Sonnet 104

Shakespeare Sonnet 104

TO me faire friend you neuer can be old,
For as you were when firſt your eye I eyde,
Such ſeemes your beautie ſtill: Three winters colde,
Haue from the forreſts ſhooke three ſummers pride,
Three beautious ſprings to yellow Autumne turn’d,
In proceſſe of the ſeaſons haue I ſeene,
Three Aprill perfumes in three hot Iunes burn’d,
Since firſt I ſaw you freſh which yet are greene.
Ah yet doth beauty like a Dyall hand,
Steale from his figure, and no pace perceiu’d,
So your ſweete hew, which me thinkes ſtill doth ſtand
Hath motion, and mine eye may be deceaued.
For feare of which, heare this thou age vnbred,
Ere you were borne was beauties ſummer dead.

Sonnet 104 is among the more discussed of the sequence: the three years it specifies as the length of the poet’s relationship with the friend has been used as a clue to dating the sequence. But sonnets of reckoning are common in sequences, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 59 and Spenser’s Amoretti 60 being examples. As well, a span of three years for love to blossom or lapse, was a traditional trope originating in Horace’s Epodes, where he remarks, ‘A third December has now shaken the pride from the forests, since I ceased to burn with love for Inachia’ (“hic tertius December, ex quo destiti / Inachia furere, silvis honorem decutit”). 1 The trope can be found among French sonneteers including Desportes and Ronsard. (Daniel also writes of his “priuiledge of faith,” that in the 1592 edition of Delia, “was with blood and three yeeres witness signed,” although shortly afterwards in 1601 he changed it to “fiue yeares.”) 2

Sonnet 104 is also a heavily cyphered sonnet. It opens by addressing the youth as, “faire friend,” who to the poet can never be old; the emphasis on, “To me,” obtained through inversion, implies that the ageing is evident to others. (The sonnet plays on the distinction between “be” and “seemes.”) The poet remembers the moment when “first your eye I eyde,” a slightly contrived but complexly ambiguous phrase comprising the three homophones, ‘I,’  ‘eye’  and ‘ay.’  Its first reading is, ‘since I first exchanged the glances,’ that initiated our friendship; secondly, ‘since I first gave my ‘yes’ (‘ayed’) to your ‘ay’ (‘yes’)’ in an exchange of words; thirdly ‘since I first eyed your ay,’ an inscribed ‘ay,’ that later will be found to deceive.

Since the moment of first encounter the youth’s beauty “seemes” to the poet to have remained the same (“still,” but hinting at ‘unmoving’). Three years have passed, during which three winters have shaken the splendour and progeny (“pride”) of three summers from the trees; three green springs have turned into yellow autumns in the course of time or the procession of the seasons (“processe of the seasons”). The scent (“perfumes,” from per + fumare = through + burn) of three Aprils has been “burn’d” in three hot Junes, since the poet first cast eyes on the youth, who remains (“yet”) fresh and innocent (“greene”).

But with a sigh of resignation (“Ah yet”) the poet admits that beauty is “like a Dyall hand.” The movement of the shadow cast by a sundial’s index or gnomon is so slow as to be barely distinguishable. So too beauty is subject to almost imperceptible change. “Steale from his figure” means both that transient beauty steals away like a thief from the figure it inhabits or it takes away from the figure; “no pace,” neither ‘step’  nor ‘speed of stepping,’ is perceived or eyed. The “figure” contains possibly the sonnet’s ultimate cipher, a further homophone of “eye I eyde” being, ‘III,’ the figure three in roman numerals found on a sundial.

The youth’s “hew” or ‘hue,’ his shaped figure or his complexion, is deceiving: the poet “thinkes” it stands still or continues to stand upright, but it has “motion,” ‘movement’ but strongly suggesting ‘decline.’ The poet is brought to the realization that his ‘eye’ / ‘ay’ / ‘I’ may be misled (“deceaued”). The couplet admonishes future generations (“thou age vnbred”) to listen out of awe (“For fear of which”) to the proclamation the poet makes: the youth, the perfection of beauty (“beauties summer”), was well gone (“dead”), even before they were born (“Ere you were borne”).


104.1. Horace, Epodes 11.5-6.

104.2. Daniel, Delia (1592) 26.5; Delia 28.6 in The Works of Samuel Daniel. Newly augmented (London: Simon Waterson, 1601).

104.3. The reading, “since first I eyed your I (person),’ seems unlikely. Sonnets on the homophone were frequent, among the most laboured being Michael Drayton’s Idea 9, beginning, “Nothing but no and I, and I and no, / How falls it out so strangely you reply?” (The Barrons Wars P1v).