WHen in the Chronicle of waſted time,
I ſee diſcriptions of the faireſt wights,
And beautie making beautifull old rime,
In praiſe of Ladies dead, and louely Knights,
Then in the blazon of ſweet beauties beſt,
Of hand, of foote, of lip, of eye, of brow,
I ſee their antique Pen would haue expreſt,
Euen ſuch a beauty as you maiſter now.
So all their praiſes are but propheſies
Of this our time, all you prefiguring,
And for they look’d but with deuining eyes,
They had not ſtill enough your worth to ſing: ſkill
For we which now behold theſe preſent dayes,
Haue eyes to wonder, but lack toungs to praiſe.
Sonnet 106 evokes the archaic, a practice most sequences follow with at least one example, although it was sometimes the object of censure: see, for example, Samuel Daniel’s Delia 46, beginning, “Let others sing of Knights and Palladines, / In aged accents, and vntimely words.” 1 The sonnet employs the device of figura, of biblical origin, where an event or person is real and historical, but whose reality is also enclosed and brought to fulfillment in a later figura: Old Testament figurae such as Moses or the ark are fulfilled in the figura of Christ. The idea was standard in medieval and neo-Platonic thought and art. The poet looks back at “a Chronicle,” a register or historical account, here of “wasted time,” of time laid waste rather than time that lays waste or a chronicle that belongs to such a time past. In the record he sees “discriptions of the fairest wights;” the term, ‘wight,’ was used of humans both male and female and by Shakespeare’s day was virtually an anachronism. In the “Chronicle” he sees “beautie making beautifull old rime;” earlier beauty, incorporated in olden poetry (“rime”), made it beautiful; its purpose was to celebrate “Ladies dead, and louely Knights,” characters that populate the romances of bygone generations.
He also sees older poetry trumpeting forth the record (“blazon”) of the finest beauties. A blason was a poem of a former age, whose principles had been laid down by Geoffrey de Vinsauf in the thirteenth century and had been repopularized in Clément Marot’s 1543 anthology of French blasons, Les Blasons anatomiques du corps feminin, ensemble les contreblasons, subsequently much reprinted. 2 (Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 is a contreblason.) The convention extolled a mistress’ beauty, describing her every part emblematically often by biblical analogues from the Song of Solomon or Proverbs, finally praising her inner perfection; compare Spenser’s Amoretti 15.7-14:
if Saphyres, loe her eies be Saphyres plaine,
if Rubies, loe hir lips be Rubies sound:
If Pearles, hir teeth be pearles both pure and round;
if Yuorie, her forhead yuory weene;
if Gold, her locks are finest gold on ground;
if siluer, her faire hands are siluer sheene:
But that which fairest is, but few behold,
her mind adornd with vertues manifold.
Unlike earlier blasons Shakespeare’s is addressed to a young man. In those of ancient poets the poet can discern beauty in their customary divisions “Of hand, of foote, of lip, of eye, of brow;” if given the opportunity, “their antique pen,” would have set forth (“exprest”) that beauty as something of which the youth is now the “maister” or personification.
The sestet, it has been pointed out, echoes a manuscript sonnet of Henry Constable dating probably from the early 1590s:
Miracle of the world! I neuer will denye
That former poets prayse the beautie of theyre dayes
But all those beauties were but figures of thy prayse,
And all those poets did of thee but prophecye. 3
Here, “their praises,” are either the praises of “antique” pens or of “Ladies” and “Knights.” They are only foretellings and anticipations (“but prophesies”) of the present (“this our time”), since they are mere figurae of that which the youth is now the fulfillment (“all you prefiguring”). Furthermore, if the ancients hadn’t been blessed with “deuining eyes,” both eyes that prophesy and eyes that discern truths hidden beyond surface appearances, then they would have lacked the insight enabling them to sing the youth’s worth (“they had not skill enough your worth to sing”). By contrast poets and seers of the present time (“we which now behold these present dayes”) have eyes which, looking on the youth’s beauty, react in wonder, but are without the voice to laud him (“but lack toungs to praise”).
106.1. Daniel, Delia (1592) 46.1-2.
106.2. Clément Marot, Sensuiuent les blasons anatomiques du corps femenin, ensemble les contreblasons de nouueau composez, & additionez, auec les figures, le tout mis par ordre: composez par plusieurs poetes contemporains (Paris: Charles Langelier, 1543).
106.3. William Shakespeare, The Sonnets and A Lover’s Complaint, ed. John Kerrigan (London: Penguin, 1986) 312. Kerrigan points out that Constable’s concluding line, “Which onely we withoute idolatrye adore,” links the sonnet to Sonnet 105’s opening, “Let not my loue be cal’d Idolatrie.”