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Shakespeare Sonnets 12 and 13

Updated on November 13, 2016
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Poetry became my passion, after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962.

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Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford


Shakespeare's Sonnets

Shakespeare's Sonnets: Premium Edition - Illustrated
Shakespeare's Sonnets: Premium Edition - Illustrated

This volume contains the complete 154 sonnets in the sequence of Shakespeare sonnets.


Introduction to Sonnet 12

The speaker of Shakespeare’s marriage poem 12 again shows how changing nature always comes under “Time’s scythe,” and only one remedy can fend him off: producing an heir.

In marriage sonnet 12, “When I do count the clock that tells the time,” the speaker frames a series of “when” clauses followed by a “then.”

In other words, the speaker proposes a situation as “when such and such happens, then we can expect such and such will result.”

The speaker continues to cleverly employ rhetorical devices that he feels are sufficient to carry his pleas to the young man, as he hopes his smart literary choices will have a strong effect on the young man's behavior in the future.

Reading of Sonnet 12

First Quatrain: "When I do count the clock that tells the time"

In the first quatrain, the speaker begins his series by asserting that when he looks at the clock and sees times flying by and the “brave day” is being engulfed in the “hideous night," and when he sees a young man like a fresh flower turning into an old gray haired man, . . . .

Then the quatrain stops with a semi-colon, and at the point, we do not know where the speaker might go with his “when” clauses.

Second Quatrain: "When lofty trees I see barren of leaves"

So we proceed to the second quatrain, wherein the speaker is continuing metaphorically to compare young man’s youth to trees that lose their leaves.

What had once provided a leafy roof against the summer’s blazing sun becomes “summer’s green all girded up in sheaves, / Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard.”

It becomes evident that the speaker once again is likening the youth of the young lad to naturally occurring things and events.

Particularly useful to the speaker is the ability to compare the young man to the leaves on trees, useful when young, not so much after they dry up and drop off the tree.

Third Quatrain: "Then of thy beauty do I question make"

The third quatrain supplies the “then” or result of all the “whens”: then the youth and beauty that nature possessed passes away.

And the speaker wants to ask the young man if he thinks his own beauty will not go “among the wastes of time.”

Since these other natural things—the day that sinks into night, the violet that withers in time, the black hair that turns white, the trees in summer that lose their leaves to winter—lose their youthful attributes, how can the young man not realize that he too will come under the sway of nature?

Couplet: "And nothing ’gainst Time’s scythe can make defence"

The couplet, “And nothing ’gainst Time’s scythe can make defence / Save breed, to brave him when he takes thee hence,” offers the young man his only way to overcome “Time’s scythe”—that he marry and produce pleasing offspring.

Reading of Sonnet 13

Introduction to Sonnet 13

In sonnet 13, the speaker continues pleading with the young man to marry and father a son. Again, the speaker is quite specific: “You had a father: let your son say so.”

The speaker of marriage sonnet 13 is the same speaker of the marriage sonnets 1-12, of course, and the reader will not fail to perceive correctly the same theme: encouraging, cajoling, and wheedling the young man to marry and produce pleasing offspring, particularly male offspring.

First Quatrain: "O! that you were yourself; but, love, you are"

The first quatrain finds the speaker seemingly speaking nonsensically, as once again he is cajoling the young lad. The speaker is asserting if only the young man were intended only to live for himself, he could avoid the trouble of having to marry and create the next generation.

However, the speaker wants to declare that a human life does not merely exist for one human being only. He wants the lad to believe, as the speaker, does that the current generation must consider the existence of the next generation.

The speaker thus again declaims: “Against the coming end you should prepare.” The speaker insists that the young man father child so the future will not be without the young man's fine qualities. The young man's children will resemble the lad, thus, in a sense, the young man will continue to exist.

Second Quatrain: "So should that beauty which you hold in lease"

The beauty of the lad is fleeting, and because it is a temporary gift, he needs to pass it on to his offspring. Such an act of fathering children, who will naturally possess the same lovely qualities of the father, will greatly enhance the world to come.

The speaker is continually on the look out for new manners in which to flatter and egg on the vanity of the handsome young man. The speaker emphasizes the desirable qualities of the lad and then insists that the young man must pass them on so they do not die with him.

Third Quatrain: "Who lets so fair a house fall to decay"

The third quatrain finds the speaker comparing the lad's physical encasement to that of a house, while he suggests rhetorically through a question: who lets a nice house get run down when he can through proper care make sure it continues to stand, even against the calamitous weather that may pound it?

The speaker is, of course, implying that no one in their right mind would ever do such a thing. The proper and even moral thing to do would be to protect such a fine building from the ravages of time and weather.

The speaker hopes the young man will find convincing his comparison of the lad's body building to that of a fine house that would protect its residents from those same ravages of time and weather.

Couplet: "O! none but unthrifts. Dear my love, you know"

The speaker becomes straightforward and frank, to the point of answering his own rhetorical question. He tells the lad that, in fact, no one but the wasteful would allow such a fine house to become decrepit.

The speaker then waxes even more frank as he states quite literally: you had a father, let you children so the same thing.

Thus, again the speaker is demanding of the young man that he should get married and begin producing those offspring that will make him immortal and fill the world with beauty and pleasant qualities.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes


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