Unlike many of his sonnets, William Shakespeare’s sonnet 60 concerns not love but the relentless and destructive march of time. The meter, rhyme, and acoustic devices that Shakespeare employs in sonnet 60 all support its major themes, but critics have not discussed them as creators of meaning; as I argue below, these elements present a battle motif that unifies the sonnet and explains the importance of the “immortality” (Evans 167) asserted in the couplet.
Although Helen Vendler remarks that the trochaic feet at the beginnings of some lines of the sonnet “draw attention to the hastening of the waves, the attacks by eclipses and by Time, and the countervailing praising by verse” (286), the meter accomplishes still more than this. The sonnet’s first two lines begin with the trochees “Like as” (line 1) and “So do” (2), and the metrical similarity of the lines connects them, enhancing the comparison of minutes and waves. While the trochees do convey the haste that Vendler observes, they also connote the crashing of waves against the shore (1). Shakespeare follows the initial trochee of line 1 with a calm, iambic meter, then starts line 2 with another trochee, suggesting the forceful impact of the waves. The second line then returns to iambic meter, and the spondee in “Each changing” that starts line 3 represents the climax of the strength of the waves.
The second quatrain personifies time, and the meter and alliteration of the quatrain predict and underscore the fall of nature. The quatrain begins with the iambic “Nativity,” but the trochaic “once in” (5) interrupts the iambic meter and foretells the destruction of that nativity, which might refer to the birth of a child or the sun.1 Lines 6 and 7 begin with trochees—“Crawls to” and “Crookèd”—and with the stress on “crowned” in line 6, the meter highlights the alliteration, which, as G. Blakemore Evans notes, traces the destruction, and possible corruption, of humanity and nature, with the “eclipses” (7) obscuring both the sun and the luster of humanity (168). Lines 6 and 7 express this theme metrically, sharing the precise structure of lines 1 and 2. In the first two lines of the sonnet, the waves approach the shore and minutes reach their “end” (2). Similarly, in lines 6 and 7, the child or the sun “Crawls to maturity” (6) and is crowned, but then has its “glory” destroyed by “Crookèd eclipses” (7). The sets of lines are metrically and thematically related, and they describe descents from well-being, a theme culminated in the summary destruction in the third quatrain, which gives a conventional personification of Time with his scythe, ravaging at once youth, beauty, and nature.
The falls and destructions described in the three quatrains are not discrete; instead, they feed into the poem’s unifying battle motif. The motif begins in line 4, when the iambic meter of “In sequent toil”—which conveys the inexorable, unchangeable nature of time—is disrupted by the spondee in “all forwards” (4). I propose that this is a pun on forwards, portraying the movement of minutes in a fixed, forward direction but also suggesting the homonym foreward, which means the “first line of an army” (“foreward, n. 2,” def. 1). With the pun, the spondee hints at the power and force of an army, as does the repetition of the hard d in “forwards do contend” (4). Stephen Booth remarks that, in a fighting context, toil can signify “a dispute” and to contend can mean to “fight against” an opponent (Shakespeare’s Sonnets 239). Furthermore, with the implied military context, the “sequent toil” (4) can describe the march of soldiers, with the iambic meter relating their steady, continuous advance.
The battle motif continues into the second quatrain, with “Nativity” (5) representing youth as a combatant in a battle against time. By evoking both an infant and a sunrise with the term “nativity,” Shakespeare joins nature and humanity in a battle against time. The rhyme of “light” (5) and “fight” (7) serves to emphasize the theme of battle by connecting the light of the sun with a fight against time. The eclipses endeavor to extinguish the sun’s (i.e., youth’s) light, and because the light symbolizes goodness, these lines portray time, which controls the eclipses, as an enemy attempting to extirpate goodness. Line 8 introduces “Time” as the one who eventually destroys the “gift” (8) of life (in the case of a person) or light (in the case of the sun), and the assonance in the phrase “now his gift confound” (8) emphasizes that, with both sides of the conflict introduced, the battle begins “now” in line 8.2 While the rhyme of “crowned” (6) and “confound” (8) does extend the theme of the vitiation of the good by linking the apex of life with its destruction, with the meaning of crown as “[t]he head” (“crown, n.,” def. 17b), the rhyme implies an attack on a person’s head. In the context of the latter meaning, this rhyme parallels the rhyme of “brow” (10) and “mow” (12), with to mow signifying “[t]o sweep or strike down men in battle” (“mow, v.1,” def. 3a). Both rhymes contribute to the image of time’s decapitation of humanity in battle.
The third quatrain opens with a trochee in “Time doth” (9), which signals that time has become the dominant actor of the quatrain, and, continuing the battle motif the third quatrain delivers a “death per line” (Vendler 285). With the recurrence of the hard d, alliteration with the plosive b, and assonance in “And delves the parallels in beauty’s brow” (10), Shakespeare stresses the forcible attack of time. Additionally, as Booth notes, with flourish meaning “a waving of a weapon” (Essay 141), parallels meaning “military trenches,” and transfix and delve implying stabbing actions, the third quatrain contains much military imagery (Essay 142). Finally, the alliteration of “stands” and “scythe” in line 12 highlights the sonnet’s contrast of life and death and establishes time as the victor in battle.
The anaphora of “And” in lines 12 and 13 connects the third quatrain to the couplet, and while the two sections are thematically similar, both concerning time’s destruction, they arrive at entirely different conclusions. Although the third quatrain proclaims time as the unquestionable victor, the couplet proposes defeating time through the poetic preservation of “worth” (14).
Line 13 continues in iambic meter, still conveying hopelessness, but line 14, beginning with the trochee “Praising,” signals the conclusion of the sonnet and the escape from time. The emphasis on “Praising” marks a change in tone from resignation to triumph, and the final phrases “shall stand” (13) and “his cruel hand” (14) directly oppose the theme of the third quatrain, asserting that poetry can withstand the attacks of time by documenting the merit of humanity for eternity.
Sonnet 60 portrays time as a destructive, implacable force, but it concludes with a hopeful message of the preservation of human value through poetry. The meter, rhyme, and acoustic devices reveal the futility of nature and humanity’s struggle against time. The battle rages in the sea, as suggested by the simile of the waves in the first quatrain; in space, as the astrological context of the second quatrain makes clear; and, as R. J. C. Wait notes, on the earth, as shown in the farming metaphor of the third quatrain (qtd. in Booth, Shakespeare’s Sonnets 241). Through this combination, the inescapability of time in the universe becomes clear. Only in the timeless realm of “verse” (13) can nature and humanity achieve eternity, and in sonnet 60, Shakespeare valorizes poetry by using poetic devices to demonstrate the futility of attempting to resist the passage of time without seeking immortality through literature.
Booth, Stephen. An Essay on Shakespeare’s Sonnets. New Haven: Yale UP, 1969. Print.
---. Shakespeare’s Sonnets. New Haven: Yale UP, 1977. Print.
“Crown, n.” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. OED Online. Web. 21 Nov. 2004.
Evans, G. Blakemore. The Sonnets. New York: Cambridge UP, 1996. Print.
“Foreward, n.2” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. OED Online. Web. 21 Nov. 2004.
“Mow, v.1” The Oxford English Dictionary. Draft Revision, Mar. 2009. OED Online. Web. 20 Mar. 2009.
Shakespeare, William. “Sonnet 60.” Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Ed. Stephen Booth. New Haven: Yale UP, 1977. 52, 55. Print.
Vendler, Helen. The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Cambridge: Belknap-Harvard UP, 1997. Print.
1 Stephen Booth remarks that while the obvious image that “Nativity” invokes is that of a baby (Essay 135), the phrase “main of light” (5) acts as a pun on “main” as the “open sea” and, with “light,” introduces an astrological context (Shakespeare’s Sonnets 239). Booth notes that “Nativity” can refer to a sunrise, with the sun in its nativity (Essay 135); to the practice of predicting destiny through astrology; and to “the chart in which a particular destiny is mapped” at the birth of a child (Essay 137), linking all of the connotations.
2 This builds on Booth’s observation that the forceful alliteration of “’gainst his glory” (7), “gave,” and “gift” (8) associates time with violence (Essay 139), as does the violent verb “confound” (8) and its meanings of “demolish” or “defeat” (Shakespeare’s Sonnets 240).