Sonnet 13 is a fourteen-line sonnet that follows the format traditionally associated with William Shakespeare. 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.
While speaking more broadly on procreation, this sonnet, in particular, is part of what is known as the “Fair Youth” sequence. Through this series of works Shakespeare’s speaker declares his affection for a young man. At points, the speaker urges the young man to make a life for himself, including a wife and child. At others, the young man betrays, or is at a great distance from, the speaker.
Sonnet 13 William Shakespeare O! that you were your self; but, love, you are No longer yours, than you your self here live: Against this coming end you should prepare, And your sweet semblance to some other give: So should that beauty which you hold in lease Find no determination; then you were Yourself again, after yourself's decease, When your sweet issue your sweet form should bear. Who lets so fair a house fall to decay, Which husbandry in honour might uphold, Against the stormy gusts of winter's day And barren rage of death's eternal cold? O! none but unthrifts. Dear my love, you know, You had a father: let your son say so.
The poem begins with the speaker addressing a listener, who in the larger canon of Shakespeare’s works is known as the “Fair Youth”. Shakespeare’s speaker tells the young man that matter how beautiful he is, his life is still going to end. There is an answer to this though. If the youth can acquire a wife and have children then his form will live on in another.
In the second half of the poem, the speaker compares not having kids to allowing a “fine” house to be torn down. It is something he just can’t fathom happening to this person he loves so dearly.
O! that you were your self; but, love, you are
No longer yours, than you your self here live:
Against this coming end you should prepare,
And your sweet semblance to some other give:
In the first lines of Sonnet 13, the speaker begins by making use of the line that came to be used as the title. He tells the Fair Youth to whom this poem is directed, that it would be great if he was himself, but this isn’t the case. The person’s identity is larger than themselves. It is “No longer” theirs. In fact, the speaker adds, his identity is going to disappear as soon as he dies. This is something the speaker does not want to happen. It seems to him a great loss that one whose beauty is so special should disappear from the earth forever.
In order to try to keep the Fair Youth’s “identity” or “beauty” from vanishing, he needs to “prepare” for the end. His death, unfortunately, is inevitable. Luckily though, the speaker knows the Fair Youth needs to do to keep his life from dissolving forever into the ether. He needs to pass on his “sweet semblance” to someone else. There is a very obvious way this can be done— through procreation.
So should that beauty which you hold in lease
Find no determination; then you were
Yourself again, after yourself’s decease,
When your sweet issue your sweet form should bear.
The speaker clarifies his suggestion by describing living as holding a “lease”. The same is true for the Fair Youth whose lease will eventually expire. If he’s able to pass on his genes to someone else, then his lease will not come to an end. It will “Find no determination”. The speaker describes the Fair Youth’s identity as being reborn in the body of his child.
It is clear throughout the text, but most prominently in lines seven and eight, that the speaker cares quite deeply about this person. So much so, that he’d urge the man to create a child in order to extend his life. It would be his “sweet issue” and carry the man’s same “sweet form”.
Who lets so fair a house fall to decay,
Which husbandry in honour might uphold,
Against the stormy gusts of winter’s day
There is a turn between the octet and sextet of Sonnet 13 as the speaker transitions to a larger metaphor. He uses the image of a house falling into “decay” to represent one’s death. In this case, the Fair Youth’s body is a very valuable and beautiful house, making his/its death all the more distressing.
It is even worse, in the case of the Fair Youth, that the destruction of the house is preventable. He could, if he wanted, allow the house to “uphold” or stay strong through the worst of storms. By having a child, the Fair Youth can preserve his house through any weather.
And barren rage of death’s eternal cold?
O! none but unthrifts. Dear my love, you know,
You had a father: let your son say so.
The only person who would let a beautiful house go to waste is the worst of “unthrifts”. Here, Shakespeare’s speaker is referring to those who are irresponsible with their money and property. He does not want the Fair Youth to behave this way. The last line of ‘O! That you were yourself; but, love, you are’ is moving. Shakespeare’s speaker tells the Fair Youth that his father had a son, and he should “let” his son say the same.
The last two lines are indented further than the rest. This indicates another turn in the text, as does the exclamation at the beginning of line thirteen. These lines provide an answer to the question of who would allow a “fine” house to “decay”.