Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

This sonnet is closely related to sonnets 63 through 65, and many others in the sonnet sequence, which also bemoan the inexorable advance of time and pose the question: How can beauty survive, given that all created things are transient and travel their allotted course to death? The theme of these sonnets was in part inspired by a passage from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (c. 8 c.e.): “The baby, first born into the light of day, lies weak and helpless: after that he crawls on all fours, moving his limbs as animals do, and gradually, on legs as yet trembling and unsteady, stands upright, supporting himself by some convenient prop. Then he becomes strong and swift of foot, passing through the stage of youth till, having lived through the years of middle age also, he slips down the incline of old age, towards life’s setting. Age undermines and destroys the strength of former years.” This passage gave Shakespeare the image of “Nativity, once in the main of light,/ Crawls to maturity,” and the passage that follows in Ovid, “Helen weepswhen she sees herself in the glass, wrinkled with age,” may have suggested to Shakespeare the image of “delves the parallels in beauty’s brow.”

Shakespeare is not content to leave the world, or his friend, to mutability. The attempt in this sonnet to immortalize the friend through the poet’s verse is also a theme of many other Shakespearean sonnets, including numbers 19, 55,...

(The entire section is 471 words.)