This poem, ‘When forty winters shall besiege thy brow’ is sonnet number two of 154 sonnets that Shakespeare wrote over his lifetime. It is part of the prolonged Fair Youth sequence of sonnets and is one of several that deal with the topic of procreation (numbers one through seventeen). The Fair Youth, who is the intended listener and subject of the vast majority of Shakespeare’s sonnets, is encouraged throughout sonnets one through seventeen to have children.
Explore Sonnet 2: When forty winters shall besiege thy brow
The speaker addresses the Fair Youth, informing him that in short order he’s going to lose his beauty and his face is going to look like a ploughed field. Once this happens he’ll be ashamed and unable to maintain his reputation. The only remedy for this is if the young man has a child to whom he can bestow his beauty. Then, he will have a valid excuse for his wrinkles. Plus, it will be as though he is himself reborn.
Sonnet 2: ‘When forty winters shall besiege thy brow’ by William Shakespeare is a traditional fourteen-line sonnet. The poem is structured in the form which has come to be synonymous with the poet’s name. 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.
As is common in Shakespeare’s poetry, 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. In this case, the final two lines suggest that having a child will make one feel young again. They will be reborn with “warm” blood in their veins.
Shakespeare makes use of several poetic techniques in Sonnet 2: ‘When forty winters shall besiege thy brow’. These include, but are not limited to, alliteration and metaphor. The first, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together and begin with the same sound. For example, “dig deep” in line two and “besiege” and “brow” in line one.
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. There is a great example in the first lines of the poem where Shakespeare’s speaker suggests that the Fair Youth’s complexion will become a ploughed field over time. There will be “deep trenches” (wrinkles) dug in his face that will obscure “beauty’s fields”.
When forty winters shall besiege thy brow,
And dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field,
Thy youth’s proud livery so gazed on now,
Will be a totter’d weed of small worth held:
In the first lines of ‘When forty winters shall besiege thy brow,’ the speaker begins by making use of the line that later came to be used to identify this poem. The first, quatrain, and those that follow, are all directed at the Fair Youth. This unidentified young man is more often than not the intended listener of Shakespeare’s sonnets. In this case, the speaker has a very clear message for him regarding ageing.
This sonnet is one of several that address the future. The speaker knows that the Fair Youth’s beauty is not going to last forever. Therefore, they need to find a remedy. The speaker wants this young man to understand, first and foremost, that he’s going to eventually be “forty”. When he reaches that age and time has done its damage to his face, it will look as though “deep trenches” were dug in “thy beauty’s field”. This reference to plowing a field is a very clever use of a metaphor, used to describe wrinkles.
Now, the speaker continues on, you are beautiful. Everyone gazes on your face but soon it will be worth nothing.
Then being asked, where all thy beauty lies,
Where all the treasure of thy lusty days;
To say, within thine own deep sunken eyes,
Were an all-eating shame, and thriftless praise.
In the future, when the Fair Youth is forty years old, he will be asked where his beauty has gone. The next lines of ‘When forty winters shall besiege thy brow’ suggest that people will inquire where the “treasure of [your] lusty days” went. The only answer that the Fair Youth is going to be able to provide, if nothing changes, is that is it is still there but obscured by the wrinkles and “deep sunken eyes”. This is nothing to be proud of and far from a satisfactory answer.
How much more praise deserv’d thy beauty’s use,
If thou couldst answer ‘This fair child of mine
Shall sum my count, and make my old excuse,’
Proving his beauty by succession thine!
This were to be new made when thou art old,
And see thy blood warm when thou feel’st it cold.
The final quatrain gets to the solution to the Fair Youth’s problems. If he wants to avoid the shame that’s sure to fall upon him in the future he needs to have a child. Therefore, when someone asks him where his beauty has gone, he can point at the child and say that it went into raising him. He is the “sum of my count” the Fair Youth can say. The child’s beauty will be the Fair Youth’s successor.
In the last two lines which make up the concluding couplet of ‘When forty winters shall besiege thy brow,’ the speaker suggests that have a child won’t just be good for appearances. It will actually make the Fair Youth feel more youthful as well. His blood, turned metaphorically cold with old age, will flow warm again.