‘Sonnet 49,’ or ‘Against that time (if ever that time come).’ is number forty-nine of 154 sonnets that Shakespeare wrote over his lifetime. It is part of the prolonged Fair Youth sequence of sonnets, numbers one through one hundred twenty-six. These are generally dedicated to a young, beautiful man about whom the speaker cares deeply. In this poem, Shakespeare explores themes of love lost, the future, and change.
Throughout the fourteen lines of ‘Sonnet 49’, the speaker pities his own position with the youth’s heart while also expressing an understanding of his ability to change his mind. The speaker knows that at anytime the youth could come to his senses and realize that the speaker is not worth loving. Therefore, he has to be prepared for this eventuality.
‘Sonnet 49’ 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 49’. These include but are not limited to alliteration, metaphor, and enjambment. Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “part” and “poor” in lines twelve and thirteen as well as “greet” and “gravity” in lines six and eight.
Sibilance is similar to alliteration but it is concerned with soft vowel sounds such as “s” and “th”. This kind of repetition usually results in a prolonged hissing or rushing sound. It is often used to mimic another sound, like water, wind, or any kind of fluid movement.
For instance, “strangely,” “scarcely,” “sun” and “settled” in lines five through eight as well as “strength” and “Since” in lines thirteen and fourteen.
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 instance, in the second quatrain where the speaker says that the youth’s eyes are the sun, a comparison that appears in a number of the “Fair Youth” sonnets.
Against that time (if ever that time come)
When I shall see thee frown on my defects;
Whenas thy love hath cast his utmost sum,
Called to that audit by advised respects;
In the first lines of ‘Sonnet 49,’ the speaker starts the poem by suggesting that there might be a time in the future when “you,” the Fair Youth, does not regard the speaker in the same way he does today. The speaker is well aware that affections change with age, as do opinions and subjective thoughts and actions. He addresses the possibility that the youth might “frown on [his] defects” after he ages. He will have come to the end of his love for the speaker.
As is strangely common in Shakespeare’s sonnets he speaks about love in monetary terms, speaking of the end of love as the “utmost sum” and the re-analysis of the relationship as an “audit”.
Against that time when thou shalt strangely pass,
And scarcely greet me with that sun, thine eye;
When love, converted from the thing it was,
Shall reasons find of settled gravity;
In the next four lines of ‘Sonnet 49,’ the speaker continues in the same way, in the anticipation that this much dreaded time will come whether the speaker is ready for it or not. He is, therefore, preparing now for when the youth will “scarcely greet” the speaker with his eyes. In this line, the youth’s eyes are compared to the sun, something which occurs in other sonnets as well. The youth is often depicted as a source of beautiful life, as the sun is.
There is a time, he thinks, when the youth might not be guided by love but by somber, “settled gravity”. Any affection that once existed within the youth’s heart for the speaker will have vanished.
Against that time do I ensconce me here
Within the knowledge of mine own desert,
And this my hand against myself uprear
To guard the lawful reasons on thy part:
To leave poor me, thou hast the strength of laws,
Since why to love I can allege no cause.
The speaker is guarding “Against that time” by establishing or “ensconcing” himself “here / Within the knowledge of mine own desert”. He believes that in reality he never deserved the youth’s love. So, he is now making sure that the future version himself remembers this as well. He was lucky to have what he got.
The speaker transitions into legal language, such as “lawful,” “strength of laws” and “allege” to refer to the justice of the youth’s future choices. He will do his best to remember that the youth is right to discard him.
In the final two lines, he suggests that the youth has every right to “leave poor me”. The law (of reason and rationality) is on his side as there is really no reason the speaker can think of for the youth to love him anyway.