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Shakespeare Sonnet 2: “When forty winters shall besiege thy brow”

Updated on May 9, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

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

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 2

In marriage sonnet # 2, the speaker continues to implore the young man to take a wife and produce offspring. He cautions the young lad to act before he begins to age and lose his youth, vitality, and beauty.

Sonnet 2

When forty winters shall besiege thy brow
And dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field,
Thy youth’s proud livery, so gaz’d on now,
Will be a tatter’d weed, of small worth held:
Then being ask’d, where all thy beauty lies,
Where all the treasure of thy lusty days,
To say, within thine own deep-sunken eyes,
Were an all-eating shame and thriftless praise.
How much more praise deserv’d thy beauty’s use,
If thou couldst answer ‘This fair child of mine
Shall sum my count, and make my old excuse,’
Proving his beauty by succession thine!
This were to be new made when thou art old,
And see thy blood warm when thou feel’st it cold.

Reading Shakespeare Sonnet 2

Commentary

The speaker in Shakespeare sonnet #2 continues the "Marriage Sonnets" imploring the young man to marry and produce offspring before he grow to old and decrepit!

First Quatrain: Old at 40

When forty winters shall besiege thy brow
And dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field,
Thy youth’s proud livery, so gaz’d on now,
Will be a tatter’d weed, of small worth held:

Life expectancy during the late 16th and early 17th centuries in Britain was approximately fifty years; therefore, at the age of forty an individual was considered old. The speaker’s metaphoric use of a ploughed corn field reminds the young man that by forty, he will have face full of wrinkles and look like that literal corn field ploughed into "deep trenches." An unsightly spectacle in any culture at any time!

The speaker knows that the young target of his pleading has a considerable amount of pride in his youthful, handsome appearance. Thus, in projecting the notion that one day in the future the young lad's looks will be degraded to a "tatter’d weed," the speaker hopes to score some points for his argument. That weed face will be worthless in trying procure a bride!

Second Quatrain: Beauty Stashed in a Withering Face

Then being ask’d, where all thy beauty lies,
Where all the treasure of thy lusty days,
To say, within thine own deep-sunken eyes,
Were an all-eating shame and thriftless praise.

The speaker then admonishes the youth that if the latter remains without an heir to carry on those admired qualities, the young man will have to realize that his beauteous, natural treasures will remain stashed in that withering face. All pride will cease without an heir to continue its reign.

The speaker shows frustration that this young man can be so callous as to steal from the world the benefit of the beauty the young man has to offer. By failing to offer those qualities for the benefit of others, the insolent youth is selfish and self-absorbed, qualifies that the speaker hopes to instill in the youth as undesirable and dreaded. The speaker pities the young man who garners only a future of a wrinkled face with nothing to replace his youthful beauty.

Third Quatrain: Upbraiding with Concocted Comparisons

How much more praise deserv’d thy beauty’s use,
If thou couldst answer ‘This fair child of mine
Shall sum my count, and make my old excuse,’
Proving his beauty by succession thine!

The speaker continues to upbraid the young man. He concocts a comparison of having a child now to not having one. If the young man follows the speaker’s advice and produces lovely offering now in his youthful, vibrant glory, he will be able to boast, "This fair child of mine / Shall sum my count, and make my old excuse." This beautiful offspring will testify to the world that his father was a handsome man. But if the young man continues his recalcitrant ways, he will have to confront the future with face that looks like a ploughed corn field with nothing but nothingness as he slides into death.

The Couplet: Retaining Youth by Producing Offspring

This were to be new made when thou art old,
And see thy blood warm when thou feel’st it cold.

In the couplet, the speaker finishes, emphasizing that the young lad will retain some portion of own youthful beauty by smartly producing offspring that has the ability to mimic his own beautiful characteristics and also will his name. After the young man inescapably drifts into old age, he will be comforted because there is warm blood coursing through the veins of his splendid offspring "This were to be new made when thou art old, / And see thy blood warm when thou feel’st it cold." The speaker hopes to persuade the young man to reproduce in order to warm himself against the cold of old age.

A Brief Overview: The 154-Sonnet Sequence

Scholars and critics of Elizabethan literature have determined that the sequence of 154 Shakespeare sonnets may be classified into three thematic categories: (1) Marriage Sonnets 1-17; (2) Muse Sonnets 18-126, traditionally identified as the "Fair Youth"; and (3) Dark Lady Sonnets 127-154.

Marriage Sonnets 1-17

The speaker in the Shakespeare “Marriage Sonnets” pursues a single goal: to persuade a young man to marry and produce beautiful offspring. It is likely that the young man is Henry Wriothesley, the third earl of Southampton, who is being urged to marry Elizabeth de Vere, the oldest daughter of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.

Many scholars and critics now argue persuasively that Edward de Vere is the writer of the works attributed to the nom de plume, "William Shakespeare." For example, Walt Whitman, one of America's greatest poets has opined:

Conceiv'd out of the fullest heat and pulse of European feudalism — personifying in unparalleled ways the medieval aristocracy, its towering spirit of ruthless and gigantic caste, with its own peculiar air and arrogance (no mere imitation) — only one of the "wolfish earls" so plenteous in the plays themselves, or some born descendant and knower, might seem to be the true author of those amazing works — works in some respects greater than anything else in recorded literature.

For more information regarding Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, as the real writer of the Shakespearean canon, please visit The De Vere Society, an organization that is "dedicated to the proposition that the works of Shakespeare were written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford."

Muse Sonnets 18-126 (Traditionally classified as "Fair Youth")

The speaker in this section of sonnets is exploring his talent, his dedication to his art, and his own soul power. In some sonnets, the speaker addresses his muse, in others he addresses himself, and in others he even addresses the poem itself.

Even though many scholars and critics have traditionally categorized this group of sonnets as the "Fair Youth Sonnets," there is no "fair youth," that is "young man," in these sonnets. There is no person at all in this sequence, with exception of the two problematic sonnets, 108 and 126.

Dark Lady Sonnets 127-154

The final sequence targets an adulterous romance with a woman of questionable character; the term “dark” likely modifies the woman’s character flaws, not her skin tone.

Three Problematic Sonnets: 108, 126, 99

Sonnet 108 and 126 present a problem in categorization. While most of the sonnets in the "Muse Sonnets" do focus on the poet's musings about his writing talent and do not focus on a human being, sonnets 108 and 126 are speaking to a young man, respectively calling him "sweet boy" and "lovely boy." Sonnet 126 presents an additional problem: it is not technically a "sonnet," because it features six couplets, instead of the traditional three quatrains and a couplet.

The themes of sonnets 108 and 126 would better categorize with the "Marriage Sonnets" because they do address a "young man." It is likely that sonnets 108 and 126 are at least partially responsible for the erroneous labeling of the "Muse Sonnets" as the "Fair Youth Sonnets" along with the claim that those sonnets address a young man.

While most scholars and critics tend to categorize the sonnets into the three-themed schema, others combine the "Marriage Sonnets" and the "Fair Youth Sonnets" into one group of "Young Man Sonnets." This categorization strategy would be accurate if the "Muse Sonnets" actually addressed a young man, as only the "Marriage Sonnets" do.

Sonnet 99 might be considered somewhat problematic: it features 15 lines instead of the traditional 14 sonnet lines. It accomplishes this task by converting the opening quatrain into a cinquain, with an altered rime scheme from ABAB to ABABA. The rest of the sonnet follows the regular rime, rhythm, and function of the traditional sonnet.

The Two Final Sonnets

Sonnets 153 and 154 are also somewhat problematic. They are classified with the Dark Lady Sonnets, but they function quite differently from the bulk of those poems.

Sonnet 154 is a paraphrase of Sonnet 153; thus, they carry the same message. The two final sonnets dramatize the same theme, a complaint of unrequited love, while outfitting the complaint with the dress of mythological allusion. The speaker employs the services of the Roman god Cupid and the goddess Diana. The speaker thus achieves a distance from his feelings, which he, no doubt, hopes will finally liberate him from the clutches of his lust/love and bring him equanimity of mind and heart.

In the bulk of the "dark lady" sonnets, the speaker has a been addressing the woman directly, or making it clear that what he is saying is intended for her ears. In the final two sonnets, the speaker is not directly addressing the mistress. He does mention her, but he is speaking now about her instead of directly to her. He is now making it quite clear that he is withdrawing from the drama with her.

Readers may sense that he has grown battle-weary from his struggle for the woman’s respect and affection, and now he has finally decided to make a philosophical drama that heralds the end of that disastrous relationship, announcing essentially, "I’m through."

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

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  • Maya Shedd Temple profile imageAUTHOR

    Linda Sue Grimes 

    2 years ago from U.S.A.

    Thank you for your response, Anne! Yes, the issue of longevity and life expectancy reveals much about a society's expectations. Today 80+ is the 40 of Elizabethan era. And especially when we consider our government leaders: while 65 is the retirement age for most of the citizenry, 65 is hardly a detriment to running for office... Ronald Reagan took the oath of office at 69 and 73. The current hopefuls: Hillary Clinton going on 68, Bernie Sanders 74, and the likely Joe Biden 72. Age is not a limitation as it was once thought to be.

    Of course, the speaker of the Shakespeare poem is not urging his charge to run for office--but to marry and procreate before he loses his youthful appearance. We still cannot turn that age-thing around: we just have to live in these old wrinkled bodies, despite all the cosmetic surgery, make-up, etc. And most of us will not begrudge leaving procreation to the young.

  • Anne Harrison profile image

    Anne Harrison 

    2 years ago from Australia

    it is interesting how perceptions change with time - to call someone withered and old at 40 today is almost unthinkable. The ease with which the sonnet reads belies the skill in its composition. Thank you for a thoughtful analysis

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