Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 351
The themes of this sonnet can be traced throughout Shakespeare's sonnet cycle, particularly the early part. Shakespeare, in his sonnets 1–126, is particularly concerned with the passage of time and how it affects beauty, and also with how quickly time passes and leaves that beauty to exist only in writing. We can see this in the opening to this sonnet:
When in the chronicle of wasted time
I see descriptions of the fairest wights . . .
The speaker seems here to be referring to literal chronicles, or writings, but also simply to the metaphorical chronicle of time that has been "wasted" over the years. There is an implication that the "fairest wights" (wight is an older word that simply means people) have been "wasted" by time themselves, in a way. Their beauty has been recorded, but in real life, it has faded.
In a way, then, there is some joy to be found in the fact that this beauty has not been forgotten, even though it has died. The speaker is able to look at what has been written down and recognize his own beloved in it, seeing that he conforms to standards of beauty from time gone by:
I see their antique pen would have express'd
Even such a beauty as you master now.
The use of the verb "to master" is interesting. It is a word Shakespeare uses often in his sonnet cycle: the young man is "the master-mistress of [his] passion," and here he "master[s]" his own beauty, which suggests that he (the beloved) is able to direct and use it. The speaker evidently feels enraptured by it. He also feels that what he reads in older texts is simply evidence of older writers "prefiguring" his own beloved; descriptions of beauty in older texts are mere prophecies of the beauty to come.
Ultimately, however, the speaker cannot quite conclude that writing is a means of immortalizing beauty. He fears that nobody has sufficient "skill" to express just how beautiful his beloved really is:
For we, which now behold these present days,
Have eyes to wonder, but lack tongues to praise.