‘When I consider every thing that grows’ is one of one hundred and fifty-four sonnets that Shakespeare penned. Of these, it is number fifteen. The poem belongs to the Fair Youth sequence that lasts from sonnet one up to sonnet 126. The series is dedicated to a young beautiful man that the speaker deeply cared for. This sonnet is one of seventeen that is part of the group focused on procreation.
Unlike the sonnets that have come before number fifteen, this one does not directly mention procreation. Instead, it alludes to immortality and the impossibility of gaining it. There is another remedy that the speaker can think of for this problem aside from having children, the written word. It is in the last lines that he brings in this method of preserving the youth’s beauty.
Explore Sonnet 15: When I consider every thing that grows
The speaker addresses the youth, informing him about some thoughts he has been experiencing lately. These are all to do with the youth and his eventual death and decay. He knows that old age is coming soon and since the youth won’t have children he is going to fight a war against time for him with sonnets such as these.
Explore more William Shakespeare poems.
‘When I consider every thing that grows’ by William Shakespeare is a fourteen-line sonnet that is structured in the traditional English form, a form that is also known as “Shakespearean”. It 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.
The last two lines of ‘When I consider every thing that grows’ 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. This particular piece uses the last two lines to introduce writing as a means of preserving the youth’s beauty.
Shakespeare makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘When I consider every thing that grows’. These include, but are not limited to, alliteration, personification, and simile. The first, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “debateth” and “decay”. Personification occurs when a poet imbues a non-human creature or object with human characteristics. In this poem, Shakespeare uses the technique to personify “time” and “decay”. Both of these forces are given the ability to influence the world as if they were human.
A simile is a comparison between two unlike things that uses the words “like” or “as”. A poet uses this kind of figurative language to say that one thing is similar to another, not like metaphor, that it “is” another. There is an example in line five where the speaker compares men to plants in how they grow and then die.
When I consider every thing that grows
Holds in perfection but a little moment;
That this huge stage presenteth nought but shows
Whereon the stars in secret influence commént;
In the first quatrain of ‘When I consider every thing that grows’ the speaker begins by sharing his thoughts about growth and the brevity of life with the Fair Youth. This young person, a man indeterminate age or identity, is quite beautiful. Throughout the fourteen that have come before this one, the speaker chastises him for not having children. He appears to have no desire to “share his beauty” as the speaker would like or create a new version of himself in his child.
The speaker continues to appeal to the Fair Youth using the argument that everything in the world “Holds perfection but a little moment”. Shakespeare creates a metaphor in the next lines that present the world as a star on which “the stars in secret influence commént”. The stars control everything in the speaker’s version of the world. This is an allusion to heaven, fate, and God’s creation but also to the pre-modern scientific age in which people believed that the movements of the stars and planets could predict events.
When I perceive that men as plants increase,
Cheerèd and checked ev’n by the self-same sky,
Vaunt in their youthful sap, at height decrease,
And wear their brave state out of memory;
There is a simile at the beginning of the fifth line that compares men to plants. They grow and are then stymied by the same sky. Life brings them to a high point and then it also fades and allows them to collapse. Through these lines, the speaker is trying to remind the Fair Youth that his youthful beauty is not going to last forever. He, like all other men, is eventually going to die.
Then the conceit of this inconstant stay
Sets you, most rich in youth, before my sight,
Where wasteful time debateth with decay,
To change your day of youth to sullied night;
The third and final quatrain presents the youth with a few more of the speaker’s thoughts. He has also been thinking about how unstable the whole world is. This leads him to consider the youth who has, as he has stated in previous stanzas, been the recipient of many of nature’s gifts.
In his mind, he can see “time” debating with “decay” over how to “change your day of youth to sullied night”. Old age is coming for him. It’s a force that can’t be stopped. Shakespeare personifies “time” and “decay” by giving them the ability to made decisions as if they are human beings.
And all in war with time for love of you,
As he takes from you, I engraft you new.
In the last two lines of Sonnet 15: When I consider every thing that grows, there is a connection to the next series of sonnets, those that have to do with the immortality of the written word. The speaker tells the youth that he is in a constant battle with time. It is waged through the written word. When time takes away the speaker recreates the youth through these poems. This is another way, aside from having a child, that the youth might gain immortality.