This poem is a sonnet of 14 lines, written in the traditional Shakespearean sonnet format which Shakespeare uses throughout his sonnet cycle. It is part of the initial 126 sonnets, all of which are thought to be addressed to the same unknown young man, known as the Fair Youth by scholars.
In the sonnet, the speaker describes how, when reading older works ("the chronicle of wasted time") and, potentially, when simply thinking about the past, he often sees references to beauty. This might be the beauty of "lovely knights" or "ladies dead," but, either way, when the speaker reads these descriptions of beautiful people, he is convinced that the beauty of his beloved would have been singled out for praise in the same way, as he fits perfectly into the idea of what is considered beautiful.
The speaker determines, then, that the "praise" expressed by those who are writing in the past was actually prophetic. He feels that every beautiful person ever described, and every expression of beauty ever committed to "rhyme," is actually an anticipation of his own beloved. These people with their "antique pen[s]" were only "prefiguring" the subject of the sonnet.
The speaker is only sad that, in the end, the writers did not have sufficient skill to express the "worth" of his beloved. He, the beloved, is too beautiful, engendering "wonder" in those who look upon him in the present day, while the speaker is unable to "praise" him adequately with words.
In William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 106, the speaker calls upon the glories of the past to illustrate the present. He perceives that the beauty of his lover has been prophesied by the pens of authors who are now long dead. The initial quatrain establishes the tone as one of courtly elegance. The references to “chronicles,” “ladies,” and “knights” all recall the glorified stereotypical image of a time long past, when a knight was obligated by the chivalric code to behave bravely in the battlefield and solicitously in the community.
This highly elevated rhetoric establishes the mood of Sonnet 106, yet the elegance seemingly gives way to irony in the juxtaposition of adjectives in line 4: “Ladies dead and lovely knights.” The “beauty” of line 2 has been usurped by the truth of mutability: The ladies are literally dead; they live only as images created by the words of the old rhymes. Further, it seems that the adjectives describing the ladies and the knights have been willingly transposed. The common conception of the lady or mistress in the old poetry was of a fair and lovely creature of inspiration; it was the valiant knights who died for her.
(The entire section is 666 words.)