William Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets, which were first published in a 1609 quarto. The Sonnets present themes like the passing of time, mortality, beauty, and love. Sonnet 6 is part of the “Fair youth sequence” in William Shakespeare’s sonnets. Sonnets 1-126 are called the “Fair youth” as they address an unnamed young man and talk about certain themes, like marriage, children, love, and intimacy, among others. Throughout these poems, there is a romantic use of language to portray vivid and loving images.
Most of Shakespeare’s sonnets have a similar structure: three quatrains (stanzas with four lines) and a final couplet (two lines). They are composed in iambic pentameter, as most of Shakespeare’s plays, and with an ABAB CDCD EFEF GG rhyme scheme. This structure is known as the Shakespearean sonnet because of the changes made by the author over the original sonnet form. Thus, Sonnet 6 follows this particular structure.
Sonnet 6 extends and continues with the themes and the imagery of Sonnet 5. Winter imagery and summer imagery are opposed, in order to symbolize old age and young age (respectively). The main theme in Sonnet 6 is procreation, as the lyrical voice addresses this unnamed figure and expresses the young man’s obligation and necessity to have children in order to transfer beauty to the following generations. Hence, there is a connection between the personification of the figure of the young loved man, which the lyrical voice speaks out to, and the passing of time.
Sonnet 6: Then let not winter’s ragged hand deface Analysis
Then let not winter’s ragged hand deface
In thee thy summer, ere thou be distilled.
Make sweet some vial; treasure thou some place
With beauty’s treasure, ere it be self-killed.
The first quatrain establishes a connection with the previous sonnet. As already mentioned, Sonnet 6 uses themes and images from the previous sonnet. Furthermore, the first word of the first line of the poem (“Then”) suggests this idea of continuity between both poems in a concrete way. The first line introduces a winter imagery, which corresponds to old age, followed by a summer imagery, which corresponds to youth. Winter is personified and this unnamed figure is warned of the consequences of passing of time. The lyrical voice urges him to conceive a child before this unknown figure is too old (“Make sweet some vial”). Moreover, the words “distilled” and “vial” refer to the flowers and perfume mentioned in Sonnet 5. The quatrain concludes by stating that, if the young man doesn’t have children, his beauty will be lost forever. Notice the similarity in structure of the two sentences of the stanza and how they contribute to the rhyme and pace introduced by the iambic pentameter. The strong images juxtapose the uniform musicality in order to deliver a powerful message.
That use is not forbidden usury
Which happies those that pay the willing loan;
That’s for thyself to breed another thee,
Or ten times happier, be it ten for one.
The second quatrain depicts the lyrical voice’s thoughts about the benefits of procreation. These lines make it clear that, once the beauty in love is recognized, it must be passed on to following generations or it will decay. According to the lyrical voice, having children is a way to live through time and not be lost and succumb to death. Lines three and four suggest that having children brings happiness (“That’s for thyself to breed another thee,/ Or ten times happier, be it ten for one”) and emphasizes the need to conceive further generations. Notice how the rhythm of the poem is regular and continues the musicality of the first stanza.
Ten times thyself were happier than thou art,
If ten of thine ten times refigured thee.
Then what could death do if thou shouldst depart,
Leaving thee living in posterity?
The third quatrain emphasizes the idea of the first two stanzas. The lyrical voice begins by accentuating what he/she already said in the previous quatrain: “Then times thyself were happier than thou art,/ If ten of thine ten times refigured thee”. And proceeds by making a more direct allusion with a question towards this unknown young man: “Then what could death do if thou shouldst depart,/Leaving thee living in posterity?”. Thus, as already mentioned, having children could be a way of defeating death, as later generations carry the identity of their parents. Notice how the repetition and the stress placed on bearing children create a strong encouragement towards procreation. Throughout the stanzas, the tone of the poem will become stronger and more determined, as the lyrical voice feels the need to make the young man understand his/her message.
Be not self-willed, for thou art much too fair
To be death’s conquest and make worms thine heir.
The final couplet functions as a last resource to make the young man understand. The lyrical voice tells the unknown man not to be narcissistic (“Be not self-willed, for thou art much too fair”), something already mentioned in the beginning of the sonnet (“self-killed”), and relates it to the image of death (“To be death’s conquest and make worms thine heir”). The final lines conclude with a compelling image, demonstrating the effect and the repercussion of what the lyrical voice has been saying throughout the stanzas. As in the rest of the poem, there are conceits that create vivid and tangible images, which foreground the theme of procreation.
About William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare was baptized in 1564 and died in 1616. He was an English poet and playwright. Shakespeare is believed to be the best English writer and dramatist of all times. He is called England’s national poet. Moreover, William Shakespeare wrote 38 plays, 154 sonnets, and two long narrative poems. He produced most of his work between 1585 and 1592 and he wrote tragedies, like Hamlet and Macbeth, until 1608.