‘Sonnet 22’ or ‘My glass shall not persuade me I am old’ is number twenty-two of one hundred fifty-four that Shakespeare wrote during his life. It is part of the long Fair Youth sequence of sonnets (numbers one through one hundred twenty-six). These are dedicated, sometimes more explicitly than others, to a young, beautiful man about whom the speaker cares deeply. In this poem Shakespeare explores themes of beauty, youth, age, immortality, and possession/devotion.
The speaker informs the Fair Youth throughout the fourteen lines of this sonnet that he is not going to believe he’s grown old until he sees wrinkles on the youth’s face. This is due to the fact that they are tied together in body and soul. They carry one another’s hearts in their breasts for the rest of their lives, never to be returned to one another.
‘Sonnet 22’ by William Shakespeare is a fourteen-line, single stanza poem that is structured in the form that has become synonymous with the poet’s name. The English or Shakespearean sonnet 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.
Iambic pentameter 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.
Shakespeare makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Sonnet 22’. These include but are not limited to alliteration, simile, and enjambment. The latter 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 example, the transitions between lines one and two as well as that between lines five and six.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For instance, “death” and “days” in line four and “therefore” and “thy” in line nine.
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. In the case of ‘Sonnet 22,’ there are two interesting similes. One can be found at the end of the third quatrain where the speaker compares the care he’s going to take with the youth’s heart to that which a nurse takes with a baby.
My glass shall not persuade me I am old
So long as youth and thou are of one date;
But when in thee time’s furrows I behold,
Then look I death my days should expiate.
In the first lines of ‘Sonnet 22,’ the speaker begins by making reference to his “glass” or his mirror. He knows that when he’s old the sight that he sees in the mirror is not going to be able to convince him that it’s real. The speaker is determined that his age is tied together with the Fair Youth’s. It is only when the youth has wrinkles that he’s going to know that death is coming for him soon. The use of the word “furrows” in the third line is an interesting one, it has appeared in other sonnets and is used to refer to wrinkles. The word itself is related to the narrow trenches made in the ground with a plow. These are trenches of the face.
For all that beauty that doth cover thee
Is but the seemly raiment of my heart,
Which in thy breast doth live, as thine in me.
How can I then be elder than thou art?
The second quatrain of ‘Sonnet 22’ adds that the youth’s beauty is as close to the speaker’s heart as a “seemly,” or beautiful “raiment” or piece of clothing. This simile compares the close proximity of the youth’s life force to the speaker’s heart to the proximity of clothing to the body.
He adds that the youth’s heart beats in his chest just as his heart beats in the youth’s. Therefore, there is no way that he can be older than the youth is. Their ages, lives, and deaths are tied together.
O therefore, love, be of thyself so wary
As I, not for myself, but for thee will,
Bearing thy heart, which I will keep so chary
As tender nurse her babe from faring ill.
Presume not on thy heart when mine is slain;
Thou gav’st me thine not to give back again
In the final quatrain of the poem the speaker concludes that it is important that “thee,” the youth, take care of himself. In fact, they both need to take care of themselves so that the other might be safe. This needs to be done as the youth is carrying the speaker’s heart. And he is bearing the youth’s. He plans to tend to the youth’s heart as a “tender nurse her babe from faring ill,” another example of a simile.
The concluding couplet informs the youth that there is no way he’s ever going to get his heart back, even after he is dead. He gave the speaker his heart and it is never going to be returned “back again”.