The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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 introductory octave continues with a shift in the second quatrain, where the narrator personifies beauty in the form of a coat of arms which accentuates the erotic images of his love’s finest attributes: foot, lip, eye, and brow. These common physical, and even sexual, images...

(The entire section is 421 words.)