‘Sonnet 68,’ also known as ‘Thus is his cheek the map of days outworn,’ is number sixty-eight of one hundred fifty-four sonnets that the Bard wrote over his lifetime. It is part of Shakespeare’s famous Fair Youth sequence of sonnets. These start with sonnet number one and run all the way through sonnet one hundred twenty-six.
These poems are devoted to a young, beautiful man whose identity remains unknown to this day. There has been a great deal of speculation about who this young man could possibly be, but no single identity has ever been decided upon.
The speaker complains in the fourteen lines of this stanza that there is too much false beauty in the world. It is no longer naturally born from nature because the world has changed in some fundamental way. Nature is no longer able to manufacture beauty as it once did. Now, everyone is forced to steal beauty from other people. The Fair Youth is the only genuine article still remaining in the world.
‘Sonnet 68’ by William Shakespeare is a fourteen-line poem that is structured within a single stanza. It is in the form that has become synonymous with the poet’s name. The Shakespearean sonnet (sometimes also known as the English or 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 (known as a couplet) are a rhyming pair. They often bring with them a turn or “volta” (in Italian) 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 68’. These include but are not limited to alliteration, metaphor, and allusion. The latter, allusion, is an expression that’s meant to call something specific to mind without directly stating it. In this case, the entire poem is an allusion to the previous two poems in the Fair Youth series. The speaker picks up right where he left off talking about the changes that have come over nature. A reader must refer to the previous two sonnets in order to fully understand this one.
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. There is a good example in the last lines of the poem where the poet compares the “green” or summer to a youth’s beauty and how that “green” might be stolen and used for someone else.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For instance, “days” and “died” in lines one and two as well as “flow’rs” (an example of syncope) and “fair” in lines two and three.
Thus is his cheek the map of days outworn,
When beauty lived and died as flow’rs do now,
Before these bastard signs of fair were born,
Or durst inhabit on a living brow;
In the first lines of ‘Sonnet 68,’ the speaker picks up where he left off in ‘Sonnet 67’. The previous sonnet, which was continued for ‘Sonnet 66,’ discussed the ways that the world is taking advantage of the Fair Youth’s goodness. This sonnet brings in the reader into images of the “days outworn,” or those of the past, that no longer exist anymore. At then of ‘Sonnet 67’ the speaker was addressing the changes that have come over nature and how the Fair Youth is the only genuine representative of what nature used to be.
Beauty was much ore common in the past. There were many more beautiful people back then and like flowers they grew, blossomed, and died. It was a time that the speaker feels was better in every way. It was before the “bastard” or illegitimate “signs of fair were born”. Now, he feels as though the world is filled with false beauty that is often placed on a “living brow” or human being.
Before the golden tresses of the dead,
The right of sepulchers, were shorn away,
To live a second life on second head;
Ere beauty’s dead fleece made another gay.
He brings in an example of this false beauty in the next lines, wings. He is offended by the thought that the “golden tresses,” or hair “of the dead” should be “shorn away” and used for a “second head”. This second life feels like a bastardization of the beauty that originally existed. This concept is also an allusion to the ideas he presented in the previous sonnet, such as that of the artist imitating the youth’s face.
In him those holy ántique hours are seen,
Without all ornament, itself and true,
Making no summer of another’s green,
Robbing no old to dress his beauty new;
And him as for a map doth nature store,
To show false art what beauty was of yore.
In contrast, the speaker brings in images of the Fair Youth and the “holy ántique hours” that one can see in his face. His beauty is true, genuinely rooted in his complexion and heart. It is more “itself and true” than any beauty nowadays. He uses a metaphor in these lines to compare the re-utilization or imitation of beauty to making “summer” of another’s “green,” or youth.
In the last two lines of the poem, the speaker says that nature is preserving the youth as a map. It is through this map that a careful observer or lover of the man can find their way to what “beauty was of yore”.