Themes

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

There are two key themes in this poem which feature often in Shakespeare's first 126 sonnets, which are all addressed to the unknown Fair Youth.

The first is the theme of youthful beauty, in and of itself, as a worthy subject for art and a compulsion for man. The speaker discusses reading about beautiful things in "chronicles" from years gone by and thinking only of the beauty his beloved now "master[s]"—he imagines, in the descriptions of all these past "lovely" creatures, only his own beloved. However, he feels that the beauty of his beloved is, in fact, beyond the skill of human writers to capture—it is not possible to "praise" it adequately with human "tongues." The beauty of the speaker's beloved is a "wonder," something which draws artists over and over again like a muse, but which is in the end impossible to capture.

The second theme is that of writing as a means of immortalizing a person or concept. This is conveyed more vividly in some other sonnets, but, certainly, this sonnet is very concerned with art as a vehicle for memorializing beauty. Shakespeare describes this theme in an interesting way, suggesting that older writers who never knew his beloved were actually prophets, anticipating his beauty. But the speaker returns to the idea that while the "skill" of the older poets was inadequate to properly capture true beauty, so too do poets of "present days" lack that skill. However, this will not stop them from trying to immortalize beauty.

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