Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Like as the waves make towards the pebbl'd shore,So do our minutes hasten to their end;Each changing place with that which goes before
Shakespeare opens this sonnet, which contrasts the transitory, fleeting nature of life with the immortality of verse, by using a simile. A simile is a comparison using the words "like" or "as," and Shakespeare begins the sonnet with "like as" in the first line, in the image of waves making their way to a pebbled shore. The waves coming inevitably and inexorably to the shore is likened to "our minutes" coming to their "end." "Our minutes" stands for our lives, and so we can picture our lives flowing like waves, minute followed by minute, all merging together and heading for the crash that is death.
Comparing our lives to waves heading for shore, only to dissolve as they hit land, is an apt metaphor for how unstoppable the flow of time is. This is a somber opening, reminding us that death is coming. The lines are are in iambic pentameter, five da-DA beats with the emphasis on the second beat. This is a difficult meter to write in, but Shakespeare makes it sound effortless, using its rhythm to underscore the relentless motion of the waves and of time.
Nativity, once in the main of light,Crawls to maturity, wherewith being crown'd,Crooked eclipses 'gainst his glory fight,And Time that gave doth now his gift confound.
In a few deft strokes, Shakespeare takes us through the life cycle from birth to maturity (the high point or "crown" of life) to the "crooked eclipses" of old age. Alliteration, the use of words beginning with the same consonant in close proximity, places emphasis on "crawls," "crown'd," and "crooked."
These three words, each an image, capture perfectly the three stages of life. A child does start out crawling—that is an apt image for a baby—but it is also a double entendre or pun, for time seems to crawl when one is young and then to move faster and faster. "Crown'd" makes one imagine a king or a queen, and that is a fine image for how a person feels in adulthood, or the prime of life. "Crooked" likewise captures an image of bent age.
Finally, Shakespeare ends this passage on a paradox. The gift of life becomes confounding as, in old age, Time (personified as a giver) now confounds the gift of life by taking it away again.
And yet to times in hope my verse shall stand,Praising thy worth, despite his cruel hand.
Having delivered twelve sober lines about the inevitably of aging and death, Shakespeare ends on a note of hope. Times ravishes and death comes to take the earthly body, but the speaker leaves his beloved with the hope that his verses shall transcend that end. He hopes that praise of the beloved's "worth" will take life on into immortality.
The immortality of verse is a repeated theme in Shakespeare's poetry, but while hopeful, it is hardly expressed exuberantly, or even humorously, in this sonnet. This is a serious and even quietly angry piece, and that note continues in the final couplet with the penultimate word "cruel." Verse—art—can fight death, but time is nevertheless cruel to all of us. Art is a compensation, but perhaps not a wholly adequate one.
It is also worth noting that while Shakespeare says his verse will praise his beloved's value, in this sonnet we get no description of the loved one. This sonnet stands, therefore, as primarily a lament for the passage of time and the inevitability of death.