Shakespeare’s Sonnet 19 is about the destructive power of time which consumes everything in its path. Eventually, time will also destroy the poet’s beautiful young friend. However, although the poet can do nothing to prevent this, he defies time by asserting that the friend will live forever through his verse.
The sonnet is one of a collection of 154 sonnets by Shakespeare that were first published in 1609. Probably written in the early to mid-1590s, when the sonnet was a fashionable literary form, these poems are generally regarded as the finest sonnet sequence in the English language. The collection as a whole appears to tell a story of the love of the poet for a young man of great beauty and high rank and the frustration and anguish, as well as the joy, the poet experiences as a consequence of his love. The young man is unnamed, but many scholars believe he may have been Henry Wriothesley, the 3rd Earl of Southampton, to whom Shakespeare dedicated his long poem, Venus and Adonis, in 1593.
Other characters who appear in the sonnet sequence are the poet’s mistress, a dark woman who seduces the poet’s friend, and a rival poet, who competes with the poet for the friend’s attention. Attempts to identify the “Dark Lady” have proved fruitless; the “Rival Poet” may have been Shakespeare’s contemporary Christopher Marlowe but this cannot be known for certain.
Perhaps more important than trying to identify any historical characters that Shakespeare may have had in mind is to appreciate the sonnets as sustained meditations on the human emotions and aspirations aroused by intense love. These include the appreciation of beauty and the longing to make it permanent; affirmations of the transcendent power of art; and emotions ranging from elation to jealousy, guilt, forgiveness, sorrow and desire.