‘Sonnet 59’ also known as ‘If there be nothing new, but that which is,’ is number fifty-nine of one hundred fifty-four sonnets that Shakespeare wrote over his lifetime. It is part of the prolonged Fair Youth sequence of sonnets, which last from number one all the way through one hundred twenty-six. These sonnets are devoted to a young, beautiful man whose identity remains unknown to this day.
The poet considers the possibility of looking into the past and learning something about what the writers of that time wrote about. He thinks he might see if it is true that nothing new exists on earth, a description of the Fair Youth. If so, he could judge whether or not the world has in general become more skilled in the realm of writing or not. The last two lines conclude the poem by suggesting that the people of the past had lesser things to write about, alluding to the belief that the youth is actually one of a kind.
‘Sonnet 59’ by William Shakespeare is a fourteen-line poem that is contained within one stanza, in the form that has become synonymous with the poet’s name. The English or Shakespearean sonnet (sometimes also known as the Elizabethan) 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. In this case, the final two lines come to a conclusion, of sorts, about what the writers of the past spent their time studying.
Shakespeare makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Sonnet 59’. These include but are not limited to alliteration, imagery, and enjambment. The first of these, alliteration, is seen through the use and reuse of the same letter and sound at the beginning of multiple words. In ‘Sonnet 59,’ a reader can look to “been before” and “brains beguiled” in line two for an example. There is another good example with “world” and “wonder” in lines nine and ten.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry 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 example, the transition between lines one and two and that between lines three and four.
Imagery refers to the elements of a poem that engage a reader’s senses. Traditionally, the word “image” is related to visual sights, things that a reader can imagine seeing, but the imagery is much more than that. It is something one can sense with their five senses. In this case, there are some good examples when Shakespeare describes the antique texts he’s interested in and alludes to the revolutions of the sun around the earth and the passage of time.
If there be nothing new, but that which is
Hath been before, how are our brains beguiled,
Which, lab’ring for invention, bear amiss
The second burthen of a former child!
In the first lines of ‘Sonnet 59,’ the speaker begins by referring to a belief that there is “nothing new” and that everything that exists now has existed forever. It is easy to read into this an allusion to the youth and the speaker’s previous assertions that the youth is new, one of a kind, and never to exist again in the same way.
He adds that if it is true that nothing is new then “our brains” are “beguiled” as we try to labor for “invention,” seeking out something that has never been written or thought of before. The poet uses the metaphor of the “former” child as a way to speak about laboring and inventing and still coming up with an imitation.
O that recórd could with a backward look,
Ev’n of five hundred courses of the sun,
Show me your image in some ántique book,
Since mind at first in character was done,
In the next four lines of ‘Sonnet 59’ the speaker meditates on the possibility, or impossibility, of looking back in time and seeing some writing, “five hundred courses of the sun” ago that spoke on the Fair Youth or someone just like him. His “image” could reside in “some ántique book” of the past. This time period he thinks would be when people were just setting characters onto paper. Of course, in this world, it would be the Fair Youth about which these unknown people would write.
That I might see what the old world could say
To this composèd wonder of your frame;
Whether we are mended, or where better they,
Or whether revolution be the same.
O sure I am the wits of former days
To subjects worse have giv’n admiring praise.
In the final quatrain of ‘Sonnet 59,’ the speaker suggests that by looking back into the past he’d be able to see what the people of old were writing about “your frame”. This is a reference to the Fair Youth’s body and general nature. If he were able to do this then he’d know if since then things have changed, and people have gotten better at writing, or if everything is the same as it was then. The word “revolution” in the twelfth line is used to refer to the revolutions of the earth. In all the revolutions that have gone by since that time, the speaker thinks, have things changed?
In the last two lines, he determines that the “wits of former days,” the clever writers of the past, wrote about things less deserving of praise than the youth.