‘Devouring Time, blunt thou the lion’s paws’ (Sonnet 19) by William Shakespeare is a fourteen-line sonnet written in what is known as the Elizabethan or Shakespearean style. This means that the poem contains fourteen lines and is structured with the rhyme scheme: ABABCDCDEFEFGG. Furthermore, the lines conform to iambic pentameter. This means that each contains five sets of two beats, the first of these is unstressed and the second stressed.
Another feature of sonnets is a “turn” or volta. The turn can be comprised of any number of shifts or changes. It could be seen through a change in speaker, tense, location or setting. More conceptually, it could be a revelation, shedding light on the previous lines, or a change in the speaker’s opinion. Commonly, it is also composed of a summary of the previous lines.
In the other most popular sonnet form, Petrarchan, the turn occurs in between the octet and sestet, or the first eight lines and the last six. Within Shakespearean sonnets, though, it usually happens between the first twelve lines and the final couplet that concludes the poem. In the case of ‘Devouring Time, blunt thou the lion’s paws’ there are two distinguishable turns. Between the octet and sets and at the start of the couplet.
The poem begins with the speaker telling “Time” that she is welcome to destroy any of her creation that she wants. If she wants to kill off all the beautiful creatures of the world, she can. If “Time” wants to bring misery on the earth, that’s fine wth the speaker. There is only one thing that she wants “Time” to refrain from doing— making her lover age. The speaker cannot imagine a world where her lover is not young. He should remain beautiful forever and therefore be the symbol of all male beauty.
In the last line she gives in to the fact that there is nothing she can really do to stop “Time” from making “her” mark on her lover. It doesn’t matter in the end, because he will be young forever in her poetry.
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Devouring Time, blunt thou the lion’s paws,
And make the earth devour her own sweet brood;
At the beginning of ‘Devouring Time, blunt thou the lion’s paws,’ the speaker utilizes the line which has come to be used as the title. This is a common practice within sonnets, especially for those poets who write a large number of them. Generally, Shakespeare’s sonnets were given numbers, (this one is number 19), but to make them easier to distinguish from one another they can also be referred to by their first lines.
Shakespeare chose to write this particular sonnet from the perspective of a woman. She begins by telling “Time” everything that it should and can do. Before continuing on, it is important to note that the word time is capitalized in the poem. This gives it an even greater importance than it would otherwise. By capitalizing it, Shakespeare is imbuing it with agency, as if it is an active, conscious force in the world that can be reasoned with.
The speaker asks “Time” to go ahead and “blunt” the “lions’s paw.” And “make the earth devour her own sweet blood.” These are poignant lines, but they are also complicated. What the speaker is saying is that it’s okay with her if “Time” destroys life and kills her, “own sweet brood.”
Pluck the keen teeth from the fierce tiger’s jaws,
And burn the long-liv’d Phoenix in her blood;
Although gruesome, and not particular nice, she’s welcome to it. “Time” can take away from the lion the things that make it powerful, just as she “Pluck[s] the…teeth from the fierce tiger’s jaw.” All of these things are depressing indicators of age and subsequent death, but they are okay with her. The speaker is building up to something else, the one thing that is not okay with her.
In the fourth line she adds another wild choice “Time” could make. She could kill the “long-lived phoenix” in its own “blood.” This is a particular interesting example considering the mythical backstory of the Phoenix and its ability to live, die and be reborn. “Time” could do away with this power forever, if she wanted, and it would be okay with the speaker.
Make glad and sorry seasons as thou fleets,
And do whate’er thou wilt, swift-footed Time,
To the wide world and all her fading sweets;
But I forbid thee one more heinous crime:
In the next quatrain of text the speaker moves away from death to the general emotional landscape of the poem. She tells “Time” that if she wants to she can, “Make glad and sorry seasons” as she moves through the world. People can be happy or sad, the speaker doesn’t care. She refers to time as “swift-footed.” The force moves quickly from place to place and has an uncontrollably will. The speaker recognizes this and is hoping to reign her in, just a little.
The last thing that she tells “Time” that she is allowed to do is: whatever she wants to the “wide world.” It is in line nine, what is the traditional halfway point of sonnets, that the first turn happens. The speaker makes it clear that there is “one more heinous crime” that she doesn’t want “Time” to even think about.
O, carve not with the hours my love’s fair brow,
Nor draw no lines there with thine antique pen!
Him in thy course untainted do allow
For beauty’s pattern to succeeding men.
What that one thing is, is revealed in line nine. She needs “Time” to stay away from her “love’s fair brow.” The speaker dreads “Time’s” progression on her lover’s face. She doesn’t want to see his age carved out there.
It is “Time’s” old pen that she is most afraid of. After all the pleading of the first eight lines it comes down to a simple request— don’t let “my” lover age. He should pass “untainted” through his life. If this occurs, then for the rest of eternity men will look at him “For beauty’s pattern.” He will be the highest standard anyone could strive for.
Yet do thy worst, old Time! Despite thy wrong
My love shall in my verse ever live young.
In the final two lines the speaker relinquishes some of her determined posturing. She knows she doesn’t have the power to stop “Time” from touching her beloved’s face. The speaker tells time “do thy worst,” make him age and do “wrong” by him. No matter what happens, the speaker knows that he shall live forever young in her verse, or poetry. This is the only true immortality.