illustration of two roses slighly intertwined with one another

Shakespeare's Sonnets

by William Shakespeare

Start Free Trial

Which literary devices are used in Sonnet 12?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles
Shakespeare utilizes a number of literary devices in this poem, which is concerned with the inevitable passage of time. He makes particular use of metaphor and personification in order to convey his theme.

For example, in the opening line he invokes a metaphorical "clock" which ticks out the passage of time in terms of human (and other) lives. In the final stanza, he uses a different image to depict Time, personifying him as a creature carrying a metaphorical "scythe" with which he cuts down everything that lives, and against whom we can have no defense.

Shakespeare emphasizes the universal quality of Time's power over the beings of earth by also ascribing human-like qualities to non-human entities, such as "brave day" which is overtaken by "hideous night," and "lofty trees" which are "barren" of leaves due to the fact that time has turned summer into winter. Shakespeare's imagery pertains to flowers and trees inevitably dying away; he parallels these with the "beauty" of the person he is addressing, who must also wander into "the wastes of time". These wastes are metaphorical, but the word choice is a pun, making the reader consider how far a person's beauty is inevitably "wasted" when Time takes it from him.

This is an idea to which Shakespeare returns over and over, lamenting the fact that time has the power to take away all beauty—except that which has been inscribed in his poems, and therefore will have some measure of immortality forever.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Shakespeare uses the literary device of an extended metaphor or comparison in this sonnet. He compares human mortality both to day turning into night and to the change of seasons. Day, Shakespeare's narrator observes, sinks into "hideous night." Here, night is not beautiful but ugly and frightening, as is death. Likewise, the narrator watches as the leaves die and fall from the trees. He also sees summer's green grass either mowed down to make hay ("girded up in sheaves") or covered up with snow as if in a grave. All of these images remind him that his friend will also die. He compares his friend's life to the cycle of day and night as well as to the cycle of the seasons to make the point that it is natural that all things must pass, but are also reborn.

Shakespeare also uses the device of repetition, for example, repeating the word "brave" twice. It appears in both line two and the sonnet's final line and connects those two lines. "Brave" in both contexts means not only to be courageous but to challenge something. Just as day challenges night (the sun will rise again), so must the narrator's friend challenge death—in his case by having a child that will carry on life.

The poem also employs antithesis, the juxtaposition of opposites. Summer's green is "borne on the bier" of winter. A bier is the frame on which a corpse or a coffin is carried to the grave. The word "borne" means carried, but it is also a pun on the word "born," which means birth. Summer will be (re)born on the corpse of winter, life and death intertwined.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In addition to the sound devices used in this poem, such as the alliteration ("count the clock," "tells the time", "past prime") identified in the earlier educator answer and the rhyme scheme typical of Shakespeare's sonnets, there are also a number of notable uses of figurative language in this sonnet.

"Time" in this poem is capitalized to indicate personification, and the image of "Time's scythe" is an allusion to the popular presentation of Time as an old man, whose "scythe" serves to cut us down like "sheaves." Only if we "breed" do we avail ourselves of a way to "brave him" when he approaches us; in this case, the act of reproducing is a defensive one, a means of continuing our existence beyond ourselves.

There are other vivid images in this poem to help convey the idea that all "among the wastes of time must go." For instance, "sable curls all silver'd o'er with white" is an image immediately suggestive of elderly people, its details sparse and yet evocative. "Brave day sunk in hideous night" is depicted as analogous to the "day" of our lives as it is overcome by the "night" of passing time; in the same way, the "violet past prime" is another example of how time affects living things. The speaker cannot help but "question make" on the subject of his beloved's beauty, distressed at the thought that "sweets and beauties do themselves forsake."

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds. In a sense, the act of rhyming is a use of assonance. But assonance is usually cited when vowel sounds are repeated in a line. For example, in the second line, "brave day" repeats the long 'A' sound. In the 13th line, "Time's scythe" uses assonance and links the two words, thus emphasizing how quickly time passes en route to one's death. 

In the third line, the violet is "past prime." This is an example of using plosives and alliteration with the repetition of the letter 'p.' Plosive consonants such as b, p, t, d, and k have sharp, stopping sounds. Here, the 'p' is used for emphasis about how the violet is in decline. Again, the effect is to startle the reader and make him/her aware of the quick passage of time. The plosive sounds happen quickly. This is useful in emphasizing the quick passage of each second. 

Consonance is the repetition of consonant sounds. It is more broad than alliteration because alliteration only refers to repeating the first letter of successive words. So, "past prime" is alliteration and consonance. Alliteration is a kind of consonance. In this sonnet, Shakespeare relies mostly on alliteration ("green all girded") and ("Borne on the bier"). 

Shakespeare uses the imagery of nature in decay to stress the passage of time. He uses these images to illustrate how quickly a life passes. Since nothing can stop Time, the only way to live on is by having children ("breed"). 

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial Team