In Shakespeare’s Sonnet 19, we are presented with various themes mainly circulating around the characteristics of the apostrophe of Time, which is personified throughout the poem.
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The sonnet is split into three quatrains, with the first one attacking Time and its all-consuming nature. The destructive ability of Time is a major theme; throughout the poem, Time is depicted in a negative spotlight in order to highlight its detrimental qualities and its universal relevance – everyone and everything at some point experiences the wreckage of Time, whether it be youth, wealth, or life – Time is the ultimate universal power. In the first quatrain, animalistic imagery is used with examples of powerful and lethal animals such as a lion. “Devouring Time blunt thou the lion’s paws…”. In this quotation, the image of the lion’s sharp paws becoming ‘blunt’ – which is used to describe something not sharp and worn out – suggests how Time has taken away the lion’s ability to hunt, and therefore survive. Shakespeare uses powerful entities like the lion which is potentially ‘the King of the jungle’ to portray their vulnerability against Time. Their power and reign are short-lasting and fades away eventually, whereas Time is the sole reason as to why these animals hold temporary power because it lays waste to all things. Additionally, the use of the adjective ‘devouring’, which explicitly means to eat something quickly and greedily, could relate to how fast and unexpectedly Time can devastate something without any hesitation or remorse.
The use of personification also helps portray this theme and the latter. Time is personified through the use of the capital letter ‘T’, and also through its almost god like characteristics which gives it superior but terrifying qualities throughout the poem. In addition to Time, Earth is also personified in the first quatrain: “And make the earth devour her own sweet brood”. This suggests how Time controls the earth, and creates a cruel image when time forces her to “devour her own sweet brood”, potentially depicting an image of a mother being coerced to harm her children. This persona also presents the earth with feminine qualities, which is perhaps the reason why even though it holds a lot of power if not just as much as her oppressor, she is still portrayed as vulnerable in comparison to Time, which tends to hold masculine qualities in the poem on the other hand. This could relate to the context of the Shakespearian era, where women were at a great social and institutional disadvantage and did not hold the power they hold today, thereby having them represent the feeble quality of the earth as opposed to Time with its authority and machismo. This natural imagery also shows how all living things come from earth and are returned to it, but with Time being the sole ruler of it.
Another significant theme in the poem is conflict between youth/beauty and Time. The speaker illustrates the man as the archetype of beauty. The quotation “For beauty’s pattern to succeeding men” supports the former statement as the man is described as the model of masculine beauty for upcoming generations. The metaphor “beauty’s pattern” suggests the sophisticated and flawless beauty the man possesses, which becomes the specific beauty standard to serve as an example eternally. The conflict between these two components unravels when the idea of the man’s death arises; when he is destroyed by Time, all true and absolute beauty would die with him. “Make glad and sorry seasons as thou fleets”. The use of sibilance in this quotation with the repeated ‘s’ sound creates a rushing sound that could imitate the ocean, another powerful entity. The ocean’s vast waves and furious tides lay no mercy on what it devours and ends, just like the way Shakespeare depicts Time.
Furthermore, the tone in the third stanza is quite piteous as the speaker begs Time to not take away the youth and beauty from a man who is the mere definition of it. The quotation “But I forbid thee one heinous crime:” is the beginning of the volta that passes through to the final stanza. Again, the speaker begs Time for some mercy for their love and continue with their conditions. The use of the colon at the end of the line indicates the start of a list, which in this case is about all the things Time should spare the speaker’s lover. Moreover, the use of a caesura here creates a dramatic pause at the end of the line and creates a catastrophic reference, therefore making the reader pay attention to the next part which is really significant to the speaker, who perhaps also wants to be sympathized with.
In addition, the volta continues in the final rhyming couplet. There is a clear change in tone, which goes from desperate and begging for mercy to almost threatening and confident. “Yet do thy worst, old Time!”, this quotation sounds like an imminent threat to Time from the speaker as it sounds like they’re telling Time to do its worse, and the fact that they describe it as ‘old’ could suggest how they have had enough of Time’s constant selfish and harmful behaviour, and they will not be fearful of its power anymore. Finally, in the last line, the speaker themself grants immortality to their lover, which is something only Time is capable of. Regardless of what Time does, the lover’s legacy would live on and his youth and beauty would be preserved through the poem. Therefore, we can say that the concluding couplet is unusual through the fact that it does not conclude its preceding argument made in the rest of the sonnet of how the cruel Time should spare the lover; instead, it countermands and overturns it. This could go on to indicate that perhaps the speaker has decided that they should not fear the actions and abilities of Time, and that if their love is genuine for the man then Time can do whatever it desires but it won’t be able to end him in the heart of the speaker and his poem, which will serve to immortalise him. In a way, the speaker also seems to feel like he has some power over Time now, as he feels that he can beat it through his poetry which will continue to be read for generations after both himself and the subject have passed on – just like we are right now – and Time can do nothing about that.