William Shakespeare

Sonnet 16 by William Shakespeare

Read Shakespeare’s Sonnet 16, ‘But wherefore do not you a mightier way,’ along with a summary and complete analysis of the poem.

‘But wherefore do not you a mightier way’ is Sonnet 16 of one hundred and fifty-four sonnets that Shakespeare penned. It belongs to the Fair Youth sequence, poems one through 126. The series is dedicated to a specific person, whose identity has never been confirmed. He was a young, beautiful man about whom the speaker deeply cared.

This sonnet is at the end of the group focused on procreation. Unlike some of the other sonnets which focus wholeheartedly on this topic, sonnet sixteen is part of the transitional period into the next series which focuses on the immortality of writing. 

Sonnet 16
William Shakespeare

But wherefore do not you a mightier wayMake war upon this bloody tyrant, Time?And fortify your self in your decayWith means more blessed than my barren rhyme?Now stand you on the top of happy hours,And many maiden gardens, yet unset,With virtuous wish would bear you living flowers,Much liker than your painted counterfeit:So should the lines of life that life repair,Which this, Time's pencil, or my pupil pen,Neither in inward worth nor outward fair,Can make you live your self in eyes of men.   To give away yourself, keeps yourself still,   And you must live, drawn by your own sweet skill.
Sonnet 16 - But wherefore do not you a mightier way by William Shakespeare

Explore Sonnet 16: But wherefore do not you a mightier way


Sonnet 16: ‘But wherefore do not you a mightier way’ by William Shakespeare is one of the final poems in the procreation series of Fair Youth sonnets.

This particular poem starts where the fifteenth sonnet left off. The speaker is addressing the power, or lack thereof, of poetry. It might help to preserve something of the Fair Youth’s beauty and goodness but not like a child would. The speaker informs him that there are many women who could bear him a child that would help him stay young himself for ages to come. In conclusion, he adds that time and writing can’t save him from death or decay. He has to do that himself by having a child. 


Sonnet 16 by William Shakespeare is a sonnet made up of fourteen lines. It is structured in the “Shakespearean” or English form. This means that its made up of three quatrains, or sets of four lines, and one concluding couplet or set of two rhyming lines. These are contained within a single stanza of text. 

 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 Sonnet 16 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 the later sonnets in the procreation sequence, the couplet is used to get back to the speaker’s main argument, that the Fair Youth should have children. 

Poetic Techniques

Shakespeare makes use of several poetic techniques in Sonnet 16. These include, but are not limited to, alliteration, enjambment, and metaphor. The latter is one of the most prevalent techniques at work in the poem. 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. For example, a reader can look to the second line where time is said to be a “bloody tyrant” or in the seventh line where having children is referred to as “bear[ing] …living flowers”. 

Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “tyrant, time” in line two and “blessèd” and “barren” in line four.

Lastly, there is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For instance, the transition between lines one and two as well as that between ten and eleven.

Detailed Analysis

Lines 1-4 

But wherefore do not you a mightier way

Make war upon this bloody tyrant, time,

And fortify yourself in your decay

With means more blessèd than my barren rhyme?

Sonnet 16, which also goes by the title ‘But wherefore do not you a mightier way’ picks up where sonnet fifteen left off. In the last lines of the previous sonnet, the speaker was focused on the power of his own writing. Since the Fair Youth refused to have children he thought that this might be another way to preserve his legacy. Despite what he knows to be the power of poetry to fight “this bloody tyrant,” meaning time, having children is a better way to go about it. 

The youth will, if he has a child, strengthen himself in his old age, his “decay”. The speaker’s rhymes are “barren” in comparison to the power that a child has to preserve your legacy. 

Lines 5-8 

Now stand you on the top of happy hours,

And many maiden gardens, yet unset,

With virtuous wish would bear your living flowers,

Much liker than your painted counterfeit.

Right now, the speaker reminds the youth, “you [are] on the top of happy hours”. He is at the peak of his life. He takes pleasure in everything and there are many untouched women, “virtuous” “maiden[s]” who would like to “bear your living flowers”. The figurative language in this sonnet is prevalent, much more so in the ones that have come before it. Shakespeare uses several metaphors in this section and the previous. 

These women would do a better job recreating the youth’s likeness than the speaker would with his poetry. 

Lines 9-14 

So should the lines of life that life repair

Which this time’s pencil or my pupil pen

Neither in inward worth nor outward fair

Can make you live yourself in eyes of men.

To give away yourself keeps yourself still,

And you must live, drawn by your own sweet skill.

In the last quatrain of Sonnet 16, the speaker adds that having a child will “repair” the lines on one’s own face. This is something that he has been pushing since the first sonnets in this series. He believes wholeheartedly that having a child makes one young again. Time and the speaker’s poetry can’t do what a child can. 

In the last two lines, known as the couplet, the speaker continues with the metaphors to say that if the youth gives himself away that is the equivalent of keeping himself. It’s the only way to stay young. He must “live” on as the image he has drawn of himself— the child the speaker wants him to have. 

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Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
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