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Shakespeare Sonnet 106: "When in the chronicle of wasted time"

Updated on October 23, 2017
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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.

Shakespeare Sonnet Titles

The Shakespeare Sonnet sequence does not feature titles for each sonnet; therefore, each sonnet's first line becomes the title. According to the MLA Style Manuel:

"When the first line of a poem serves as the title of the poem, reproduce the line exactly as it appears in the text."

APA does not address this issue.

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

The real "Shakespeare"
The real "Shakespeare" | Source

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 106, "When in the chronicle of wasted time"

In sonnet 106, the speaker is studying earlier poetry and discovering that those writers had limited talent. They were not able to accomplish the mature level of art that this speaker now has done.

When in the chronicle of wasted time

When in the chronicle of wasted time
I see descriptions of the fairest wights,
And beauty making beautiful old rime,
In praise of ladies dead and lovely knights,
Then, in the blazon of sweet beauty’s best,
Of hand, of foot, of lip, of eye, of brow,
I see their antique pen would have express’d
Even such a beauty as you master now.
So all their praises are but prophecies
Of this our time, all you prefiguring;
And, for they look’d but with divining eyes,
They had not skill enough your worth to sing:
For we, which now behold these present days,
Have eyes to wonder, but lack tongues to praise.

(Please note: The Shakespeare writer did not make a mistake in the third line of this sonnet. The incorrect spelling, "rhyme," was not used until the 18th century when Dr. Samuel Johnson erroneously introduced that misspelling into English. For my explanation for using only the correct form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

Reading of Sonnet 106

Commentary

First Quatrain: "When in the chronicle of wasted time"

When in the chronicle of wasted time
I see descriptions of the fairest wights,
And beauty making beautiful old rime,
In praise of ladies dead and lovely knights,

The speaker of Shakespeare sonnet 106 has been reading poetry from earlier generations, and he notes that there are poems that seek to portray beauty. They attempt to capture beauty in their "beautiful old rime," by describing and complimenting women and warriors.


The speaker is making no particular judgment about those poems yet but is merely reporting his findings, framing his information in a subordinate clause, beginning with the subordinate conjunction "when." The entire first quatrain consists of the subordinate clause; therefore, the reader has to wait for second stanza to finish the speaker’s complete thought.

Second Quatrain: "Then, in the blazon of sweet beauty’s best"

Then, in the blazon of sweet beauty’s best,
Of hand, of foot, of lip, of eye, of brow,
I see their antique pen would have express’d
Even such a beauty as you master now.

The speaker then asserts that while noting the best offered by these ancient poems, he understands that those poets were attempting to accomplish what his poems have now mastered. Those poems that relied on the exaggeration of beauty of physical body parts such as "Of hand, of foot, of lip, of eye, of brow" obviously cannot compare favorably to the art of this present poet/speaker who has taken his art to the spiritual level.

In the first quatrain, the speaker had begun by even averring that when all is said and done those poets actually wasted their time in composing such vulgar descriptions. He now clips their flights of fancy by stating that their attempt to express beauty exists in "a blazon." Although they tried to accomplish greatness, they remained immature and obvious in their attempts.

Third Quatrain: "So all their praises are but prophecies"

So all their praises are but prophecies
Of this our time, all you prefiguring;
And, for they look’d but with divining eyes,
They had not skill enough your worth to sing:

Thus, all that those earlier poetry dabblers were able to accomplish has amounted to mere "prophecies." They had certain artistic goals in mind that they were not able to bring to fruition. They do serve as a precursor, however.

They were able to conjecture that some form might exist that would be able to do justice to the concept of beauty, but they did not possess the "skill" needed to actually accomplish the task set before them.

The Couplet: "For we, which now behold these present days"

For we, which now behold these present days,
Have eyes to wonder, but lack tongues to praise.

In the couplet, the speaker then speculates and formulates a claim that those earlier bards would mouth, had they the ability to experience what this brilliant, talented sonneteer now achieves.

They would report that they also saw great beauty and were inspired, but they would have to admit that they did not have the skill to write well enough to enshrine their observations.

Source

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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