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Sonnet 123 by William Shakespeare

Today, one of Shakespeare's sonnets that I haven't posted before. (I keep a list, you see, of what I've posted from Shakespeare, since I've posted so darned MUCH of it over the past eight years. Yes. Eight. Can you believe it? My blogiversary was in May. But I digress.)

Today's pick seems like a poem of address, with the Bard talking to Time. Except that he isn't really talking to Time at all, but is letting the Fair Youth know that his love remains constant and true despite the passage of time, and that he isn't distracted by history or by new objects and buildings, all of which can come down just as easily as they went up. (In some ways, it's a call-back to Sonnet 55 (Not marble, nor the gilded monuments), which tackles the same material in (I'd argue) slightly better words, though this one wins for the level of defiance in the words "Thy registers and thee I both defy" and "I will be true, despite thy scythe and thee". In fact, the words call to mind his words from Richard II, Act I, scene 1, wherein Thomas Mowbray says "I do defy him and I spit at him". But again, I digress.)

Sonnet 123
by William Shakespeare

No! Time, thou shalt not boast that I do change:
Thy pyramids built up with newer might
To me are nothing novel, nothing strange;
They are but dressings of a former sight.
Our dates are brief, and therefore we admire
What thou dost foist upon us that is old,
And rather make them born to our desire
Than think that we before have heard them told.
Thy registers and thee I both defy,
Not wond'ring at the present nor the past,
For thy records and what we see doth lie,
Made more or less by thy continual haste.
  This I do vow and this shall ever be;
  I will be true, despite thy scythe and thee.

Form: Shakespearean sonnet, of course, written in iambic pentamter (10 syllables per line, organized into five poetic feet called iambs, each of which consists of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one: taDUM). Although I think he actually starts the poem with a trochee, which is a two syllable foot consisting of a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed one, because what with the exclamation mark after "No", I'm thinking it's "NO, time," and not "no, TIME." The rhyme scheme is typical Shakespearean sonnet form: ABABCDCDEFEFGG (where "past" and "haste" would have rhymed during Shakespeare's lifetime, although nowadays, they are slant rhyme).

Discussion: The first four lines appear to address Time, assuring Time that the poet cannot be accused of having changed. Even new buildings (pyramids), he argues, are nothing new (novel) or unfamiliar (strange): they're the same sort of thing man's been building for years, maybe gussied up a bit ("dressings of a former sight").

The second four lines discusses how the lifetime of a man is relatively short, and therefore men are eager to admire things that have been around for a long time. It seems like a throw-back to the discussion of buildings, but the second two lines drift in a new direction: we tend to think that what happens in our time is news (born to our desire) without considering that we've heard some of the same stories before. He's musing more about the behaviors of men than he is engaging in a conversation with Time here.

The third set of four lines makes plain that he's shifted from buildings and construction to the record books, when he says, "Thy registers and thee I both defy". Again, he's back to addressing Time, who writes all things down in his book, I suppose. And this line represents what is known as a volta or turn, where he breaks from musing about things to saying plainly "I defy you". Moving through this set of lines, when he says "not wondering at the present nor the past", he doesn't mean he isn't thinking about it - he means that he is not marveling at it, since the word "wonder" back then didn't usually mean that he felt some doubt about it. Instead, what he's saying is that he refuses to be awed by Time or to marvel at the present or the past, because Time and its records can and do lie, because Time has a way of hurrying along (hence, "thy continual haste").

The final couplet turns a bit further than the volta, and we arrive at the poet's real point, which isn't one he's making to Time at all, although that's who he pretends to speak to. Instead, his point is that he will remain constant in his love for the Fair Youth throughout all of eternity, regardless of Time's passage or the changes it tries to bring.

One could argue (and I believe I would) that Shakespeare managed to keep this vow, if only because all of these poems written for the Fair Youth have managed to immortalize the young man they were written for, even if he hasn't 100% been identified by scholars, and Shakespeare is known for his love for the Fair Youth still, quite a long time after his remains have been devoured by worms. Whether he does or does not still love the Fair Youth, it is hard to read his poems without believing that his love is constant and abiding.


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