The Poem

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William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 19 is a traditional English sonnet (traditional because Shakespeare made it so), consisting of a single stanza of fourteen lines, rhymed according to a standard format. Like the other 153 sonnets by Shakespeare, Sonnet 19 has no title.

In the first quatrain, the poet addresses time as a devourer, handing out a series of defiant invitations to time to perform its most destructive acts. First, time is instructed to “blunt” the “lion’s paws,” which gives the reader an image of enormous strength reduced to impotence. In line 2, the poet moves from the particular to the general, invoking time as a bully who forces the earth, seen as the universal mother, to consume all her beloved offspring. Line 3 echoes line 1. It gives another image of the strongest of nature’s creatures, this time the tiger, reduced to weakness. Time, seen as a fierce aggressor, will pluck out its teeth. No gentle decline into age here. In line 4, the poet moves to the mythological realm. He tells time to wreak its havoc by burning the “long-lived phoenix.” The phoenix was a mythical bird that supposedly lived for five hundred years (or a thousand years, according to some versions) before being consumed in fire. The phoenix was also said to rise from its own ashes, but that is not a meaning that the poet chooses to develop here. The final phrase in the line, “in her blood,” is a hunting term that refers to an animal in the full vigor of life.

The second quatrain begins with a fifth invitation to time, couched in general rather than specific terms: “Make glad and sorry seasons as thou fleet’st.” This takes the invocation of time’s destructive power to a more refined level, because it alludes to the human emotional response to the hurried passage of time: Seasons of gladness and seasons of sorrow form part of an ever-recurring cycle. Lines 6 and 7 seem to continue the poet’s willingness to allow time full sway to do whatever it wants wherever it chooses.

In line 8, however, the argument begins to turn. Having built up a considerable sense of momentum, the poet checks it by announcing that there is one limit he wishes to place on time. It transpires that all the concessions the poet has made to time in lines 1 through 7 are one side of a bargain the poet wishes to strike. The terms are now forcefully announced, as the poet attempts to establish his authority over time. He forbids time, with its “antique pen,” to make furrows on the brow of his beloved. The friend must be allowed to go through life untouched (“untainted”) by the passage of time. Anything less would be a crime, because the lover is an exceptional being who must represent to future ages the pattern of true beauty—an eternal beauty that stands outside the domain of time.

In the final couplet, however, the poet seems to acknowledge the futility of his demand, yet he remains defiant. In spite of the wrongs that time inflicts, the poet’s friend will forever remain young because he will live in the poet’s verse.

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