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Shakespeare Sonnet 6: "Then let not winter’s ragged hand deface"

Updated on May 5, 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

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Shakespeare Sonnet 6

Then let not winter’s ragged hand deface
In thee thy summer, ere thou be distill’d:
Make sweet some vial; treasure thou some place
With beauty’s treasure, ere it be self-kill’d.
That use is not forbidden usury,
Which happies those that pay the willing loan;
That’s for thyself to breed another thee,
Or ten times happier, be it ten for one;
Ten times thyself were happier than thou art,
If ten of thine ten times refigur’d thee;
Then what could death do, if thou shouldst depart,
Leaving thee living in posterity?
Be not self-will’d, for thou art much too fair
To be death’s conquest and make worms thine heir.

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 6

Sonnet 6 is one of the "Marriage Sonnets," in which the speaker attempts to persuade a young man to marry and produce beautiful offspring. As this sonnet sequence progresses, a number of fascinating metaphors and images emerge from the speaker's literary tool kit. The speaker's passion becomes almost a frenzy as he begs, cajoles, threatens, and shames this young lad, trying to persuade the young man that he simply must marry and produce offspring that will perpetuate the lad's fine qualities.

Sonnet 6

Then let not winter’s ragged hand deface
In thee thy summer, ere thou be distill’d:
Make sweet some vial; treasure thou some place
With beauty’s treasure, ere it be self-kill’d.
That use is not forbidden usury,
Which happies those that pay the willing loan;
That’s for thyself to breed another thee,
Or ten times happier, be it ten for one;
Ten times thyself were happier than thou art,
If ten of thine ten times refigur’d thee;
Then what could death do, if thou shouldst depart,
Leaving thee living in posterity?
Be not self-will’d, for thou art much too fair
To be death’s conquest and make worms thine heir.

Reading of Sonnet 6

Commentary

Sonnet 6 may be considered as a companion piece to Sonnet 5. The speaker opens by referring to the same metaphor he employed in the earlier sonnet, the distillation of flowers.

First Quatrain: Creeping Old Age

Then let not winter’s ragged hand deface
In thee thy summer, ere thou be distill’d:
Make sweet some vial; treasure thou some place
With beauty’s treasure, ere it be self-kill’d.

The speaker begins by employing an adverbial conjunction "then" which signals that sonnet 6 is tied to Sonnet 5. He admonishes the young man that the latter should not let creeping old age overtake his youth: the lad must produce an heir to stay that putrid stage of life.

Thus, the speaker metaphorically likens the season of winter as old age, summer as youth, and the process of distillation becomes the offspring. The speaker demands of the youth that he, "Make sweet some vial; treasure thou some place / With beauty’s treasure, ere it be self-kill’d." The speaker is admonishing the young man to "distill" his beauty by pouring that quality into a glass bottle, as a perfume or a liquor would be done. And again, the speaker compends his signature note, "before it’s too late," to nudge his young charge in the direction toward which the speaker continues to direct the young man.

Second Quatrain: A Money Metaphor

With beauty’s treasure, ere it be self-kill’d.
That use is not forbidden usury,
Which happies those that pay the willing loan;
That’s for thyself to breed another thee,

The speaker then switches to a money metaphor. He asserts that by completing his assignment to procreate, the speaker also employs a proper station for this beauty. But sending his own lovely features down to his offspring, the young lad is making happy the enitre universe. The young man is, thereby, likened to those who repay debts after they have borrowed; when the loan is satisfied everyone is satisfied.

The speaker at the same time is implying that if the lad does not produce offspring to perpetuate his beauteous qualities, he will be like one who fails to satisfy his debts; thereby, resulting in unhappiness and humiliation for all involved. Then the speaker inserts a new notion that he has not, heretofore, offered: he now proposes the idea that if the young man sires ten offspring, then ten times the happiness will result. The speaker attempts to demonstrate the marvelous boon that ten heirs would be by numerically stating, "ten times happier, be it ten for one."

Third Quatrain: Think Hard on Deathlessness

Or ten times happier, be it ten for one;
Ten times thyself were happier than thou art,
If ten of thine ten times refigur’d thee;
Then what could death do, if thou shouldst depart,
Leaving thee living in posterity?

The speaker admires his new solution so much that he repeats the number, "Ten times thyself were happier than thou art, / If ten of thine ten times refigur’d thee." The speaker employs the entire force of his argument by suggesting that ten offspring would offer ten times more happiness. The speaker then queries: "Then what could death do, if thou shouldst depart, / Leaving thee living in posterity?"

The speaker desires that the young man take it upon himself to think hard on his own desire for deathlessness and how that status would be accomplished by producing lovely offspring to carry on after the lad has left his body. The speaker's question is, of course, rhetorical, and it implies that the lad could win the battle of death by leaving an heir who would resemble the young man. Growing old, withering, and leaving this world would be outsmarted, if only the lad would marry and procreate, according to the speaker.

The Couplet: To Avoid Selfishness

Be not self-will’d, for thou art much too fair
To be death’s conquest and make worms thine heir.

Finally, the speaker demands that the young man not remain "self-will’d," that is, thinking only of his own pleasure and enjoyment, wishing that the time frame of the present could ever be, without sufficient cogitation on the future. The speaker desires to impart to the younger man the notion that the lad's pleasing qualities are too valuable to permit "worms" to become "thine heir."

The speaker employs the unpleasantness of nature as well as nature's loveliness and beauty— whichever seems to further his cause—in convincing the young lad that reproducing heirs remains one of his most crucial duties in life. The speaker continues to attempt to persuade the young man to marry and procreate by portraying old age and death as utterly disagreeable, especially wherein the aging one has not taken the steps against self-destruction by marrying and procreating many offspring that will continue the qualities of the father.

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

Submit a Comment

  • Maya Shedd Temple profile imageAUTHOR

    Linda Sue Grimes 

    3 years ago from U.S.A.

    Yes, the Shakespeare sonnets are quite inspirational on many levels.

  • whonunuwho profile image

    whonunuwho 

    3 years ago from United States

    We who write poetry may each learn by examining Shakespeare's metaphors. He was quite the inspirer in his day. whonu

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