In this sonnet, Shakespeare describes the cruel effect that time has on our human condition. The poem follows the pattern of three quatrains, each with an alternating rhyming scheme, followed by a rhyming couplet that is typical of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Each quatrain presents a self-contained metaphorical description of time’s passage in human life, but the ending couplet stands out as a defiant declaration that despite time’s “cruel hand,” his words will live on.
In the first quatrain, Shakespeare sets up the poem by describing time as the tide. He says that just like the waves rush forward to replace each other, so do the minutes in “sequent toil.” Although the entire poem is written in iambic pentameter, the third and fourth lines are especially distinct. The effect is rhythmic and repetitive, which examples the repetitive and ever-moving nature of time that he describes in this quatrain.
The second quatrain tells the story of a human life by comparing it to the sun’s journey through the sky during the span of a day. Shakespeare describes Nativity as the “main of light,” which refers to an expanse of sunlight that illuminates the whole ocean. Although linked in an ocean metaphor, this contrasts with the ever-moving waves of time in the previous quatrain. Perhaps he is saying that when a person is born, the amount of time they have in their life looks as vast as the ocean. Once the sun rises out of the sea and covers the whole ocean in its light, it slowly crawls through the sky until noon, when it is “crowned,” or at its highest point. By using the phrase “crawls to maturity,” Shakespeare has embedded several different meanings. On one hand, he could be equating the sun’s slow ascent through the sky with a young baby’s crawl. The sun is still “young” and so is the human. He could also be saying that the time to maturity crawls by slowly when compared to the quick descent after man’s prime. One could also interpret “crawl” as a statement of man’s abject condition. Once the sun crawls to maturity, Shakespeare says it is “crowned” before it is suddenly darkened by the “crooked eclipses” of time as time takes back its original gift. There is a noticeable shift in the poem after “crowned.” Up to this point, the poem has been building upon itself, talking about time moving forward, Nativity, and crawling upwards. Once he gets to the point where the sun is “crowned,” the poem sharply declines and starts describing Time’s ravaging effects.
The third quatrain personifies time as a monster—probably the Grim Reaper—who “delves parallels,” “feeds on rarities,” and mows everything over with his scythe. Even during Shakespeare’s time, the image of Death wielding a scythe and mowing over souls as if they were grain was fully entrenched in the culture. In this morbid agrarian image, time “delves parallels in beauty’s brow” before mowing it over with his scythe, signifying death, as if he were sowing and reaping a field. Although we tend to think of Shakespeare as living well in urban London, the people during his age still lived closely to nature. Although a person might not live on a farm, they would still know enough about it to be able to relate to farming metaphors.
The poem takes another shift in the couplet. At the end, Shakespeare proudly declares that he has found a way of defeating time through his poetry. He says that his words will live on despite time’s “cruel hand.” The idea of living on through his writing is a continued theme in his sonnets. Although Shakespeare did achieve immortality through his poetry, he had no way of knowing that his work would be remembered or preserved. According to the Norton Anthology of English literature, his sonnets were written and passed around in manuscript form ten years before they were actually published. Perhaps he hoped that his bold declaration would enable his work to stand against time, as if saying it loud or often enough would enable it to be so.