Love vs. Time in the Sonnets

When I finally read William Shakespeare’s sonnets, what appealed to me on an intellectual level was not the phonetic devices or even the rhythm of the lines.  The most striking aspect was the personification of abstract concepts and natural phenomenon throughout the poems: love, beauty, fertility, the seasons, time, etc.

The character Time was especially intriguing, being mentioned off and on as being in opposition to the object of the poet’s affections.  Even when Time itself is not mentioned, its effects on the world pose a threat to the poet’s emotions.  Time’s ability to change, age, and eventually kill everything in nature through its passing offers an antagonist against which Love’s value can be measured.

Regarding the theme of Love versus Time, Sonnet 17 begs the theoretical question of whether future readers will believe how beautiful the love interest is.  To illustrate the dilemma, the poet describes his pages as “yellow’d with their age,” and readers mocking his poem as impossible since no such beautiful person could have ever existed. The solution the Bard gives is for the love interest to have a child who inherits his beauty, phrased as “But were some child of yours alive that time, / You should live twice,—in it, and in my rhyme.”  By having “child” share a line with “time,” Shakespeare has subtly established one as victor over the other, thus immortalizing the original person through his descendants.

A more obvious comparison of Love and Time is found in Sonnet 116.  Mirroring St. Paul in the New Testament, (1 Corinthians 13 to be precise,) Shakespeare describes Love (probably representing the actual person) by stating what he is not.  Among the examples is the declaration: “Love’s not Time’s fool,” personifying Time as a master or lordly figure who controls others.  Time is even said to have a sickle, reminiscent of Death’s common depiction as a reaper.  However, the poet insists that Love is not swayed by Time’s whims, remaining constant regardless of its passage.  The characterization and consequential conflict between Love and Time thus offers the reader a beautiful depiction of abstract concepts that they otherwise would not be able to imagine.

Time is only one of the many abstract characters and concepts Shakespeare encompasses in his sonnets.  Unfortunately, if I or anyone were to devote the time and attention to analyzing every aspect of his poetry with the most intricate level of detail, it would take years, possibly as much time as it took the Bard himself to write them.  Such an endeavor is more suited for a doctoral dissertation, not a blog post.


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