(Shakespeare for Students)

The idea that human beings can immortalize themselves in their art is popular among artists and writers and serves as an alternative to notions of immortality rooted in an afterlife or in one’s progeny. In antiquity, Horace and Ovid held this belief, just as today many poets do. Shakespeare also subscribed to this idea of creative immortality, and made it the topic of many of his poems. In Sonnet 19, one of a number of sonnets which praise the beauty of the Earl of Southhampton, the speaker desires that the young man he writes about never age. The speaker explicitly addresses Time, asking it to spare his beloved, and then, after acknowledging the impossibility of that, states that his love will live on in his poetry regardless of Time’s effects.

We can think about the desire to have our creative work live on past our deaths as a feature of evolution. That is, our work functions in a way like our children. It comes from us, and after we die we have no say in how it will behave or how others will respond to it. The first four lines of the sonnet remind us not only of our mortality but of our animal nature, and how it, rather than our souls, minds, or the work that we produce, is the real enemy of time.

Devouring Time, blunt thou the lion’s paws,
And make the earth devour her own sweet brood;
Pluck the keen teeth from the fierce tiger’s jaws
And burn the long-lived phoenix in her blood;

By focusing on what Time does to the fiercest of animals—the lion and the tiger—the speaker by extension suggests what it will also do to human bodies. Ironically, Time is figured as a predator and predators presented as prey. The very tools of hunting— paws and jaws—are rendered useless by Time. Time makes the earth itself, represented as an animate creature, into a being which is selfdestroying, a reluctant cannibal. This image suggests the Greek myth of Kronos, the god of time, who had been warned that one of his children would overthrow him. To preempt this he swallowed them when they were born. But how are we to make sense of the Phoenix as a predator or prey? A mythical creature, the Phoenix performs a ritual every five hundred years in which it builds itself a nest of fragrant herbs and spices and then dies in that nest. A new Phoenix is born just as the old Phoenix dies, and in five hundred years the ritual is repeated. By using this bird as an example of the devastation that Time can wreak, Shakespeare suggests that even seemingly immortal beings are subject to death and annihilation. Rather than being reborn, the Phoenix is burned in its own blood. The cycle of time itself stops.

Time is sinister, these first lines proclaim, a killer who can demolish the real and the mythical alike. Emphasizing this contempt is the speaker’s use of apostrophe. Apostrophe is a rhetorical technique in which someone or thing is explicitly addressed. Use of apostrophe often draws attention to the tone of the poem, as an explicit address makes more concrete, more tangible the speaker and audience. We can make judgements about the...

(The entire section is 1279 words.)