Sonnet 77: Thy glass will show thee how thy beauties wear by William Shakespeare

Sonnet 77,’ also known as ‘Thy glass will show thee how thy beauties wear,’ is number seventy-seven of one hundred fifty-four sonnets that the Bard wrote over his lifetime. It falls at exactly the halfway point between sonnet number one and sonnet 154. This sonnet marks the transition between the speaker as the writer and chronicler of the youth‘s beauty and good nature and the youth taking on some of that responsibility for himself.

This particular sonnet and those which are numbered 1-126 belong to Shakespeare’s famous Fair Youth sequence. 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. 

 

Summary of Sonnet 77 

‘Sonnet 77’ by William Shakespeare engages in some of the most common themes in Shakespeare’s 154 sonnet series, including old age, time, and beauty.

In the first lines of this poem, the speaker begins by telling the youth that he needs to start looking in the mirror and understanding that his face is changing. He’s going to get old and wrinkles are going to appear in his skin at the same time he also needs to start keeping track of the dials on the clock. They will show him how time is continually moving forward creeping up taking away what’s left of his life. 

Shakespeare’s speaker tells the young man that it will enrich his life if he takes the time to write down his memories with pen on paper. Therefore, when he’s old and can no longer remember the things that he’s written he can return to them and relive them as new acquaintances.

 

Structure of Sonnet 77

‘Sonnet 77’ by William Shakespeare is single stanza poem that is made up of fourteen lines. It is a good example of the English or Shakespearean sonnet (sometimes also known as the Elizabethan). This form requires that the sonnet be 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.

The last two lines (known as a couplet) are a rhyming pair. They often, but not always, 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.

 

Poetic Techniques in Sonnet 77 

Shakespeare makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Sonnet 77’. These include but are not limited to alliteration, anaphora, and metaphor. The first of these, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “minutes” and “mind’s” in lines two and three. 

Shakespeare also makes use of anaphora, or the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession. This technique is often used to create emphasis. A list of phrases, items, or actions may be created through its implementation. For example, “Thy” at the beginning of lines one and two. 

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 example, the speaker compares the wrinkles that the youth is going to see in his face to “mouthéd graves,” or open graves. This image is poignant and full of associations. 

 

Analysis of Sonnet 77

Lines 1-4

Thy glass will show thee how thy beauties wear,

Thy dial how thy precious minutes waste;

The vacant leaves thy mind’s impr’nt will bear,

And of this book this learning mayst thou taste:

In the first four lines of this poem, the speaker begins by addressing the Fair Youth, as he has throughout the majority of the previous seventy-six poems. He tells the youth in his first lines that over time the youth’s “glass“ (mirror), will eventually show him that his beauties are wearing away. His beauties “wear“ because, despite his originality, grace, and divine nature, he is still human. Old age, one of the most common themes in Shakespeare’s sonnets, is still going to catch up to him. The glass, or mirror, will act as a clock for the youth. The youth will look into his mirror and see that his “precious minutes“ are wasting away.

 The speaker also refers to the “vacant leaves“. This is a reference to a piece of paper that can be used for writing. Again, another familiar theme in Shakespeare’s sonnets. The poetry that the speaker is referencing, is the only way that the youth’s true beauty is going to last. The written words are going to record the youth’s thoughts. This is a turn from the previous sonnets. While in past poems the speaker has focused on himself as the writer, now the youth is taking some control of the pen. By writing down his thoughts the youth might learn something.

 

Lines 5-8 

The wrinkles which thy glass will truly show

Of mouthèd graves will give thee memory;

Thou by thy dial’s shady stealth mayst know

Time’s thievish progress to eternity.

In the second quatrain, the speaker goes back to talking about the mirror and the youth aging complexion. When he looks in the mirror it will show him the wrinkles on his face. These markings will remind him of “mouthed graves” or open graves.  Death is ever-present, hunting him no matter what he does. 

Just as the mirror will inform him of the changes to his face, the dial of the clock will show him how time is always on its way to catching up with him. The clock has a “stealth“ that allows it to progress unseen. It remains in the shade until it’s too late.

 

Lines 9-14 

Look what thy memory cannot contain,

Commit to these waste blanks, and thou shalt find

Those children nursed, delivered from thy brain,

To take a new acquaintance of thy mind.

These offices, so oft as thou wilt look,

Shall profit thee and much enrich thy book.

In the third and final quatrain Sonnet 77, the speaker tells the youth that he should commit his thoughts to paper. Then, as time progresses and he finds himself in the grip of old age, he can return to the notebook and relive his experiences. The poet uses a metaphor to compare these written experiences to children. They were “delivered” from the youth’s “brain”. Then, when he encounters them again once he’s older, they will be like new acquaintances.

In the final two lines of the poem, the speaker concludes his argument. He tells the youth that by writing down his memories, thoughts, and anything he’s afraid of forgetting, while also continually checking the mirror and watching the dial of the clock, his life will be enriched and so will the book in which he is describing his experiences. This “book“ is a record of his life. It is every intricacy of his soul, something that the speaker has a vested interest in preserving.

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