someone who the speaker found remarkable. He was attracted to the man physically as well as emotionally and spiritually. The sonnets define their connection in terms that no other love could ever surpass. This poem is often referred to as the “envoi” or “envoy” of the Fair Youth sonnets.
Sonnet 126 William ShakespeareO thou, my lovely boy, who in thy pow’rDost hold time’s fickle glass his sickle hour,Who hast by waning grown, and therein show’stThy lovers withering, as thy sweet self grow’st—In nature, sovereign mistress over wrack,As thou goest onwards still will pluck thee back,She keeps thee to this purpose, that her skillMay time disgrace, and wretched minute kill.Yet fear her, O thou minion of her pleasure;She may detain but not still keep her treasure. Her audit, though delayed, answered must be, And her quietus is to render thee.
Explore Sonnet 126
Throughout the lines of ‘Sonnet 126,’ the speaker describes the Youth’s favoritism in nature’s eyes. This allows him to move through the stages of life, retaining his beauty in an unusual way. His remarkable youth is something that the speaker has spent a great deal of time exploring and something that other suitors are also interested in. But, as this poem draws to a close, the speaker admits that eventually, nature is going to have to offer the Youth up to death and old age. Decay is going to touch him as it does everyone else.
Throughout ‘Sonnet 126,’ the poet explores themes of old age, time, and the future. He has made his love for the Youth incredibly clear throughout the previous 125 sonnets. Now, he returns once more to speak on the Youth’s beauty and how special it seems compared to everyone else. He must be, the speaker thinks, a favorite in nature’s eyes. But, old age is not something one can resist forever. Whether the Youth lives forever in the speaker’s sonnets or not, he’s going to die physically. Time will take him as it does everyone in the future.
Structure and Form
‘Sonnet 126’ by William Shakespeare is an untraditional sonnet that’s made up of twelve lines. It is one of two sonnets in the entire sequence of poems that does not conform to the standard rhyme scheme. The twelve lines are divided into six couplets instead. They rhyme AABBCCDDEEFF, rather than ABABCDCDEFEFGG as the vast majority of Shakespeare’s sonnets do. The poem is composed in iambic pentameter, though.
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 fifth line is a particularly good example of the pattern. The poem can also be divided into three sets of four lines and a final two-line couplet.
Shakespeare makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Sonnet 126’. These include but are not limited to examples of:
- Alliteration: the repetition of words with the same consonant sound. For example, “detain” and “delayed” in lines ten and eleven.
- Allusion: throughout this sonnet, the poet references his relationship with the Fair Youth. This is one of the very last poems to do so.
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines one and two as well as seven and eight.
O thou, my lovely boy, who in thy pow’r
Dost hold time’s fickly glass, his sickle hour,
Who hast by waning grown, and therein show’st
Thy lovers withering, as they sweet self grow’st –
In the first lines of ‘Sonnet 126,’ the speaker begins by addressing the Fair Youth quite clearly. Recently, the speaker’s intended listener has been less clear than in early sonnets. Here though, he calls him “my lovely boy,” making sure that everyone who reads these lines is quite clear on who he’s speaking to. This young man, the speaker says, has power over time and its means of changing men and women. As time has progressed, the Youth only seems to have grown younger and more beautiful. But, the speaker is very well aware that this can’t last forever. He sees the cruelty of time in his own reflection. The Youth’s lovers, including the speaker, have withered.
If nature, sovereign mistress over wrack,
As thou goest onwards still will pluck thee back,
She keeps thee to this purpose: that her skill
May time disgrace, and wretched minute kill.
In the next four lines, the speaker personifies nature, something that happens quite often in Shakespeare’s sonnets. He describes how if nature continues to rescue the Youth from old age and decay, she’s only doing it for her own pleasure. She does so in order to show her “skill / May time disgrace.” She has the power of time and, like any other sentient force, likes to demonstrate that power. She may, if she wants, kill off time’s decay. These two couplets end with a solid example of end punctuation that’s then juxtaposed against the next lines, reminding the Youth that this won’t always be the case.
Yet fear her, O thou minion of her pleasure;
She may detain, but not still keep, her treasure.
Her audit, though delayed, answered muxt be,
And her quietus is to render thee.
While nature can stave off old age for a time if she wants, she can’t do so forever. The Youth should still fear nature, despite being a favorite of hers. She can’t prevent “her treasure” from decaying. Eventually, the Youth will have to face time and address the inevitability of his own demise, as everyone else does. Nature will settle her accounts by offering the Youth up. This perspective can be contrasted against the speaker’s assertions about the Fair Youth in previous sonnets. He’s gone from worshipping the young man’s beauty and insisting that he’ll live forever, in one form or another, to admitting that the Youth will eventually no longer be as young or beautiful as he is now.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Sonnet 126’ should also consider reading some other William Shakespeare poems. For example:
- ‘Sonnet 40’ – discusses the speaker’s recent choice to sleep with the Youth’s mistress.
- ‘Sonnet 38’— focuses on the importance of the speaker’s muse, the Fair Youth, and how integral the young man is to the poet’s writing.
- ‘Sonnet 92’ —discusses the fact that the speaker is going to die happily, having just known the Fair Youth.