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Shakespeare Sonnet 22: "My glass shall not persuade me I am old"

Updated on April 26, 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 22

This sonnet 22, "My glass shall not persuade me I am old," belongs to the Muse sequence or the Writer sonnets, which comprises the largest section in the 154 poem sequence. The first thematic section includes the first 17 sonnet. The second thematic section includes 18-126, or 109 sonnets. The final section, the "Dark Lady" theme includes 127-154 or 28 poems. It remains completely appropriate that a writer such as the one experienced in the Shakespeare canon would be so totally absorbed in his own writing process as this middle section of 109 sonnets attests.

Therefore, it is unsurprising that he demonstrates more interest with more sonnets in his composing muse than in the themes of the other two sections. Thus, the speaker in Sonnet 22 is asserting that despite the aging and eventual death of his physical body, his talent for composing lovely poems will eternally command his love, and the sonnets will inspire future generations.

Sonnet 22

My glass shall not persuade me I am old
So long as youth and thou are of one date;
But when in thee time’s furrows I behold,
Then look I death my days should expiate.
For all that beauty that doth cover thee
Is but the seemly raiment of my heart,
Which in thy breast doth live, as thine in me:
How can I then, be elder than thou art?
O! therefore, love, be of thyself so wary
As I, not for myself, but for thee will;
Bearing thy heart, which I will keep so chary
As tender nurse her babe from faring ill.
Presume not on thy heart when mine is slain;
Thou gav’st me thine, not to give back again.

Reading of Shakespeare sonnet 22

Commentary

The speaker in Sonnet 22 asserts that despite his physical aging and death, his talent for creating poems will eternally retain his love, inspiring future generations.

First Quatrain: Maintaining His Inner Youth

My glass shall not persuade me I am old
So long as youth and thou are of one date;
But when in thee time’s furrows I behold,
Then look I death my days should expiate.

In the first quatrain, the speaker broaches the issue of aging. He asserts that when he looks into his mirror, he will not believe he is old as long as youth itself and his writing talent/poems have not aged.

Of course, youth itself will not have aged, and it makes sense that his poems will not age. They will sit eternally on the page ever speaking in the speaker’s voice. However, if the speaker finds that his poems are aging with "time’s furrows," he shall expect his own life will atone for his own death. His life can only accomplish such atonement through his creative writing, his poetry, his sonnets.

Second Quatrain: Beauty from the Heart

For all that beauty that doth cover thee
Is but the seemly raiment of my heart,
Which in thy breast doth live, as thine in me:
How can I then, be elder than thou art?

The speaker asserts that the beauty that decorates his poems is the same as the beauty that grows in the speaker’s heart. The same beauty and life that live in the poetry’s heart also live in the speaker’s heart; they are one and the same, so one cannot be older than the other.

The speaker, even though he will eventually appear in the mirror to reflect a withered brow and graying hair, will still retain his youth because of his ability to understand the ageless soul nature of his own being and that of his poetry.

Third Quatrain: Addressing Love

O! therefore, love, be of thyself so wary
As I, not for myself, but for thee will;
Bearing thy heart, which I will keep so chary
As tender nurse her babe from faring ill.

In the third quatrain, the speaker addresses "love," personifying his beloved writing and asking it guard itself against the danger of sinking into mediocrity because he will also take this same precaution. The speaker will guard his talent the same way a "tender nurse [protects] her babe from faring ill."

The speaker can make such seemingly obvious promises because he and his works are one, just as he and his heart’s love are one and the same. The drama the speaker creates brings out into the light of day the thoughts and feelings that usually run beneath the surface like an underground river.

The Couplet: Addressing His Sonnet

Presume not on thy heart when mine is slain;
Thou gav’st me thine, not to give back again.

In the couplet, the speaker addresses his sonnet and asks it not to think merely because this speaker/poet will die that it will die also. After the speaker received the gift from God that became his writing talent, he retained it for all eternity; therefore, the speaker/poet’s physical death cannot result in his spiritual death, and he is leaving his love easily received by future generations in his sonnets and other writings.

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 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.

Two Problematic Sonnets: 108 and 126

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.

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."

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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