Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The idea that verse would ensure the poet’s immortality is a common Renaissance theme that came to the Elizabethans via Latin poets such as Ovid in his Metamorphoses (c. 8 c.e.; English translation, 1567) and Horace in his odes. Shakespeare puts a twist on this idea by claiming that his poetry will guarantee the undying fame of the subject of the poems rather than the author himself. The motif of immortality in the sonnets is expressed differently in the first seventeen poems, in which the poet urges the young man to marry and procreate so that he will continue to live through his children after his death. Beginning with Sonnet 18, and in several sonnets thereafter, the notion that the ineluctable power of poetry will ensure perpetual remembrance is expressed. The relentless passage of time is a major theme of the collected sonnets, and time plays an active role. Time will age the beautiful young man to whom the sonnets are addressed. With the passage of time, summer roses will wilt and die. However, just as the perfume, or “essence,” of the rose can be distilled and kept long after the rose is gone, so too can the essence of the young man, his physical and spiritual beauty, be distilled in poetry and remain long after his death. Poetry is time’s most effective enemy.

Scholars have gone to great lengths to discover the identity of the young man who was to be immortalized in the sonnets. The dedication of the 1609 printing of the collected sonnets to a “Mr. W. H.” as “the onlie begetter of these insuing sonnets” has been cited as evidence that the young man was, in fact, a living person and perhaps a patron of Shakespeare. Henry Wriothesley, earl of Southampton, and William Herbert, earl of Pembroke, are persons most often considered as the potential “Mr. W. H.” There has also been great speculation as to the identity of the “dark lady” and the “rival poet” of the sonnets. The great irony is that it is Shakespeare himself who is immortalized in the sonnets and none of the collection’s major players. The “beautiful young man” who was to live until doomsday in the verse of the poet has long been forgotten, while Shakespeare lives on.