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Shakespeare Sonnet 68: "Thus is his cheek the map of days outworn"

Updated on April 22, 2018
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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

Source

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 68

In sonnet 68, the speaker is once again chastising those poetasters who merely imitate the older established artist. The imitations lack the honesty and genuine search for truth and beauty that the originals possessed.

In the preceding sonnet, the speaker had also broached the subject of good art vs bad, but he concluded that nature can possess both and the good and true will outshine and outlive the mediocre.

Because this speaker knows himself to be a genuine talent, he is capable of offering criticism of the works of others. And he is not shy in letting his listeners and readers know what he deems legitimate and what he deems unworthy of honor and praise.

Sonnet 68

Thus is his cheek the map of days outworn
When beauty liv’d and died as flowers do now,
Before these bastard signs of fair were born,
Or durst inhabit on a living brow;
Before the golden tresses of the dead,
The right of sepulchres, were shorn away,
To live a second life on second head;
Ere beauty’s dead fleece made another gay:
In him those holy antique hours are seen,
Without all ornament, itself and true,
Making no summer of another’s green,
Robbing no old to dress his beauty new;
And him as for a map doth Nature store,
To show false Art what beauty was of yore.

Reading of Sonnet 68

Commentary

Sonnet 68 is a companion piece to sonnet 67, continuing the theme of authentic art vs the artificial.

First Quatrain: Nature Proffering True Art

Thus is his cheek the map of days outworn
When beauty liv’d and died as flowers do now,
Before these bastard signs of fair were born,
Or durst inhabit on a living brow;

The speaker begins sonnet 68, linking it to sonnet 67, with the conjunctive adverb "thus." Because Nature will always be able to proffer true art through true artists, therefore "is his cheek the map of days outworn." On the aging face of the true artist will "beauty" live and die, despite the phony upstarts who merely copycat and therefore denigrate art with their prettiness and shallowness.

The speaker is metaphorically using face to mean the face of art, not the face of the human artist. He is not concerned with human appearance here as he was in the "marriage sonnets." The speaker, instead, is concerned only with the genuine art of bona fide artists. Earlier art provided a "beauty" that "liv’d and died as flowers do now." That was before "these bastard signs of fair were born" who now dare to copy past masters yet remain poetasters.

Second Quatrain: The Abomination of Poetasters

Before the golden tresses of the dead,
The right of sepulchres, were shorn away,
To live a second life on second head;
Ere beauty’s dead fleece made another gay:

The shallowness of copycat poetasters is an abomination just as are grave robbers who steal hair from the dead to fashion into wigs. The "second life" of that hair that well suited its original owner becomes an unnatural prop, not an outgrowth of beauty.

The speaker implies that such art is unnatural, unoriginal and therefore lacks the attributes of natural beauty and truth, which he much disdains as counterfeit. By comparing metaphorically such artists to grave robbers, the speaker makes it known that he values the older works that have stood the test of time. Better such art remain sepulchered than brought out by shining hucksters whose bogusness denigrates the art.

Third Quatrain: Valid Artists

In him those holy antique hours are seen,
Without all ornament, itself and true,
Making no summer of another’s green,
Robbing no old to dress his beauty new;

The speaker then turns to the valid artist whose "holy antique hours are seen." That artist’s creations are genuine, "Without all ornament, itself and true, / Making no summer of another’s green, / Robbing no old to dress his beauty new."

The legitimate artist does not rely on decorations; his metaphors and image are "true." He does not reply on the work of others. The genuine artist has no need to "rob" or copy from older artists to enhance his own work.

The Couplet: The Stockpiles of Nature

And him as for a map doth Nature store,
To show false Art what beauty was of yore.

It is the work of that indisputable artist that Nature stockpiles using his true creations as a "map" "[t]o show false Art what beauty was of yore." No matter how much the contemporary poetasters "rob" from the artists of yesteryear, only Nature will recognize the authentic, genuine, heart-felt works of the morally and spiritually inspired artist.

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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