‘Sonnet 60,’ also known as ‘Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore,’ is number sixty 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. This particular poem is one of Shakespeare’s best. It explores themes of time, youth, age, and writing.
The speaker spends the majority of the poem using personification to describe time as a force that gives and then takes away. It chooses to destroy all of that which it once created. It leads even the best of nature into destruction, corrupting a pure brow with wrinkles. In the last lines, the speaker says that no matter what time tries to do his writings are going to survive forever and therefore so too will the youth’s beauty.
‘Sonnet 60’ 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. There is an exception in this particular poem, namely the use of “brow” and “mow” in the third quatrain. These are half-rhymes rather than full rhymes.
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 turn declares that all the powers of time are useless in the face of the poet’s own verse.
Shakespeare makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Sonnet 60’. These include but are not limited to alliteration, personification, and enjambment. The first of these, alliteration, is the use of the same sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “Crawls,” “crowned,” and “crooked” in lines six and seven as well as “glory” and “gift” in lines seven and eight.
Personification occurs when a poet imbues a non-human creature or object with human characteristics. In this case, Shakespeare uses personification to depict “Time” as a being with the power to choose to destroy. It has a nature, its own agency, and power. This is far from the first time that the poet has used this technique in this way. One of the best alternative examples comes from ‘Sonnet One’.
Enjambment is another prevalent technique in much of Shakespeare’s poetry. 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 nine and ten.
Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore,
So do our minutes hasten to their end,
Each changing place with that which goes before,
In sequent toil all forwards do contend.
In the first lines of ‘Sonnet 60,’ the speaker begins with a clear and beautiful description of time. He uses a metaphor to compare the progression of time to the movement of waves “towards the pebbled shore”. Life is fast and there is never enough time to do everything that one wants to, these lines allude to. The moments move as the waves do, in and out, one replacing the next. Their efforts together move one’s life forward towards its inevitable conclusion.
Nativity, once in the main of light,
Crawls to maturity, wherewith being crowned,
Crooked eclipses ‘gainst his glory fight,
And time that gave doth now his gift confound.
In the next four lines of ‘Sonnet 60,’ the speaker describes “Nativity” and everything that has ever been born. None of it stays young or new forever. It all “Crawls” through time to “maturity” where it finds its light and peak. There are numerous obstacles to that peak that all living beings face. There are “Crooked eclipses” that try to fight against “his glory”. Time, which was once a friend carrying one on towards the penultimate moments of their life becomes an adversary. It takes its gift back.
Time doth transfix the flourish set on youth
And delves the parallels in beauty’s brow;
Feeds on the rarities of nature’s truth,
And nothing stands but for his scythe to mow.
And yet to times in hope my verse shall stand,
Praising thy worth, despite his cruel hand.
In the third quatrain of ‘Sonnet 60,’ the speaker adds that it is time’s job to destroy the beauty of youth that it once bestowed and create wrinkles on “beauty’s brow”. The perfect smoothness of youth is corrupted by “parallels”.
Time even “Feeds on the rarities of nature’s truth,” the most beautiful things in nature fall victim to the power of time. There is nothing it won’t touch with its “scythe”. These lines use imagery to refer to the figure of death as a grim reaper.
In the last two lines, the speaker concludes by saying his verses will last into the future. They will continue to praise the youth’s worth no matter what time tries to do.