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Shakespeare Sonnet 64: "When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defac’d"

Updated on December 12, 2017
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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


This sonnet should be paired with the following sonnet 65, because in 64 the speaker presents his fear and in 65 he shows how it is mitigated.

In sonnet 64, the speaker appears to remain levelheaded and earthbound, although he is reporting that he entertains great fears of losing his love.

Even though the speaker is certain that this even must occur, he also seems to be implying that a remedy for the situation does exist. Or does he?

Sonnet 64

When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defac’d
The rich-proud cost of outworn buried age;
When sometime lofty towers I see down-raz’d,
And brass eternal slave to mortal rage;
When I have seen the hungry ocean gain
Advantage on the kingdom of the shore,
And the firm soil win of the watery main,
Increasing store with loss, and loss with store;
When I have seen such interchange of state,
Or state itself confounded to decay;
Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate—
That Time will come and take my love away.
This thought is as a death, which cannot choose
But weep to have that which it fears to lose.

Reading of Sonnet 64

First Quatrain: “When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defac’d”

Beginning with the first quatrain, the speaker asserts four adverbial “when” clauses, two in the first quatrain, each dramatizing the theme of decay and loss. The speaker avers that he has seen “outworn buried age[s]" devastated by the hand of Time.

The mature speaker has seen “lofty towers” taken down and “brass eternal slave to mortal rage.” Through war and civil havoc, the speaker has observed the destruction that comes to all things in the mortal world.

Second Quatrain: “When I have seen the hungry ocean gain”

The speaker then pivots to the natural events of the sea that range upon the shore, as she continues with the third “when” clause.

The speaker has experienced observing the waxing and waning of the waves as they beat upon the shore and bring about the erosion of the sand; however, the land always returns the onslaught, fighting back and regaining control from the waves.

The waves bring their force upon the land, and the land again offers its force unto the waves in an everlasting struggle of opposite natures.

Of course, all of the natural creation is composed of sets of opposites, or its existence would be impossible.

Third Quatrain: “When I have seen such interchange of state”

The final “when” clause discloses that the speaker has seen nations go down to decay.

The speaker then reveals that when he has taken all of this decay and devastation into account, he has learned from all of this “ruin” “to ruminate” and conclude, “Time will come and take my love away.”

From all of his observation and experience watching things be spoiled, destroyed, wrecked, and broken, the speaker draws a certain conclusion about how the physical world operates.

From the young child who thinks his world will yield to his joys eternally to the old man who has seen perpetual destruction, the mind of man comes to realize the evanescence of all physical existence.

The Couplet: “This thought is as a death, which cannot choose”

In the couplet, “This thought is as a death, which cannot choose / But weep to have that which it fears to lose,” the speaker dramatizes his logical conclusion.

The speaker has discerned that if one cannot escape “death” and loss, then one has no choice but to be driven to the dread of losing what he has.

The sonnet leaves the reader with an empty feeling, which is unlike most of the other sonnets. The speaker habitually poses problems but almost always solves them.

This sonnet leaves the reader with a loss that is not restored until the next sonnet.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes


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